John Waters' 'Hairspray' keeps its hold on us

"Hairspray" is the product that just keeps giving.

In 1988, John Waters added indelibly to his in-a-class-by-itself filmography with this tale of youth, love, race relations, and irrepressible dancing in early-1960s Baltimore. Fourteen years later, that movie became the basis for a Broadway musical, which, in turn, was adapted into a Hollywood musical in 2007.

Now comes another version, "Hairspray: In Concert," which will be presented this week by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"It never dies," Waters said of his creation. "You can't stick a stake in it."

Giving the concert version added splash is the presence onstage of the minimally mustachioed, maximally provocative Waters himself. He serves as narrator, "a completely new field for me," he said. "But you can never have too many careers."

Joining Waters and the BSO onstage is a well-credentialed cast that includes two artists reprising roles they had in "Hairspray" on Broadway — Marissa Perry as zaftig teen Tracy Turnblad; "MADtv" veteran Paul Vogt as Tracy's zaftig-er mother Edna (the drag role created in the movie by Baltimore icon Divine).

Micky Dolenz, of The Monkees fame, plays Edna's husband Wilbur, a role he first performed in a London production a couple years ago. Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel is Velma von Tussle, the scheming, bigoted producer of "The Corny Collins Show," a TV dance show that the intrepid Tracy is determined to integrate.

The role of the high school principal, who thinks Tracy and her mile-high beehive spell trouble, is taken by Waters. "I guess that's called against-type," he said.

"Hairspray: In Concert" is a co-production with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which gave the premiere earlier this month. Rather than a stand-and-sing approach, the presentation includes costuming and choreography (students from the Baltimore School for the Arts will augment the ensemble here).

The idea for the venture began with Jack Everly, principal pops conductor of the BSO and Indianapolis Symphony.

"The original story that John created for the movie 'Hairspray' has a marvelous tone," Everly said. "He took what is essentially a very difficult time in American history and treated it in a very uplifting and entertaining way. The Broadway musical added a wonderfully tuneful score and very clever lyrics to that story. The challenge of [the concert version] is to keep things very clear after editing the script."

The solution was to ask the originator to prepare a connective thread for the concert experience.

"John was amusingly skeptical when I approached him," Everly said. "But I gave him carte blanche to write the narration, which is, as you would expect, wonderfully witty."

That narration is essential, since a lot of material from the musical has been jettisoned. A case in point is a scene where Edna comforts Tracy, who is smitten with Link, the heartthrob from the Collins show. Vogt said that most of the dialogue has been cut from this "lovely mother-and-daughter moment."

"Instead, there's just an embrace," the actor said. "It gets a laugh at first, because I'm so tall in heels, and Tracy's face gets pressed into my boobs, which are huge. I don't have a five-minute scene after that now. I have a line: 'I am so proud of you.' But it's still powerful. So you definitely get a sense of the show in this version."

Vogt said he often stayed just offstage during performances in Indianapolis to hear the narration by Waters.

"It's really fascinating and funny," Vogt said. "He gives you the background and insight into why and how he created 'Hairspray.' Our dressing rooms were across from each other, so I got to spend more time talking to John, who likes to chat. I can't get enough of him. I love hearing about him and Divine in high school."

Audiences here will likely know more of the "Hairspray" back story than folks in Indianapolis did ("They ate up what John gave them about the characters and Baltimore," Everly said). But there's nothing like getting Waters' own take on the times, people and milieu that were a part of the work's genesis.

With "Hairspray," Waters conjured up a vivid slice of Baltimore's past that wasn't all that fictionalized for the movie and its subsequent manifestations. He has strong memories of mothers and daughters in some parts of town — "Not the Ruxton women," he said — going to the same beauty salons to get the same kind of beehive, just as Tracy and Edna do.

"Huge hair was thought of as beautiful. Not in Catholic schools — you had to press it down flat. But it bounced back," Waters said.

He still keeps in touch with dancers who became local celebrities by appearing regularly on "The Buddy Dean Show," the WJZ program that inspired "The Corny Collins Show" in "Hairspray." The policy was whites-only on the dance floor, except for a periodic day reserved solely for African-Americans. That policy never changed before the program was canceled in 1964.

