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'Hairspray' gets ready for Broadway

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NEW YORK - If Margo Lion hadn't come down with a head cold three years ago, none of this would have happened.

She was in bed, nursing the sniffles and watching videos, when it hit her: Hairspray, the 1988 movie by counterculture filmmaker John Waters, has all the makings of a classic American musical.

It was a revelation, she admits. The Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and Baltimore native hadn't been a huge fan of the Waters film when it came out.

Waters' only movie to earn a PG rating (much to his shock and dismay), Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a tubby Baltimore teen who wins a place on a local TV dance show and uses her new-found stardom to bring integration to the Baltimore airwaves.

"To be candid, I think I wasn't sophisticated enough when I first saw Hairspray to appreciate its many virtues," Lion says. Then in 1999, she rented the video.

Some might claim a sickbed is the only appropriate place for Waters' sick brand of humor. Certainly none of his movies offers a greater paean to the shellacked and teased, beehive-bedecked burg that he has affectionately dubbed "The Hairdo Capital of the World." But that's not what captured Lion's attention.

What Lion realized was that this particular movie by Waters, a man who has been dubbed "the sultan of sleaze," was ideally suited to the musical stage. It offered wonderful music possibilities. It presented great dance opportunities. And it featured a political theme - as well as a Cinderella story.

"It celebrates a possibility - that was such a hallmark of many of the classic musicals - that in my mind is what makes America unique. I think there's something about the can-do, the we-can-change-the-world, we-can-beat-a-new-path [spirit]. It's about progress. It's about change," she explains. "There's something about America that is embracing. At its very best, it embraces ... the outsider in a way that other cultures don't."

In the three years since Lion's epiphany, Hairspray, the musical, has been following a steady and relatively swift path toward Broadway. Even before the show begins its pre-Broadway tryout in Seattle at the end of this month, it's creating a buzz. Vanity Fair last week shot a photo spread featuring Waters and cast members in a Cadillac. Bloomingdale's is planning a Hairspray shop and decorated windows to coincide with the musical's Broadway opening on Aug. 15. And this afternoon, for the first time, the New York press will get a chance to see a half dozen musical numbers as part of a news conference held to heighten anticipation.

But a musical is a delicate and tricky thing. A great show needs far more than a topnotch source. It needs a strong score and a sturdy book. To turn Waters' movie into a musical, Lion would need a first-rate creative team, one that fully understood Waters' warped and wacky sensibility.

For the musical's creators, there's even more than usual riding on this show. Hairspray will be the Broadway debut, and fulfillment of a dream, for three of the four members of the artistic team. For the fourth, a Broadway veteran, it offers a chance to add yet another hit to his award-studded credits.

And for Lion, it's not just the show's $10.5 million budget that's at stake. After all, she is a native Baltimorean. "I think this is for her very much a coming home thing," says Waters, who is serving as consultant on the musical and, unlike the New York-based Lion, has lived in Baltimore all his life. "I know that she cares very much that Baltimore likes this."

Good morning, Baltimore
There's the flasher who lives next door
There's the bum on his barroom stool
They wish me luck on my way to school.

- From Hairspray's opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore."

The first person Lion tapped to transform Waters' movie into a Broadway musical was Marc Shaiman, a multiple Academy Award-nominated composer/lyricist whose credits include such movies as Sleepless in Seattle, The American President and, most significantly in terms of Waters' sensibility, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

Shaiman's career has had its share of John Waters-esque moments. Two years ago, when the Oscar-nominated South Park song, "Blame Canada" was performed at the Academy Awards ceremony, there was talk of bleeping a four-letter word for flatulence from the lyrics. "They finally allowed that word to be uttered after a long, courageous battle," Shaiman says.

"Marc just totally gets it," Waters says. "I think the score of South Park, the movie, is one of the best scores ever and exactly the kind of humor that you need to work on my movies."

On a rainy Tuesday in late March, Shaiman and his personal and professional partner, Scott Wittman are performing a half-hour Hairspray presentation in the crowded sound studio of their spacious Chelsea apartment. The two dozen guests include the fashion director of Bloomingdale's, the director of major gifts for the YWCA (who'd like to use Hairspray as a fund raiser) and the president of the largest group sales company in the country, Group Sales Box Office, which represents 15,000 groups.

These dog-and-pony shows are usually performed in front of several hundred people who buy blocks of seats for theater parties and groups. Lion chose the more intimate setting because "I thought it would be really fun for people to see where a show was born and see the artists up close."

