Hairspray may have a reputation for high camp, but its Baltimore roots and its theme of racial integration make it mark it out as a radical production that runs parallel to hard-hitting crime drama The Wire. By Mark Fisher
It’s not often you hear Hairspray spoken of in the same sentence as The Wire. One of them is a campy piece of retro 60s frivolity, the other is a brooding drama of inner-city drug dealing, death and desperation. What two things could be less alike? But look a little closer and you start seeing the connections between the cult John Waters movie, which hasn’t paused for breath since being refashioned as a Broadway musical in 2002, and the five series of David Simon’s compelling HBO cop show.
They have two things in common: one is race, the other is Baltimore. It’s easy to forget that Hairspray is not just a nostalgic celebration of big hair-dos, mass-market entertainment and 60s-style pop music with an added dollop of oddball characterisation thrown in for good measure. It is all those things, of course, but it’s also a serious commentary on racial prejudice and social exclusion. Rushing home from school, the central character Tracy Turnblad lives for every episode of the Corny Collins Show. Joining in the dancing, she secretly knows she can match the show’s stars move for move.
But the happy-clappy world of this youth TV show has a sinister edge. Yes, the young presenters are good looking; yes, they’re great movers; and yes, they would be courteous enough to bring home to your parents. But they are also exclusively white. And deliberately so. Under the jaded watch of studio executive Velma Von Tussle (played by Debbie Harry in the original movie and Michelle Pfeiffer in the remake), the Corny Collins Show is strictly segregated. This is 1962, three years before Martin Luther King began his protest marches and three years before black militant leader Malcolm X was shot dead. It was an era when black voices were routinely excluded from American society.
The biggest concession the show’s producers will give to their non-white audiences is a monthly “negro day” when black youngsters are allowed to dance. Even then, black and white dancers are never seen together. This, in a city in which African-Americans represented close to half the early 60s population.
Tracy Turnblad is white, but has experienced discrimination of her own. Being overweight, she knows what it is to be ostracised. Her instinctive sense of fairness makes her alive to injustice. Thanks to her efforts, Hairspray becomes the story of a city waking up to the possibilities of racial integration. The tale is romanticised, but its spirit is revolutionary.
It’s a spirit recognised by Peter Duncan, the ex-Blue Peter daredevil who plays Tracy’s father Wilbur Turnblad in the current production that tours to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness in February.
“The way me and Tony Maudsley play the couple is very much about the characters and how liberal they are in a very tough world of racism and size-ism,” he says, citing West Side Story as another example of a popular musical dealing with hard home truths. “To some degree, particularly with Drew McOnie’s choreography, Hairspray is innovative as well. Baltimore has come back in the news because of The Wire and more recent events, and has this volatility about it that is still relevant.”
He adds: “A good part of the story is that you’ve got people who are overtly racist mixed with people who are naturally liberal and accept everyone as an equal.”
His co-star Claire Sweeney agrees with him. “I like a musical that says something,” she says. “Hairspray has got a story, it’s got meaning and there’s something to be learned from it.”
She’s playing the arch villain Velma Von Tussle, a part she likens to the evil queen in panto: “If I’m hated, I’ve done my job,” she laughs.
What she loves about Hairspray is the substance behind the razzmatazz. She made her name in Brookside and recognises that, just as the Liverpool soap opera combined popular storylines with social commentary, so Hairspray has genuine bite to it.
“Every teenager should see this show,” says the actor who worked as a singer for several years before landing the part of Lindsey Corkhill in Phil Redmond’s Channel 4 soap. “It’s a great lesson for life: how to accept one’s individuality, fat, thin, black, white, whatever you are, express your individuality and embrace it.”
For a mainstream show, Hairspray has decidedly left-of-centre beginnings. At the time of the first movie’s release in 1988, director John Waters was best known for countercultural underground movies revelling in dark humour, bad taste and sexual amorphousness. Female Trouble features two characters who get their kicks from photographing women breaking the law; Polyester is about a pornographer and a foot-fetishist; and Pink Flamingos includes a famous scene involving the consumption of dog poo.
Having cast Divine in all these films, Waters naturally called on the flamboyant transvestite to play the role of Edna Turnblad. Sadly, the star was to die from a heart attack just after the film came out.
Commentator David Thomson called Waters “the classic modern homosexual movie director, with wit, courage and mischief to spare”. Not an obvious calling card to inspire a Broadway musical, but producer Margo Lion spotted the movie’s potential and brought in songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who, working on the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, helped transform it into a massive hit.
After its premiere in 2002, it picked up eight Tony Awards and ran for more than six years in New York. Things came full circle when director Adam Shankman turned the Broadway show back into a movie, with a cast including John Travolta, Christopher Walken and Zac Efron.
The present 40-week tour demonstrates what an unstoppable success it has been. “Hairspray is a little bit of a phenomenon,” says Duncan. “You get a mix of an audience. There are those that go just for the colour, the movement and the rough and tumble and there are those who actually want a bit more. A good musical can do both.”
Sweeney feels the same way: “It’s a wonderful script and a great story with heart, meaning and a strong message – but then there’s also great comedy in it and brilliant songs. It’s the perfect musical.”
• Hairspray is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 1-6 February; Edinburgh Playhouse, 22–27 February; Eden Court, Inverness, 29 February until 5 March.