It just doesn’t seem right. Oh sure, all the creative forces seem to be in proper alignment, and there’s a Great White Way full of good will banking on the fact that it will work. But with the memory of John Waters’ brilliant original still fresh in one’s mind, it’s hard to fathom how a big screen musical version of Hairspray will actually succeed. And before you scoff at such a suggestion, here’s a couple of words for you to contemplate – The Producers. Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash, winner of more Tonys than any other show in theater history, was positioned to be the song and dance delight of 2005. It too also had its foundation in a much loved comic masterpiece. But somewhere between the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, the film adaptation tanked. Guaranteed Oscar bait magically transformed into a clear critical condemnation.
Initially, it doesn’t seem like Hairspray will suffer from a similar fate. The Producers problem had more to do with translating the show’s over the top manic spirit into a medium not known for its looseness and frivolity. What stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did on the NY stage exceeded theater – they were recreating a humor masterpiece while tossing in a few novelty numbers for good measure. But film is a cruel mistress, especially to the musical. Remove the artificiality of the stage setting, and people breaking into song seems odd, even antithetical to four decades of post-modern cinema. That’s why Waters’ original film was so perfect. It celebrated youth, dance, Baltimore and the rise of ‘60s (with all its social pros and cons) while never once forgetting the concept of fun.
But the new version, crafted by the award winning combination of Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) Mark O’Donnell (Hairspray) and Marc Shaiman, seems to have cast aside all the nostalgia to create a more PC version of Tracy Turnblad’s coming of age. From what we can see of the film in the new trailer (recently released to the web), the civil rights angle is being amplified, while the American Bandstand-esque Corny Collins Show is barely even featured. Part of the fun in Waters’ movie was watching prototypical teens master such classic sock hop favorites as ‘The Madison’, ‘The Mashed Potato’ and ‘The Pony’. One assumes that material is still part of this new story. But in the first Hairspray, it was the film’s reason for being. Here it seems like puffery surrounding the musical’s main purpose.
Anyone familiar with the infamous Pope of Puke knows that Waters is not a wholly political filmmaker. While his movies are often filled with nonconformist approaches and counterculture ideals, his is an avant-garde ideal forged out of personal, not agenda-based, beliefs. His Hairspray wasn’t out to right the wrongs of ‘50s racism. Instead, he was acknowledging the power that rock and roll had in bringing black and white together. Over the last 40 plus years, sociologists have confirmed that the meshing of R&B with country, hillbilly with soul, did more to break down ethnic barriers and change the popular culture than a dozen demonstrations. While it may not have been a question of Constitutional rights and duties, the kids got it. Dancing was dancing, no matter the color of your skin.
Waters captured this perfectly in his Hairspray. He let his Tracy Turnblad – the magnificent Ricki Lake – become the surrogate for all the suffering going on. As a fat girl in a situation made up of standard concepts of beauty, the character became a litmus test for the narrow minded among the members of the Corny Collins Show‘s Council. Some mocked her size, while others embraced its novelty. Once we saw what a great dancer Tracy was – and how open she was to the experience of being with people of different backgrounds and heritages – the subtle third act move to the race riot at a local amusement park didn’t seem shocking. In fact, it seemed inevitable. More importantly, the issue grew organically out of the situation. Tracy and her best friend Penny liked the black kids they hung out with, and couldn’t understand how their parents and the city could be so narrow-minded and misguided.
It’s all a question of perception. Waters’ Hairspray seems convinced that, like the era it is set in, music will set the audience free. And for the most part, it does. Proving that he’s one of the great directors of dance in modern moviemaking, Waters enlivens all his ‘musical’ moments with the pure joy of movement. Tracy’s not a wonder because she’s a fat girl who can dance. Instead, she’s a marvel because she’s a dancer trapped in a big gal’s body. By taking this facet out of the entertainment equation, by introducing every emotion and idea through a lyric or sonic situation, the Broadway version of the show loses a key component. And it’s upon this realization that the new film’s flaw rests.