Today's presentation is Shaiman and Wittman's third for Hairspray, and Shaiman is nervous. Standing in the kitchen before the guests move from the living room into the studio, he notices small half moons of perspiration forming on the underarms of his pink shirt. "I don't know why I'm nervous," he says repeatedly.

It's not that he's shy about performing. He's been doing it for much of his life, including a year on the road at age 17 as vocal arranger for his idol, Bette Midler (who is one of Hairspray's investors). But he's not accustomed to having a roomful of, at times, poker-faced strangers in his home, seated inches from his keyboard. Usually, he says, "applause is how you gauge [reactions] - that or laughs - but the real test of these things is the phone calls that come afterward."

Perched atop the upright piano at one side of the studio is a TV monitor on which the movie plays silently throughout the presentation. Fast-forwarding the video, Shaiman turns up the volume at a few select places, pointing out lines that "stuck out" and were transformed into song titles.

One of these comes after Tracy persuades her mother, Edna, to go on a shopping spree that results in an Edna makeover - from high heels to high hair. "Momma, welcome to the '60s," Tracy exclaims.

Laughter breaks out in the small studio when Shaiman announces that Harvey Fierstein is playing Edna, the role created on film by Waters' late cross-dressing star, Divine. Waters initially suggested Anthony Hopkins, Wittman tells the amused guests, "but once he saw Harvey in the role he fell in love with him."

"Once we knew we had Harvey Fierstein in the role, we added a second verse," Shaiman continues as he launches into Tracy and Edna's duet, "Welcome to the '60s," complete with a gravelly imitation of Fierstein's rumbling baritone.

Shaiman's association with Hairspray dates back almost a decade, even before producer Lion became involved. At the time, the rights belonged to Scott Rudin, a theater and film producer with whom Shaiman had worked on a half dozen movies, including South Park.

Shaiman thought the musical would be an ideal opportunity to collaborate with Wittman. Nearly two decades ago, the pair had created several off-Broadway musicals with such titles as The G-String Murders, Trilogy of Terror and Livin' Dolls, the latter containing what the New York Times described as, "wickedly accurate parodies of early-60's teen-age rock-and-roll."

But Shaiman and Wittman didn't get the chance to work on Hairspray; Rudin let the rights lapse, and Hairspray seemed to have fizzled out. Then in the summer of 1999, Lion called Shaiman. "The key is to try and choose people whose sensibility obviously matches the underlying material," the producer says.

Shaiman and Wittman are convinced they're the right match. "There's a certain irreverence and, obviously, a love for bad taste," says Wittman, 47, the taller, thinner, gray-haired member of the pair.

Not to mention that they have never quite "fit in," in the words of Shaiman, 42, the shorter, sandy-haired, goateed and more animated of the two. "Scott and I have always worked with people who are too rock and roll for theater and too theatrical for rock and roll," he explains.

Even so, Lion was hesitant when Shaiman suggested collaborating on the lyrics with Wittman. A couple for 23 years, Shaiman and Wittman may be the only romantic partners ever to write the score for a Broadway musical. "People who live together also working together can be very, very difficult," Lion says.

Undeterred, Shaiman persuaded her to let them try writing a few songs. By September they had written Tracy and Edna's "Welcome to the '60s"; a girl-group trio, "(Momma) I'm a Big Girl Now"; and a Motown-flavored number, "Big, Blonde & Beautiful." All three are still in the score.

"I thought they were terrific," Lion says.

The first time Lion met with Waters, she offered him the chance to write the musical's libretto, or script. He declined.

"I've never written a Broadway play before. It isn't my expertise," the filmmaker says. He also knew instinctively that the musical had to be different from the movie - otherwise, "Why would you do it? You have to turn it into something else."

And how does he describe that "something else"? "The fat girl meets Ethel Merman," the filmmaker says. "That's what it has to be."

At the suggestion of a friend who writes for The New Yorker, Lion chose an occasional New Yorker contributor - novelist, playwright, cartoonist and former Saturday Night Live writer, Mark O'Donnell.

Like Shaiman and Wittman, O'Donnell has forged a career out of not fitting in, or, as he has put it, being too funny for the arts crowd and too artsy for the comedy crowd. And, he's experienced some Waters-esque incidents of his own. Take Elementary Education, his offbeat 1985 collection of humorous essays on subjects ranging from sex to "Building the Bomb on a Budget." Somehow the book ended up cataloged as a teacher's guide by the Library of Congress.

