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'60s Baltimore on Broadway looks very hot

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There are no sure things on Broadway, but when Hairspray opens in New York tonight, 1960s Baltimore could join the ranks of singing cats, an opera-obsessed phantom, African lion cubs and even a pair of crooked producers who mount a musical comedy about Hitler.

Although the reviews won't be out until tomorrow, Hairspray - the musical adaptation of John Waters' 1988 movie - has already been dubbed "hot" in national publications ranging from Entertainment Weekly to Time magazine, and comparisons are being made to that megawatt hit, The Producers.

Indeed, Hairspray may be the rare Broadway show that reviews cannot hurt. That's what Margo Lion, the Baltimore-born lead producer of the $10.5 million musical, has come to think.

"We all hope that it will get good reviews," Lion says. "That would be great, but the truth is that we're sold out every night. We haven't gone to the [discount] TKTS booth once" during preview performances.

"Every luminary in the entertainment world who's around New York has been there," Lion says, mentioning that last Friday's preview audience alone included Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Rob Reiner and Sissy Spacek.

A more impartial assessment comes from Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers, the Broadway trade organization. "People are perpetually optimistic on Broadway, but they seem to be optimistic for some reason this time. The last show that had this kind of pre-opening buzz was The Producers, where the buzz started in Chicago for the tryouts," he says.

The most cautious prognosticator appears to be Waters himself, a Broadway neophyte who has served as a consultant on the musical, which chronicles a tubby Baltimore teen's successful efforts to star on and integrate a 1962 TV dance show modeled after WJZ's former Buddy Deane Show. "All this stuff is great press, but none of it is actual reviews," the filmmaker says, referring to what he calls "the unspoken worry ... that the critics read this [hype] and say, 'I'll be the one to decide.'"

Still, a number of strong signs suggest Hairspray is on the road to success - bucking long-held wisdom that August is a bad time to open and more recent indications that Broadway theatergoers have become hesitant to buy tickets months ahead of time.

The musical has sold $10 million in advance tickets, Lion says, and daily sales, which started at $40,000 to $50,000 when the show began preview performances July 18, have climbed to $300,000.

The escalation in daily sales "is very similar to what happened with The Producers," says Tom Viertel, a producer of both shows.

One difference is that The Producers opened with a $17 million advance, but as Viertel and Lion point out, The Producers had the widespread name recognition of movie stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick and celebrity filmmaker Mel Brooks.

Hairspray and Waters have more of a cult following, as does the musical's biggest star, Harvey Fierstein, who is playing the drag role created on film by Waters' late cross-dressing diva, Divine. (Three of the show's four creators are Broadway newcomers: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote the score, and Mark O'Donnell, who co-wrote the book with Thomas Meehan, a Broadway veteran whose credits include The Producers.)

There are other ticket-related similarities between the shows. The Producers raised its top ticket price to $100 the day after it opened, and Hairspray will do the same. "That's sort of the going price now," Viertel says.

Scalpers could rake in even more - one Web site is asking $405 a ticket for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Even in previews, scalpers were getting close to $300, according to Lion. It's a hefty figure but considerably less than the $700 to $800 scalpers charged for preview tickets to The Producers.

Hairspray's budget was raised by 11 producers who gathered the sum from more than 300 investors. Individual investments ranged from $10,000 to $1 million.

Viertel says the musical could make back its $10.5 million budget in as few as 40 weeks, depending on "how huge the show is, which will depend to some extent on critical reaction." But, he adds, "it's pretty clear that word of mouth has been as strong or stronger than any show in recent history."

Typically slow month

Opening in the typically slow month of August doesn't seem to have been detrimental. Lion says the date was based on the schedule of the director, Jack O'Brien, and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell. "But as we knew at the time, this was a show that could reasonably be opened at that time. It was a fun, upbeat show that could certainly work well in the summer, as has proved to be case," she says.

"The downside is that by the time the Tony Awards come around you've been running a whole season, so you're not that brand new penny that comes in in April," she says. "On the other hand, we intend to keep our show as sparkling and fresh as it is now."

On the plus side, opening at a time when there is traditionally little theater news has resulted in an onslaught of Hairspray publicity, which has no doubt enhanced the word of mouth.

"I don't know that a summer show has had this kind of buzz since 42nd Street, and that was 1980. That was the famous [director] Gower Champion dies the night of the opening and [producer] David Merrick announces it from the stage," says the League's Bernstein.

Nor have recent changes in ticket-buying habits affected Hairspray. A year ago, Bernstein reports, approximately half of any Broadway audience purchased its tickets at least four weeks in advance. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, that figure dropped to 15 percent and, though it has continued to rise, it's still only in the high 30s.

'Buying what we have'

Hairspray ticket buyers appear unfazed. "They're buying what we have," says Lion. Tickets are on sale through Dec. 1, but within a week Viertel expects to begin selling tickets "well into next year."

You won't have to be sitting in Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre to catch Hairspray fever. The cast album went on sale Tuesday; Bloomingdale's has opened an in-store boutique of fashions (including plus-sizes) inspired by the show; and the national tour is expected to begin at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore in September 2003.

But for now, all eyes are focused on opening night. A party at the Roseland ballroom for 1,500 will follow the performance. The guest list includes Bette Midler, who is one of the show's investors; Ricki Lake, who played the teen-age lead in Waters' film; and The Producers' original Broadway stars Broderick and Lane.

Waters is bringing a party of 10 - his parents and the behind-the-scenes people he feels "had the very most to do with [the movie of] Hairspray."

Maryland Public Television will have two camera crews filming the opening night festivities for an Aug. 22 broadcast of ArtsWorks This Week with host Rhea Feikin, who has played bit parts in two Waters' movies, including Hairspray.

If the musical does become a major hit, it isn't just 1960s Baltimore, beehive hairdos and dancing the Madison that could experience an upswing in popularity. "A rising tide lifts all boats," says Bernstein. "It's always good to have a big fat hit on Broadway. It affects Broadway as a whole."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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