NEW YORK -- Can a tousled, T-shirted, hirsute, 5'11", 280-pound man be transformed into a stylish, bouffant-coiffed 1962 Bawlamer matriarch?
That's exactly what the makeup and hair artists clustered in this 42nd Street rehearsal hall are wondering. Their mission? To transmogrify Bruce Vilanch into Edna Turnblad, the zaftig middle-aged mother in Hairspray, John Waters' movie-turned-Tony-Award-winning-musical, which launches its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre on Sept. 9.
In the musical, it takes only a few verses of the song "Welcome to the '60s," to turn drab, rotund Edna into a model mom (albeit still rotund). In real life, it remains to be seen how long it will take to turn Vilanch -- who's trying on his makeup and wig for the very first time -- into the mother of the musical's irrepressible heroine, a tubby teen determined to win a spot on a local TV dance show.
When Vilanch arrives, his chin displays a few days' stubble, his face is framed by a mop of streaked blond hair, and his eyes sparkle behind an oversized pair of red-rimmed glasses.
If the face is only partly recognizable, that's because last month -- as part of a publicity stunt on national TV -- Vilanch was shorn of the shaggy beard with which viewers of Hollywood Squares came to identify him during his three seasons on the air.
Known primarily as a writer, he has spent most of his career as a backstage comedy scribe, putting words into the mouths of such performers as Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams, as well as crafting scripts for countless televised awards ceremonies, including 15 consecutive Academy Awards programs.
Along the way, he's played bit parts in movies and TV shows (as a dress designer in Mahogany, a decapitated head in Ice Pirates, etc.), performed his one-man show from coast to coast, and even been the subject of a 1999 documentary, Get Bruce! But a lead role in a major touring show is as new to Vilanch as shaving his eyebrows ... which is about to happen.
There's no sign of trepidation, however, as he approaches a table covered with brushes, lipstick, pressed powder, mascara, eyeliner, false eyelashes, a small battery-operated fan, and -- oh, yes -- an electric razor, a disposable razor and scissors.
He sits in a molded plastic chair facing a mirrored wall, accepts the electric razor that is handed to him and starts to shave. And so begins Bruce Vilanch's metamorphosis into Edna Turnblad.
A Star Is Shorn
"This is how it starts," says wig designer Paul Huntley as he watches Vilanch scrape away the stubble that is all that remains of the beard he began growing in 1971.
The comedian / writer had already sacrificed his full beard on the July 24 broadcast of Live with Regis and Kelly. "I had no idea I was bleeding until I went out on the set and Kelly Ripa gave me a look of sheer horror, and I thought, 'My God, Kathy Lee must be standing behind me,' " he recalls.
Of course, to play Edna, Vilanch has to shave more than his face: "His chest, his forearms, obviously his full face including his brows, and his legs -- I think up to mid-thigh.," says makeup designer Justen M. Brosnan. "Around his nether regions he can keep."
Brosnan begins trimming Vilanch's eyebrows with a pair of scissors, then finishes the job with a disposable razor. "Ta-da, the end of the brow," he says.
"I am Whoopi Goldberg," Vilanch proclaims.
Brosnan applies foundation while Joy Marcelle, head of the hair department for the Hairspray tour, puts Vilanch's blond locks in pincurls and covers them with a stocking cap. Then, using a stencil, Brosnan traces a pair of eyebrows that arch well above Vilanch's natural browline.
"It's a little Divine-looking, isn't it?" says Vilanch, referring to the late cross-dressing star of Waters' Hairspray movie.
Vilanch is renowned for his ability to capture the persona of whichever star he's writing for, a talent he describes in his 2000 book, Bruce! Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Essays, as "getting under someone's skin."
In Hairspray, he credits Waters and librettists Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell with having laid the groundwork for him. "They've created Edna and I just have to take the road map that they've left," he says.
When Vilanch's eyebrows and stocking cap are in place, Hairspray producers Adam Epstein and Baltimore native Margo Lion drop in to assess the work-in-progress.
