That Old Feeling: Let Us "Spray"

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LAWRENCE LUCIER/GETTY IMAGES

The cast of Hairspray dances on Broadway

A new theater ritual: the customers settle into their seats just before curtain time and hear a disembodied voice that warns members of the audience not to take photographs ... or phone calls. At the Neil Simon Theatre on New York's 52nd Street, as folks settle in to see the sassy, savvy, snazzy new Broadway musical "Hairspray," the announcer has a gentler way of telling the crowd to behave. He notes that the show "takes place in 1962, a time before there were cellular phones and beepers..."

...and just about the time when Broadway ceased to matter as a thriving popular art form. The 50s were the musical's last semi-golden age, the last decade of shows that are still lodged in the popular memory. "Guys and Dolls," "The King and I," "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "Bells Are Ringing," "My Fair Lady," "West Side Story," "The Music Man," "Gypsy," "The Sound of Music" — these were vital works of popular art, all quickly made into big-time movies. Revivals? Who needed revivals to get people humming tunes from the shows they'd just seen? Each of these 50s classics featured songs that marched onto the Hit Parade and kept America singing into the first Age of Rock.

Then rock 'n roll, as it became the dominant form of pop culture, chiseled a chasm between the music heard in the theater and the music heard on the radio. Soaring Broadway ballads, dewy with emotion, were instant anachronisms. A few female singers did essay the occasional show tune: Aretha Franklin did a rousing "Are You Sure" from "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," and Ketty Lester turned "Once Upon a Time" into the last frail breath of remembered ardor. But these thrushes were crowded out of the Top 40 by jail-bait divas like Rosie Hamlin ("Angel Baby"), Little Peggy March ("I Will Follow Him") and Lesley Gore ("It's My Party"), and by the teen girl groups. Many of the anthems they sang, of suicidal angst or jolting joy, were written by other teenagers who worked in the Brill Building, smack in the heart of the musical-theater district that their music had made obsolescent.

Obsolescent then; obsolete 40 years later. The Broadway musical has lived so long in the past it's a wonder it has any life at all. Producers pick creaky shows to revive, hoping audiences can be separated from their $100 bills by the lure of ancient songs and what can pass for the old innocence. Composers choose a remote temporal setting partly because everyone else does, partly because the distant past accommodates their quaint or strained lyric styles; Broadway hasn't sung in a modern pop idiom for almost a half-century. The Street can't decide whether it wants to be a museum or a mausoleum.

New? Who needs new? Of the 16 musicals now playing in midtown Manhattan theaters, three are set in the 1920s ("Cabaret," "Chicago, "Thoroughly Modern Millie"), three in the 1930s ("42nd Street," "Oklahoma!", "The Boys from Syracuse"), and three, mon Dieu!, in 18th or 19th century France ("Beauty and the Beast," "Les Misérables," "The Phantom of the Opera"). Broadway tourists can visit ancient Egypt ("Aida) or Fairy Tale Land ("Into the Woods"). But it's tough to find either a musical that takes place in the here and now — "Urinetown" is a city of the future that looks like Pittsburgh in the Depression — or one that was written in the last five years: just four, if you count "The Producers," three of whose favorite songs come from a 1968 movie.


THE NEW "PRODUCERS"?

"The Producers" was the musical theater's last megahit. The Nathan Lane starrer, which opened in April 2001, was also the first show in ages to break the unwritten 20-year rule for Broadway shows: be dramatic, tragic if possible, and always brown. Mel Brooks, who wrote the score and co-wrote the libretto from his fondly-recalled old film, reminded theatergoers that there used to be something, a very agreeable thing, called "musical comedy" — emphasis on the comedy. Audiences devoured "The Producers" like the first spoonful of chocolate sundae after Yom Kippur. If the show wasn't quite the laugh-till-you-break-in-half enterprise that critics indicated, it proved that modern musicals could make you feel something besides righteous and rotten. Happy, for example.

Watching the long queues in front of the St. James Theatre, Broadway entrepreneurs had an epiphany: sad was out, glad was in. From now on, instead of looking for another sullen, finger-wagging faux-opera, they would try to find "the next ‘Producers'." Sure enough, the ABBA's greatest-hits medley "Mamma Mia!" arrived and became the top new tourist attraction. It and "The Producers" have both been grossing $1 million or more a week (the golden number for a Broadway show) ever since. "Thoroughly Modern Millie," the Julie Andrews musical without Julie Andrews, followed and won the Tony for best musical. Maybe the judges didn't want to give it to a show called "Urinetown," the critical hit that is much perkier, less rancid than its title suggests; it's a musical comedy in agitprop drag. And now comes "Hairspray."

Long before the show got to New York, when it was trying out in Seattle, the word got around about "Hairspray." And the word was the publicists' favorite four-letter one: buzz. Since its August 22nd opening, to enthusiastic reviews, "Hairspray" — based on John Waters' 1988 film about the attempts of one chunky girl to integrate a "Bandstand"-like TV dance party in Baltimore — has fulfilled its box-office promise. Last week it was one of two Broadway musicals playing to capacity audiences (the other was "Mamma Mia!").

If not for the relatively intimate size of the Neil Simon, "Hairspray" would be hitting the million-dollar mark. But don't fret for the show's backers. The cast has no above-the-title names — the most prominent figure is Harvey Fierstein, the bullfrog-voiced actor who goes into drag to play the heroine's oversize mother, and whose previous Broadway performance (in his 1987 comedy "Safe Sex") lasted all of one week — so ticket sales aren't siphoned into star salaries. And the show is peddling CDs, T shirts and geegaws galore. At Bloomingdale's, in its 59th Street store and other locations, you will find "Hairspray" boutiques festooned with period clothes, some for full-figured gals. In a Village Voice column, Lynn Yeager noted that there was, "for the first time in memory, a plump mannequin in the window of Bloomie's, with falsies as prominent as Harvey Fierstein's."


THE HAIRHOPPER'S BALL

Both versions of "Hairspray" have the same plot. Goes like this:

It's 1962 in Baltimore, the self-proclaimed Hairdo Capital of the World. On Corny Collins' afternoon rock 'n roll show, white teenagers perform all the latest dances and are local heroes to every adolescent. Chief among these starlets is Amber Von Tussle, a snooty princess whose mom, Miss Soft Crab of 1945, pours all her ambition into Amber. Every afternoon the pouty miss must practice the cha-cha and the Mashed Potato under Mom's eagle eye. "I want you to get more close-ups on that show," Mom admonishes, "or I'm sending you to Catholic school!" Eeuuuu!

Amber soon finds she has a rival: Tracy Turnblad, who is plump, perky and, pound for bouffanted pound, the snappiest Caucasian dancer in town. Soon this out-of-nowhere "hairhopper" (someone who defines her personality by the startling size and shape of her 'do) is outshining Amber on TV, modeling dresses for a full-figure salon called the Hefty Hideaway and causing a rumpus by insisting that black teenagers be allowed to dance along with whites on Corny's show. Till now African-Americans have been offered only a once-a-month "Negro Day," totally segregated — a token for the "Soul Train."

Stardom proves no cinch for Tracy. The school authorities declare that our heroine's hairdo is a "hair-don't" and exile her to the special ed class. She and Link Larkin, her "common-law boyfriend," are ostracized from their keen teen group. Her best friend, Penny Pingleton, is denounced as a "checkerboard chick" for dating a black student. True to its early-60s milieu, the film climaxes in demonstrations, violent disputes, jail time for the civil-rights marchers. And (this is a fantasy, folks) they danced happily ever after.

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