In an era where film studios make movies based on old TV series and broadcast networks make TV movies about the making of '70s sitcoms, it's only natural that three of Broadway's most recent successes -- Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Producers and Hairspray -- are based on big-screen favorites. Theater purists who whine that stage hits based on movies are nails in the coffin of the serious Broadway musical point to schlock like the stage versions of Footloose and Carrie and the monopoly that Disney has brought to Broadway. Meanwhile, John Waters fans want to credit Waters, on whose 1988 movie Hairspray is based, with goosing up a tired movie-musical-as-stage-show genre with his midnight movie muse. Both groups are forgetting the impact of Little Shop of Horrors, based on Roger Corman's culty 1960 movie of the same name, and neither group has a particularly interesting argument. I defy either camp to sit through the stage version of Hairspray, which rolls into town next week with Bruce Vilanch in the Divine role, and not have a whale of a time.
The movie version -- Waters' most mainstream, family-friendly outing -- practically hollered out for stage musicalization. Set in 1960s Baltimore, this cheerful film finds glad-to-be-fat teen Tracy Turnblad living her dream as the star of a local TV dance party. She bags the show's heartthrob, then leads a movement to integrate the show, which only allows white teens on camera. Tracy's message of racial harmony, her relentlessly upbeat attitude, and her love of danceable pop records are all tailor-made for musical theater translation. Unlike Waters' nine previous films, no one in Hairspray murders anyone, performs fellatio on a family member, or devotes his life to Charles Manson. No one in Hairspray eats poodle shit. Instead of condemning society, Hairspray has a social conscience. And rather than a female lead who is actually a 400-pound man in a dress, this movie's heroine is a real live girl -- then-unknown actress Ricki Lake. (Okay, so Lake's mother is played by a 400-pound man in a dress, but at least Divine isn't gunned down by the National Guard or raped by a 14-foot lobster at the fade-out, as she'd been in previous Waters movies.)
Like the original, this Hairspray is more than a little preachy on the subject of race relations, and writers Thomas Meehan (who co-wrote The Producers with Mel Brooks) and Dean O'Donnell have retained both the best lines from the movie and the puke-and-poop humor that pervade the Waters oeuvre. There's a lesbian gym teacher and a leering prison matron, both played by a man in a dress, and the whole thing is set to a Watersian backbeat of doo-wop, rock 'n' roll and funk music.
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Like Waters, librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan are asking us to root for the underdogs, but where the movie was an offbeat update of '60s teen flicks, the musical is a stage-show-shiny send-up of same -- Grease with irony; Charles Ludlam with an eight-figure budget. While Waters' Tracy and Edna ranted about racism and diet pills in their best Baltimore twang, O'Donnell and Meehan's versions toss off bons mots like a mother-daughter vaudeville team -- a plus-size Mama Rose and Gypsy in thrift-shop drag. O'Donnell and Meehan have filtered much of Waters' gross-out humor through Broadway bawdiness, and have turned the filmmaker's subliminal celebration of Baltimore sleaze into the sweetly acerbic opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore" (sample lyric: "Good morning, Baltimore!/There's the flasher who lives next door/And the drunk on his barroom stool/They wish me luck on my way to school"). Lake's sweetly innocent Tracy has morphed into a musical theater version of herself: a hair-hopper by way of Ethel Merman, whose every move has been comically amplified for the stage, with references to Gypsy and Bye Bye Birdie, and an homage, however unintentional, to Beach Blanket Babylon's absurdly abundant wigs that screams "Great White Way!" The stage Hairspray combines elements of kitsch, camp and satire, but is never cynical. It promotes the essential message of all musical comedy: Life is a song; be happy with what you have.
Then again, the movie itself was watered-down Waters, the first mainstream success by an underground filmmaker after a half-dozen delightfully naughty midnight movies. And the stage version, unlike most other pastiche musicals, spends less time nudging and winking than it does entertaining us with the same sort of high-concept goofing that Waters has built his career on. But what really made Hairspray a natural for screen-to-stage conversion is its devotion to song and dance, a language that composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman, known mostly for his film scores (including the hilariously filthy one for South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut), and lyricist Scott Wittman understand. Shaiman's catchy pop melodies and love of old rhythm-and-blues and Motown records infuse Hairspray's 19 musical numbers, which play like a primer on popular music styles from gospel to vaudeville to calypso.
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If the stage version improves on Waters' original story (a notion I hesitate to suggest, for fear of receiving letter bombs from his maniacally devoted fans), it's in the more focused conflict between its central characters. Tracy and Link, a dreamy duo in the original, are here briefly pitted against each other on the issue of integration, and the stage Edna, embarrassed by her own fatness, is agoraphobic and unwilling to march with her daughter in a race riot. Amber Von Tussle, a mean-spirited bitch in the movie, is here the producer of "The Corny Collins Show," the teen tune fest on which Tracy and her pals dance, who doesn't want fat Tracy on her show.
Perhaps Hairspray's highest achievement is its ability to be all things to all people. It's subversive (its second lead is a guy in drag) yet never bitter; it celebrates the rock 'n' roll revolution with songs that scream "show tune!"; it's nostalgic (set in a pretty, Popsicle-hued, pre-integration '60s) without being wistful (its moral: Racism is wrong). And if Hairspray is impressive for celebrating both camp and the very emotions that camp usually pokes fun at, its real triumph is that it takes John Waters' already exaggerated version of Baltimore and further inflates it. Where Waters brought us a subliminally subversive world where the fat girl gets the hunk and wins the beauty pageant, O'Donnell, Meehan and company have sold that improbable story to mainstream audiences. If Hairspray is just another nail in the coffin of Broadway musicals, Middle America is too high off its fumes to care.