Another major difference, he says, is that a stage show is "one big master shot," as if the action were filmed continuously by one fixed camera, with no close-ups. "It's more like my early movies, when I didn't know how to edit. Pink Flamingos, the way we made it on that sound-on film, you couldn't edit. So they had to do six pages of dialogue at once without a mistake, and that's what theater is."

While the musical retains the basic plot, characters and Waters' favorite dialogue, its changes -- which include an all-new score and "even a new Madison" -- appear to delight him.

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  • John Waters

    What is your favorite John Waters film of the '80s and '90s?

    What is your favorite John Waters film of the '80s and '90s?

    • "Hairspray"
    • "Cry-Baby"
    • "Pecker"
    • "Serial Mom"
    • They were all really bad.
    • I only like his "trashy" movies.
The fact that the score is composed by Shaiman, whose best-known credit is the movie, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, would seem to be one more indication of the proliferation of Watersesque humor. South Park may be rude and crude, but it's also hugely popular.

Yet another indication springs from the subsequent stardom of Ricki Lake, who got her big break playing the lead role of Tracy in the movie of Hairspray and went on to become a queen of tabloid television. "Ricki Lake is living proof that John Waters has infiltrated the American middle class," writes Robrt L. Pela in Filthy, his new biography of Waters.

As Pela puts it, "If scandal, sleaze and celebrity worship have become our national religion, then John Waters is an American prophet."

But while America's tastes may have shifted, Waters' have not. Instead, he says, "I've re-invented myself over and over. You have to if you want to get the next generation to come see your stuff, and I've said a million times I'm not as insane as I was at 20, but to be 56 and be angry and insane, you're a jerk. When you're angry and insane at 20, you can be appealing."

One of his re-inventions is photography, an art he has been practicing for more than a decade. His photos are shot off a TV screen, then re-arranged into storyboards for imaginary movies -- plastic surgery transforms Elizabeth Taylor into John Waters; a similarity is captured between Francis the Talking Mule and Jessica Lange portraying Frances Farmer; or Farrah Fawcett hairdos are shown adorning the heads of celebrities ranging from Julia Roberts to Don Knotts.

"The work is not about photography, it's about editing, really, and I take images from all different movies to create new narratives and make my own little movies. It's about humor," he explains.

Unlike his movies, Waters' photography is deliberately aimed at a narrow audience. "The greatest thing about the contemporary art world is, in movies you always have to pretend everybody in the world is going to love it, and in art, if everybody in the world loves it, it stinks," he says. "I'm for the elitism in art. I want it to be just three people and one piece of artwork."

His photos, however, have been exhibited from New York (where one is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art) to Los Angeles, from Paris to Vienna -- just about everywhere except Baltimore, although he says a show is in the works for later this year.

Bittersweet feelings

Waters' foray into the rarefied art world doesn't mean he has any intention of forsaking his ever-increasing public. To the contrary, he may be on the verge of reaching his widest audience yet -- as a cartoon character. He's in "deep development" with MTV to star in an animated series titled, John Waters' Patent Leather Dream House. A show about what he calls "my fictitious life," it will be produced by Film Roman, the company behind The Simpsons.

This won't be the first time Waters has played a cartoon character. He made his debut in 1997, as the voice of a gay antiques dealer on an Emmy Award-winning episode of The Simpsons called "Homer's Phobia." "More people have seen that episode of The Simpsons than any of my movies, I'm sure," he says.

He's also completing a development deal for his 15th motion picture, A Dirty Shame, a comedy about sex addicts. He's devoting much of the summer to writing the screenplay -- when he's not involved with Hairspray, that is.

As excited as he is about the Broadway musical, the experience is not without a degree of personal sadness. Hairspray was Waters' last film to star his 300-pound cross-dressing diva, Divine, who died unexpectedly at age 42. His death came only months after the premiere of the movie that became his greatest hit.

The musical, Waters says, is a "real twilight zone for me, melancholy in a way, too. I've said it before, but it's true -- Divine, dead, would be honored; alive, would want to play the part."

"Honor" is also the word the filmmaker uses to describe his reaction to inspiring a Broadway musical. But at the same time, he's relieved that he's not the one in charge.

"I'd really be nervous -- and I'm still nervous," Waters says. "I see full-page ads in The New York Times, I say, 'Oh my God, now this!' "