Tall, balding, bespectacled and bemused-looking, O'Donnell, 47, joined the Hair- spray team in November 1999, creating a script that went through several staged readings before Lion augmented the team last summer with veteran librettist Thomas Meehan, whose credits include Annie and The Producers.

Meehan, 69, shaggy-haired, affable and slightly rumpled, is an old hand at this type of partnership, having co-written the stage adaptation of The Producers and the screenplays of Spaceballs and To Be or Not to Be with Mel Brooks.

When he works with Brooks, Meehan acknowledges, a large part of his job is reining him in. "Mel's a fount of ideas. What's interesting is that nine of them are lousy, and the 10th is really good. You keep listening to him and saying, 'No, no, no, no, yes, yes, that's good.'"

In contrast, O'Donnell compares the way he and Meehan work to a trip to the optometrist: "Better like this, or better like this?"

"We bounce it back and forth," Meehan says. "We improvise talking, and then when we finally think it's right, then we write it down."

On an April day so unseasonably warm it feels as if a dose of Baltimore summer has drifted up the coast to midtown Manhattan, 100 people gather in a bright, spacious room six floors above 42nd Street. They nibble bagels, drink coffee and greet one another with the happy camaraderie of old friends at a high school reunion.

It's day one of rehearsals. Many of these people have been working on the show since its first staged reading two years ago - and they are positively gleeful to be here. Waters has spruced up his conservative suit with a pair of polka dot socks and hot pink shoes; Fierstein has brought a whoopee cushion; and director Jack O'Brien is wearing a green print sport shirt that dates back to the '60s, when the show takes place.

As the group settles into chairs, producer Lion steps to the front of the room.

"Good morning, Baltimoreans!" she proclaims. A room full of honorary Baltimoreans breaks into laughter. When she introduces Waters, Lion's tone is both cheerful and earnest as she promises, "We are all going to do our best to honor your imagination and your voice."

That's not the only goal, of course. The chief goal is to produce a hit. And in the end, even if Lion has assembled the right cast and creative team - which also includes choreographer Jerry Mitchell and some of Broadway's top designers - there are no guarantees.

No one is more aware of this than Meehan, who would like to work the same kind of magic on Hairspray that he did on The Producers and Annie, two of the biggest hits in Broadway history. In a way, Hairspray can be seen as a combination of those two seemingly disparate shows.

Like The Producers, Hairspray revels in bad taste. And like Annie, Meehan explains, it's about an "outsider who's trying to get on the inside, and she's a young girl. In Annie's case she's an orphan, so that sort of makes her an outcast. [Tracy] is an outcast because of her looks." (The rotund role of Tracy, played by Ricki Lake on film, will be played by Marissa Jaret Winokur on stage.)

When you start comparing Hairspray to Annie, you gain an increased understanding of why Lion believes a John Waters movie can be transformed into a classic Broadway musical, something "celebratory" and "uniquely American."

But can it become the next Producers? Hairspray has generated positive vibes from its first reading in spring 2000 on into its current rehearsal period, but, Meehan says: "You don't know for sure until you play for a live paying audience."

He points to the painful example of Annie 2, the seemingly foolproof sequel to Annie that closed out of town in Washington after 36 performances in 1990. To this day, Meehan describes Annie 2 as "a show that sends chills through me."

The entire time he and his collaborators were working on the sequel and rehearsing it in New York, he says everyone told them, "This is better than Annie. We love this. It's so good, can't miss."

Then that first paying audience showed up at Washington's Kennedy Center. "I knew in about three minutes that the thing was a fiasco. I could feel the reactions, and I could feel the hostility to it," he says.

Annie 2 is one reason Meehan is a firm believer in out-of-town tryouts, which - on a salvageable show - offer the chance for rewrites, prior to Broadway. (Annie 2 was eventually replaced by a more successful sequel called Annie Warbucks.)

Lion, who was a producer on Annie 2, is also a believer in going out of town; she has committed more than $1 million of Hairspray's budget to a three-week tryout in Seattle, beginning May 30. "It's an insurance policy that's worth taking out," she says.

For now, however, all that the cast and creative team can do is rehearse and hope that their dreams will be realized on Aug. 15, when Hairspray opens on Broadway. "I compare it to Beethoven composing when he was deaf. You calculate according to your experience, and the more experience, the more you hope that the little theater inside your skull will correspond to the real one," O'Donnell says.

"But you don't know. It's a calculated guess."

First in an occasional series as Hairspray, the stage musical adapted from John Waters' 1988 movie, spritzes its way from first rehearsal to Broadway.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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