Who knew the Pope of Trash could have mass appeal? John Waters hasn't changed, he says. The world has.
John Waters hasn't changed, he says. The world has. (Sun photo by David Hobby)
What is your favorite John Waters film of the '80s and '90s?
But the Prince of Puke, the Pope of Trash -- or as he prefers to think of himself these days, "Filth Elder" -- remains amazed by the world around him.
It's downright amazing how often the word "amazing" crops up in conversation with Baltimore's beloved shock-meister. He uses it to describe reunions of WJZ's former teen dance program, The Buddy Deane Show. He uses it to describe the forthcoming Broadway musical, Hairspray, adapted from his 1988 feature film about the TV show.
And that's not counting the anything-but-ordinary events that occur if you happen to be John Waters, spending a week in Seattle where Hairspray is trying out for Broadway. Consider, for example, the member of the "order" of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who shows up sporting a brand new, bright-red, shin tattoo of Waters' late star, Divine; or the film critic whose blazer lapel is adorned with fake dog doo; or the fans bearing cans of Aqua Net to be autographed.
Then there's Bruce Vilanch and Roseanne Barr, who accompany Waters to successive performances of Hairspray. "It was just great. I loved it -- like one of the best things I've ever seen," Barr gushes. ("I want to send her every night because she has a very distinctive laugh," Waters says the next day.)
Not to mention a retinue of '60s counter-culture mini-celebrities Waters doesn't even know but probably should, such as Cherry Vanilla, a purple-haired veteran of the Theatre of the Ridiculous and the theater of Andy Warhol, who travels up from Los Angeles with three cohorts to see the show.
And of course, there's the requisite press swarming around the ever-indulgent Waters. In one morning alone, he's interviewed by National Public Radio, Variety and Seattle Weekly.
Nor is Hairspray all that Waters is up to in Seattle. The Seattle International Film Festival is showing the recently restored print of his 1975 movie, Female Trouble, preceded by a discussion with the filmmaker; the evening is the best seller of the three-and-a-half-week festival. And at the Greg Kucera Gallery, which is exhibiting a show of Waters' photography, a second "walk-through" with the artist has to be scheduled to accommodate the overflow crowd.
Although Hairspray's producer, Margo Lion, is herself a native Baltimorean, she has taken her new musical as far from Baltimore as it's possible to get and still be in the continental United States. If the West Coast reaction is any barometer, Lion doesn't have to worry about whether non-Baltimoreans will understand Waters' distinctive sensibility on Broadway. They definitely "get" Bawlamer in Seattle.
"Oh, my God. They should just give him the key to the city, the underground city," says Seattle sculptor Randolph Bolander, who arrives at Waters' photography exhibit clutching a vintage scratch-and-sniff card from the filmmaker's 1981 "Odorama" feature, Polyester. "He just kind of liberates America. He lets them indulge their decadence."
He's been doing that, or trying to, for more than 30 years now, with such tasteful film scenes as: Divine eating fresh dog poop; Kathleen Turner spearing a teen-ager's liver with a fireplace poker; or Melanie Griffith allowing her hair to be set on fire. Now his off-kilter viewpoint is taking center stage on American theater's most established stage, which may be the most amazing thing of all.
Does the idea of a John Waters musical on Broadway mean mainstream America's sense of humor has changed?
"Very much so," says Waters, who is serving as a consultant to Hair-spray's creative team. "Young people today don't even do trash anymore or gross-out humor because Hollywood does it. ... American humor now, what we export all over the world, is what I loved in 1954 when I had a little paperback book called, It's Sick, Sick, Sick, Sick, Sick Jokes. What used to be that is now just the top-rated sitcom."
That explains, at least in part, why the Great White Way is ready and willing to welcome Waters' story of an overweight teen-age girl who dreams of becoming a star on a local TV dance show -- a story with references to rats, pimples and prison, and with the protagonist's mother portrayed by a large man in a dress. (The Broadway cast is headed by Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur as mother and daughter, Edna and Tracy Turnblad.) The New York Times has called the show "perhaps the most eagerly anticipated theatrical event of the summer."
Even so, Waters is, yes, amazed "that something that I thought up in Temple Gardens Apartments on Madison Avenue ... is a Broadway musical. Damn! How did this happen?"
'There was little irony'
Sitting in the balcony of Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, Waters reflects on exactly how it did happen. Overhead is a giant gold dragon's head chandelier, the showiest of many showpieces in the elaborately gilded 2,100-seat theater, modeled after China's Imperial Palace. On stage, the cast of Hairspray is rehearsing a number set in the Patterson Park High School gymnasium. In the lobby, a camera crew from Good Morning America is setting up to interview Waters for a segment about the return of big hair.
Discreetly taking out a monogrammed silver case from which he removes a toothpick (a substitute for the cigarettes he used to chain smoke), Waters drifts back to the late '50s and early '60s, when he was a die-hard fan of The Buddy Deane Show and its Committee, as the show's teen regulars were called.
"I watched it every day and I used to draw my favorite Committee members and exaggerate their fashion and hairdos and imagine fictitious criminal biographies of all them," he says.