"Oh, my God! You look gorgeous," Lion exclaims.
"I look just like my Aunt Pauline at my bar mitzvah in 1960," Vilanch responds.
He may look like his aunt, but, he's not modeling his Edna after anyone in particular. "I want her to be her own woman."
Makeup's a Drag
Brosnan begins applying eye makeup -- mascara, rose-colored shadow. With each step, Vilanch is more Edna and less Bruce.
The makeup reminds him of other times that he's performed in drag. Although, as his dresser, Byron Batista, points out, "This is the first time he's done drag without a beard."
Vilanch's most recent bearded drag foray was this past season on an ABC special called The Disco Ball. "They carried me out at the end of 'Dancing Queen' on a throne with four Nubian slaves, and I was in full drag makeup with a crown and it had a little disco ball that twirled," he says. "If there was ever kind of a gay Rose Parade, I was the Santa Claus float."
In 1988, it looked as if he might have a continuing television role in drag. "I wrote a TV series for Cheech Marin," he recalls. "I played a character, a society columnist called Louella Fella, and she was a bearded lady, and whenever she came on, somebody would look at somebody else and say, 'Hormone problem.' " But a Hollywood writers' strike led to the show's cancellation, and his chance to explore a drag role on an extended basis had to wait.
Vilanch says he tried to talk the Hairspray folks into letting him keep his beard, but "that was a little too John Waters."
Beauty and the Bette
"Keep your eyes closed, please," Brosnan instructs as he glues on a pair of false eyelashes. Lip pencil comes next. Brosnan enlarges Vilanch's upper and lower lips, creating a cupid's bow on the upper.
As more of his inner Edna begins to emerge, Vilanch mugs in the mirror. "This is the reason Bette Midler will never put on weight. When she sees this, she'll go: 'That's what it'll look like. I am not gaining a pound. Just point me toward the Slim-Fast."
In the early 1970s, when he was a writer for the Chicago Tribune, Vilanch reviewed Midler's act. She called to thank him, and he told her she was funny and should talk more in her show. "Got any lines?" Midler asked -- the first of many stars who would pose that question.
In a way, Vilanch's Midler connection led to Hairspray. The musical's songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are also longtime Midler collaborators and friends of Vilanch. In June 2002, Vilanch went to see Hairspray during its pre-Broadway run in Seattle.
"It was everything you want a show to be. It's smart with heart," he says. But he had no plans of appearing in it. Then he got a call asking if he'd be interested in auditioning for the touring production.
"I thought, 'Gee, this could be interesting. It would be fun to have a second act. How often do you get the opportunity, after all these years of writing, to actually step out and do something?"
Now comes the crowning glory: one of the four wigs that designer Huntley has created for Vilanch. Appropriately, it's the one Edna wears after her makeover in "Welcome to the '60s." A few hairpins are all it takes to affix the wavy, honey-blond wig -- with its neatly pinned bun of curls -- to Vilanch's head.
The transformation is complete. Vilanch gazes in the mirror and breaks into a wide grin: "Margaret Thatcher still has that look."
Lion has a different reaction: "It's really Baltimore," she says.
In just under 60 minutes, this 54-year-old New-Jersey-bred man -- who has been variously described as a "living Muppet," "Mason Reese on growth hormones" and "an obscene Senor Wences puppet" -- has become Edna Turnblad, working-class Baltimore laundress, wife and mother.
The result is similar to but different from the look created for Harvey Fierstein, who originated the role on Broadway. Vilanch is a softer, cuddlier Edna.
Fierstein offered advice and encouragement before rehearsals began, Vilanch says. "He was very, very kind. He said, 'I know you're going to blossom in the musical theater. You will find your way to motherhood.' "
Then, Vilanch takes one last, long, satisfied glance in the mirror and says: "The whole process just tickles me."
On Stage in Baltimore
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: Sept. 9-21. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14, 5 p.m. Sept. 21; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sept. 14 and noon Sept. 21
Tickets: $30.50-$77.50 (limited tickets may be available)