"I gave [the 'Corny Collins Show'] a happy ending," Waters said. "That didn't happen to the 'Buddy Dean Show.' And white people snuck into the black day, not the other way around like in 'Hairspray.' Could there be a show with black and white kids slow-dancing on television today? Maybe not. The scary thing is people who still think the way they did then. At least now they are embarrassed."

Waters hasn't lost his fascination with the era of TV dance shows.

"WJZ tried one again in the '80s — 'Shake Down.' I even went to the studio for it," Waters said. "The problem was no else did. I'd like to see a new, totally integrated show with rap music. I love rap music."

That may not materialize any time soon, but "Hairspray"-era music has not disappeared here.

"The coolest club in Baltimore today is Lithuanian Hall when they have Soul Night," Waters said, "with all these hipsters in their 20s dancing to what would be their grandparents' soul music. That kind of music never really goes away."

The score for the Broadway "Hairspray" — music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman — easily succeeds in evoking time and place. The concert format will add a layer to that sonic atmosphere.

On the Great White Way, 15 or so musicians were in the pit using a mix of regular instruments and three synthesizers to play Harold Wheeler's orchestrations.

"I reversed that process," Everly said. "We will have 45 musicians up there performing onstage. And instead of synthesizers, I've got three trumpets and three trombones."

Even allowing for that enhanced orchestration and the missing dialogue, the concert version remains at heart the same musical that audiences have embraced in several countries. That the work is what Waters calls "the most subversive thing I ever done" makes the success sweeter.

Most subversive? From the guy who brought us "Pink Flamingos" with the literally potty-mouthed Divine?

For Waters, the subversion in "Hairspray" comes from the fact that "a family audience can go and not be offended," he said, even while seeing such things as interracial dating and two men singing a love song to each other.

Vogt, who performed in several regional "Hairspray" productions after Broadway, said he has always encountered some nervousness from presenters over that love song for Edna and Wilbur, "(You're) Timeless to Me."

"It's a little sassy and a little sexy," Vogt said. "They wanted us to downplay it a little bit in Indiana. But we won them over, even at an 11 a.m. show, when we were told they would all be elderly and there would be a lot of walkers. That audience cheered as loud as the others. That's the magic of the show."

"Hairspray" is not always performed straight, so to speak, these days.

"I thought, great, when this gets done in schools, finally the fat girl and the drag queen can get a part," Waters said. "But it's not true. What's so funny now is that it's politically correct. Now the skinny black girl plays Tracy. I love it. It's so post-modern."

Though perhaps not post-modern enough.

"The ultimate in a politically correct version would be to cast the opposite race and sex for every single person in the cast," Waters added. "It would be so confusing that it would be normal. And on ice, too — it should be performed on ice."

Waters has a title ready should a porn sequel be made some day (as he predicted, it can't be printed here), but he also has worked on more traditional sequels. One, called "White Lipstick," would have been a follow-up to the movie musical, using the same songwriters of the Broadway show and carrying the action into the Vietnam era.

"It never got made," Waters said. "And I did a script for a TV series pilot, which never got made."

The filmmaker does have another, non-"Hairspray"-related project in mind, a movie called "Fruitcake," which is to take place in Remington.

"Remington still has edge," he said, "unlike in Manhattan — if there is one bad street left, the best restaurant would open there. We've got edge [in Baltimore]. We've always had that. That's why 'The Wire' was so great. People come here because of 'The Wire.'"

Waters doesn't have time for mainstream things that pop up in Baltimore ("I hate tall ships"), but always makes room for the quirkier. "This is the only city I've ever autographed a house in," he said — a patron at a restaurant in Hampden came up to him with that request.

Last year, Waters decided to check out the scene beyond Baltimore in a novel way, hitch-hiking across the country. He is on the second draft of a book about his experiences.

"When you hitch, your job is to talk," he said. "The more you talk, the longer the ride. I can usually get along with people."

If he runs into disagreeable sorts, Waters is not inclined to dally, given his overriding philosophy:

"Never having to be around [jerks] — that's what I consider success," he said.

A notion Edna Turnblad would have heartily seconded.

If you go

"Hairspray: In Concert" will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Jan. 27 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $29 to $91. Call 410-783-8000 or go to