Second in an occasional series
NEW YORK -- No doubt John Waters meant it fondly when he quipped: "Come to Baltimore and be shocked."
Now his vision of 1960s Baltimore is headed to Broadway, where, with the help of a team of designers, the musical theater version of Waters' 1988 movie Hairspray will show Charm City in all its delightfully excessive glory -- complete with big hair, fake Formstone and fabrics with more florals than a florist's shop.
What will Baltimore look like on Broadway? Right now, only Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, set designer David Rockwell and -- most crucial for a show called Hairspray -- Paul Huntley, Broadway's top wig designer, know for sure.
Their efforts go on public view for the first time Thursday, when Hairspray -- the story of a chubby Baltimore teen who finds fame on a local TV dance show and, in the process, brings integration to the airwaves -- begins its pre-Broadway engagement at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.
But before Hairspray wows (or should we say appalls?) its first paying audience, three of its designers sat down with The Sun to discuss their craft, and offer a sneak peek of Waters' Baltimore on Broadway.
Enter: Hairspray. Exit: Quiet good taste.
Here's a William Ivey Long rule for designing costumes for the stage:
Avoid splashy prints. They detract from the actor's face.
Here's a William Ivey Long rule for designing costumes for Hairspray:
Go wild with florals.
And polka dots.
A three-time Tony Award winner, Long knew from the start how he'd capture 1960s Baltimore fashion on stage. "I'm going to dive right in on this one," the preppy-looking, bespectacled designer says.
"Nothing succeeds like excess. That's Oscar Wilde, I think, and I'm sure he came to Baltimore."
That explains the plethora of patterns appearing in the musical adaptation of John Waters' movie. The heroine's mother, Edna Turnblad, a middle-aged Baltimore housewife played by Harvey Fierstein, will wear "Baltimore Chanel -- a floral Chanel with ruffles." And when Edna and her daughter, Tracy, played by Marissa Jaret Winokur, get a makeover, they'll sport matching feather-trimmed mother-daughter outfits.
Though he was raised in Raleigh, N.C., Long is no stranger to Baltimore. His mother grew up in Bolton Hill, and he frequently visited relatives there. "I was a difficult child to adore because I was weird as all get-out. I bring that to this piece," he says. "That's why Baltimore has a big halo around it for me, because I was accepted there and it really meant a lot."
Long sees Baltimore as a place that welcomes outsiders and outcasts, a notion that's a continuing theme in Waters' movies. His own idiosyncrasies -- and love of costumes -- began in infancy. The oldest of three children born to parents who worked for the Raleigh Little Theatre, the 54-year-old designer says, "I was raised in a costume shop and put to bed in piles of fabric." His first home, during the post-World War II housing shortage, was "the stage-left dressing room."
Now one of Broadway's most successful costume designers, he still lives in a costume shop -- his 1854 Chelsea brownstone, "the house Crazy for You built," he calls it, referring to the show that won him his 1992 Tony.
Rack upon rack of 1960s clothing, culled from New York's vintage and second-hand clothing stores, is jammed into the front of his home. When searching for inspiration he sorts through plaid shirts, coats and narrow-waisted, full-skirted dresses in everything from pastels to leopard prints. The 100-plus costumes for Hairspray, however, are all brand-new, sewn in six different New York shops.
Long is a veteran of musicals that started out as films. Two of his Tony Awards are for shows adapted from movies -- The Producers and Nine. And that brings up another rule he's broken on Hairspray : Typically, he doesn't use the movies -- or, as he calls them, "previously owned vehicles" -- as reference. But in this case, he says, "We really are encouraged to look at the movie because of the type of authenticity that John Waters was able to gather."
Costumes help define character, or entire groups of characters, Long says. He has divided his designs for the last scene into three basic color schemes, one for each of what he describes as the show's main groups: Red for the "winners," Tracy and her family and friends; yellow for the "losers," Tracy's rivals; and gold for the black characters who help Tracy bring integration to Baltimore television.
Clothing also can indicate character development. As Tracy and her mother change and grow during the course of the musical, their outfits evolve, too.
Initially, Long dresses the mother and daughter in blue (or, as he calls it, "victim blue"), then purple and finally a proud, defiant red. Even his costume sketches reflect Edna's personal growth. As the character's confidence increases and her social consciousness is raised, his drawings show her head held higher and higher. Edna Turnblad may start out a drab housewife, but she ends up a glamorous, bona fide Bawlamer hon.
As to the fact that Edna -- the role created by Divine in the movie -- is being played by a man, well, that doesn't matter at all in terms of design. "Once you have created the under-structure -- meaning, does he wear a corset, does he wear a bra? -- there is absolutely no difference," says Long, who is also designing the undergarments.
"You're designing the character. It's not a man as a woman," he explains. "God put creatures on this Earth in all shapes and sizes. It's all just a matter of plumage."
Faux Formstone. Is such as thing possible?
It is if you're designer David Rockwell. Before creating the set for Hairspray, the Broadway musical version of John Waters' movie, Rockwell traveled to Baltimore, along with the show's director, Jack O'Brien, and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell.
Escorted by Waters, they went to Pigtown, with its bars and forbidding alleys. They went to Patterson Park, with its mom-and-pop stores and graffiti. And they went to Highlandtown, with its rowhouses and painted screens.
"When you ride down your first street with Formstone and white marble steps on both sides, it's a quite amazing view," Rockwell says. "I didn't realize before I went there that Formstone was an art form."
