Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur

Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur play Edna and Tracy Turnblad in the musical version of John Waters' "Hairspray." (Sun photo by David Hobby / May 7, 2002)

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.