In general, musicals succeed because of memorable melodies mixed with clear entertainment transcendence. Like Effie’s proud declaration of intent “And I Am Telling You” or Audrey’s lovely lament about leaving Little Shop of Horrors’ heinous Skid Row to live “Somewhere That’s Green”, a great song in a solid storyline will take the audience out of the narrative and place them in a kind of elative limbo. We accept both the sentiment and the situation as they seamlessly meld together into a facet of pure potency. It’s what separates the classic shows from the fly by night flops. The new Hairspray‘s score is impressive, and Shaiman has a wonderful way with scene-stealing stances. But Tracy’s story is now one aspect of a multi-leveled look at life circa 1962, and it’s more verbal than visual.
On a low budget, with very little studio support, Waters captured the look and feel of his childhood exquisitely. He did it with a careful combination of fresh faces and ‘45s. The records he chose to highlight, the dances he used as divining rods, spoke the volumes of information the movie needed to get across. The musical now must match that, but it must do it in song. And since characters like Motormouth Mabel and Velma Von Tussle have been expanded, made massively more important to the segregation storyline that anchors the entire plotline, the focus becomes confused. In Waters’ world, Tracy’s spirit lifted her locale out of the bigoted dark ages, if only for one day, on one minor TV dance party showcase. Now, she’s a catalyst to bigger change, and even larger pronouncements regarding equality.
And then there is the musical’s main gimmick – that is, following the original Hairspray’s casting design and allowing a man to play the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna. Of course, Waters did this out of necessity and purposeful design. To this day, no other actor, straight or gay, stag or drag has been able to recapture what Glen “Divine” Milstead could do in a oversized print dress and a bad washwoman’s wig. One of those rare talents whose abilities are missed more and more as the years go by, Divine is the other reason Waters’ movie works so well. Call it the “X” factor, or just the sign of a sensational performer at the top of his/her game, but when Edna Turnblad goes from laundry lady to her daughter’s determined agent, fielding offers and fending off the Von Tussle’s insults, she becomes the story’s spitfire soul.
Of course, on stage, Edna gets a song. She also gets a fleshed out sequence with her joke shop owning husband, Wilbur. In a brilliant bit of casting, Harvey Fierstein played the part, and earned a Tony for same. Similar to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the theatrical version of their show, Fierstein was allowed to vamp and rave for audiences, turning on his gay-laced charms to speck the show with moments of campy cleverness. For the film, the stunt strays a bit. As brilliant as the casting of John Travolta is (a singer, a dancer, and a solid actor, all around), it has the feeling of being a genius stroke that’s already turning tedious. After seeing the macho man encased in a fat suit, strutting around like a pig in pastels, one instantly misses the glam sham guys who came before.
There is also one final filmic warning sign – the director. Adam Shankman is behind the movie musical version of Hairspray, and his credits are concerning at best. Unless someone considers The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 to be the end all/be all of modern moviemaking, this singing, dancing demonstration of music’s ability to change appears to be in very iffy hands. Of course, recent rumors have New Line – the production company behind the project – so ecstatic about the movie as a whole that they are positioning Shankman for an early Oscar run. It is obvious from the trailer that Hairspray looks good. It has the feel and heft of a major motion picture, one loaded with big performances, bright colors and the scope and sweep of a spectacle. But a film lives and dies by everything it contains – the small moments, the throwaway performances – and Shankman hasn’t proved his overall acumen, especially not based on his current resume.
With over two months to go before we get the final, full length verdict, it’s clear that this new version of Hairspray has little chance of topping the original. It may be just as good, or even better in some people’s opinion, but the fact remains that John Waters and the men who adapted his show for Broadway are functioning at clear cross purposes. In his fascinating book, Shock Treatment, the native Baltimore bad boy talked about how The Buddy Dean Show defined his youth, it’s combination of scandalous ‘race’ music and conservative, all white sensibilities illustrating the main dichotomy of pre-Beatles popular culture. Hairspray was his homage to that time. In musical form, however, it looks like all that is lost. The new message may be just as valid, but it clearly belongs to someone else. And that just doesn’t seem right.