By stock and trade, Rockwell is an architect, head of the Rockwell Group, a prestigious 90-person New York firm. Hairspray is only his second Broadway set (the first was for The Rocky Horror Show last season), but the 45-year-old is no stranger to dramatic designs. Best known for such trendy New York restaurants as Nobu and Ruby Foo's, Rockwell also designed Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, site of the Academy Awards; Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino; and Cirque du Soleil's permanent home in Orlando, Fla.
After a career of bringing theater to architecture, he's now bringing architecture to the theater. "I guess it's been sort of a rehearsal," says Rockwell, whose late mother was a vaudeville dancer and community theater director.
To re-create Baltimore of the 1960s, he'll use plenty of fake Formstone. Walls painted to resemble the stuff will show up not only on the exteriors of rowhouses, but also on the interior of the crystal-chandeliered "Eventorium," where a lucky girl is crowned Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962 in the show's finale. This "elegant" banquet hall has Gothic arches made of ... Formstone.
"David loved the Formstone," says a delighted Waters. "They really used what they saw."
"Ordinary baroque" is the way Rockwell describes his vision of the set. Think of it as the everyday world taken to excess. "On stage, ordinary Baltimore would end up looking like Death of a Salesman or A View from the Bridge," he says. "So we came up with ways to use elements like Formstone sort of cinematically, so they move in and out of the picture."
Rockwell's set incorporates a number of '60s motifs. Working with costume designer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, Rockwell is using a palette based in part on the colors of Necco wafers. Panels in Necco pastels form the backdrop of the TV studio for the teen dance show -- based on WJZ's former Buddy Deane Show -- that is at the center of the musical. Another backdrop is modeled after the popular vintage toy, Lite Brite.
Though Rockwell is clearly having a ball on Hairspray, he has no intention of giving up his day job; one set design a year would be ideal. Besides he's still coming to grips with one stop on that John Waters tour.
"We ended up in a situation that was a little too close to reality in terms of simulating all of the tension of a John Waters movie. We got to a cul de sac, it was kind of a dead end, and we were in the middle of what looked like some kind of shady transaction," Rockwell recalls. "It was incredible that you just turned one corner and we were in this very dangerous little cul de sac." That's one bit of research that won't be showing up on stage.
"Oh, dear," mutters Paul Huntley, catching his breath. The septuagenarian British gentleman is sitting in the living room of his Upper West Side townhouse, leafing through pictures of women with titles like "Fantasy," "Intrigue" and "Baby Doll."
He's doing research. Really he is.
The pages come from a 1960s book of hairstyles called Mr. Ray & His Magic Brush, essential research supplied by John Waters for the Broadway musical being adapted from his movie, Hairspray.
Huntley is Broadway's top wig man. His stage credits include 400 shows, from Chekhovian plays to Cats, from Shakespearean tragedies toThe Producers. Stars such as Glenn Close, Elizabeth Ashley and Christopher Plummer wouldn't think of using anyone else. On television, his work can be seen on The Sopranos; on film, his wigs were worn by Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie and Jennifer Lopez in the newly released Enough. Way back when, he worked with Marlene Dietrich.
Usually Huntley creates wigs that look natural, that don't cause comment, that blend in nicely. "I prefer when it's not a great feature," he says.
Not this time. After all, as producer Margo Lion told him, "It is Hairspray."
With the help of three assistants, Huntley makes his wigs by hand in his basement studio, where shelves display wig blocks custom-made to the proportions of everyone from Carol Channing to Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. The warren of small rooms also contains a drying cabinet for wigs, a standard washer and dryer, worktables and assorted Broadway show posters. And then, of course, there's the hair -- box upon plastic box filled with red, blond and brunette strands. Huntley prefers human hair, most of which comes from Russia.
Each of the 70 wigs for Hairspray took Huntley and his chief assistant four days to make. To achieve the realistic hairlines for which he is known, Huntley sews each strand individually into nearly transparent netting. Wigs made of human hair cost $1,800-$2,500 per wig; synthetic wigs cost $120-$350.
The designer had to relearn a few skills for this show. "Today, of course, we've all forgotten how to tease," he explains. "And it is a lot of teasing."
While big hair is a major feature of Hairspray, Huntley emphasizes, "We're not trying to make people grotesque. They're very young performers, and they have to have a sweetness and a glamour at the same time."
Nonetheless, the oversized 'do worn by the show's teen-aged protagonist, Tracy (Marissa Jaret Winokur), brands her a "hair hopper" and lands her in high school detention with the rest of the hair hoppers. To heighten the humor in one of Tracy's wigs -- a puffy flip with frosted bangs, Huntley has designed a frosted blue ribbon.
He's also built a sly commentary into the wig worn by the villainous character of Velma Von Tussle, mother of Tracy's chief rival. Velma is played by Linda Hart, whose real hair is dark brown. In Hairspray, her shellacked coiffure is light blond, to match that of her daughter Amber, a character Huntley describes as an evil Sandra Dee.
But Huntley has seen to it that Mrs. Von T. isn't a natural blonde. He's given her wig's roots telltale shadowing. "It sort of suggests that she's bleached it," he explains. As to the style, "one shouldn't say it unkindly, but a sort of blond Ann Miller."
For actor Harvey Fierstein, who portrays Tracy's mother, Edna (played on film by Divine), Huntley has created five different wigs beginning with a straggly, mousy number and progressing to auburn lacquered glory after Edna's makeover.
The makeover wig is highlighted with frosting, the front set in a relatively conservative style that used to be called a "bubble." But turn it around, and hello, Baltimore! -- the back is a French twist.
Frosting, French twists, teasing, bubble cuts -- isn't there something missing?
Hairspray, of course.
Huntley rarely uses the stuff anymore, but these days he and his backstage staff of hairdressers are stocking up.