Mayor calls 'Hairspray' a 'blast'

Sun Theater Critic

Baltimore's been the hottest ticket on Broadway for four months now. And on Thursday, Mayor Martin O'Malley and his family joined the throngs of true believers when they made a pilgrimage to New York and took in a performance of Hairspray.

"We had a blast," the mayor said yesterday morning. "The last time I was up here milking off of somebody's talents was for the Super Bowl victory, so I suppose this is, in theater, potentially what the Super Bowl was for us in sports."

O'Malley said he thinks the musical - based on John Waters' 1988 movie, which takes place in 1960s Baltimore - "can do great things for Baltimore. It's great that people are starting to notice us for our accomplishments and our diversity and our culture."

The mayor and city promotion officials are working to make sure people take notice. On Wednesday, the city will begin running a full-page ad in the Hairspray edition of the theater program, Playbill, which reaches an audience of more than 35,000 a month. The ad pictures Waters and quotes him saying: "See the city that inspired the show ... "

The ad, and the mayor's theatergoing trip, were suggested by Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Gilmore, who sat next to O'Malley in Waters' seats at Thursday's performance, first saw the Broadway show in September and came away convinced the mayor needed to see it.

"It was very obvious that this is a real tribute to our city, and it's a wonderful opportunity to see it as a catalyst for all kinds of things," Gilmore said. "You'd have to be a real stick-in-the-mud if you didn't think that this was a very positive reflection."

The Playbill ad is just one way Gilmore's office, and particularly its newly created Mayor's Cultural Tourism Council, plans to exploit the show's potential for increasing tourism. The city also hopes to play the show's opening song, "Good Morning Baltimore," on the toll-free number for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

It's a song that "makes you well up with pride," O'Malley said, adding that he'd love to hear it played on local radio stations, but wasn't sure if his own band, O'Malley's March, would be adding it to its repertoire.

Early next month, visitors to the association's Web site ( will be able to click on a Hairspray icon leading to a list of offbeat tourism sites compiled by Waters. The several dozen favorite sites and shrines will include WJZ-TV, home of The Buddy Deane Show, the former local TV dance show that inspired Hairspray; Prospect Hill Cemetery, where Waters' late star, Divine, is buried; the warden's house at the Maryland State Penitentiary and the Reptile House at the .

"It's always great when people get a perspective on the city that's not as one-dimensional as the last decade has been for us," the mayor said. "I hope [the show] sparks some curiosity in the minds of all the folks in New York, and [those] that come to New York from around the country and the world, to spend a day in Baltimore."

After Thursday's performance, Hairspray's Baltimore-born producer, Margo Lion, escorted O'Malley, his wife, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, and their three older children, Grace, Tara and William, backstage to meet the cast. "The 2 1/2 -month old wasn't old enough to offer a critical opinion, so we left him at home," the mayor said of his infant son, John Joseph.

Harvey Fierstein, whose performance in Hairspray's cross-dressing role of the heroine's mother won raves from the O'Malley children, took photographs of the family with Lion. (The walls of Fierstein's pink dressing room are covered with photos he has taken of his backstage guests.)

Meeting Matthew Morrison, who plays the show's heartthrob, the mayor was overheard praising the actor's performance as being "very Hampden." The blond Morrison replied, "Very surfer Hampden."

On the stairs, O'Malley spotted Eric Anthony, the one Baltimore native in the cast. "I introduced myself [and] said, 'You're Eric Anthony.' He said, 'Yes, I am,' like I was a bill collector," the mayor said with a laugh.

Before he left, O'Malley invited the entire cast to take a bus tour of Baltimore.

"We'd get out the Harleys and escort them," he said.

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