That Old Feeling: Let Us "Spray"

  • Share
  • Read Later

The cast of Hairspray dances on Broadway

(3 of 3)

Tracy's hairdo, now growing like a monster fungus in an AIP horror movie, has landed her and Penny in Special Ed., the high school gulag for misfits of all races, bad attitudes and personal liabilities. (Tracy: "Whaddaya do in Special Ed.?" Nerds: "We do musicals!") The class also imprisons some of the black kids, including Seaweed J. Stubbs (Corey Reynolds), for whom Penny develops an immediate and unquenchable letch. From nine to three, Tracy tries to wriggle from the confines of Special Ed.; then she's off to Corky's, to dance her plus-size girdle off.

Soon Tracy is the most popular gal on the dance floor. Wait a minute, Amber thinks, that's my job, and squalls, with a lovely petulance, "Everybody, stop liking her!" But everybody can't stop. Link, the divoonest guy in town, feels a strange urge to be with the fat girl. Even Edna is impressed by Tracy's new radiance: "If I'd known you were gonna get on the show, I never woulda said don't do it." Tracy also gets endorsements. At Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway, Mr. P. wants Tracy to be the shop's "exclusive spokesperson and fashion effigy." In retaliation, Amber spreads vile calumny about the Special Ed. creature who's stealing her boyfriend. "Tracy is loose and she's retarded," Amber hisses. "She's fast AND she's slow." Our heroine responds to our villainess: "You have acne of the soul!"

Seaweed takes Penny and Tracy to meet his mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Mary Bond Davis), who hosts the once-a-month Negro Day on Corky's show and runs a record store on the dark side of town. The two nice white chicks love the cluttered store's music, its warmth and perceived danger. (Tracy: "This is so Afro-tastic!") In two shakes, Link shows up, and Edna and Wilbur. The place is crawling with Caucasians! A black girl mutters, "If we get any more white people in here, it'll be a suburb."

Enlightened and emboldened, Tracy leads picketers against Corky's all-white show. All the ladies are arrested and land in the custody of a nasty prison matron ("Think of me as a mother — who eats her young"). The Von Tussles get sprung because Amber once had done a, let's call it a favor for the governor. Tracy is aghast, as any good Democrat would be, in 1962 or 2000: "Manipulating the judicial system just to win a contest is unethical!" Tracy, alone in her cell, is visited by the now lovestruck Link. "You look beautiful!" he rhapsodizes, and she replies, "It must be the low-watt institutional lighting." Is the lighting too low for her to see the adoration sparkling in his soul? Then he must voice it: "I know a palooka like me in unworthy of a groundbreaking extremist like you." As prison scenes go, this one is more noble than "Les Miz," "Parade" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman'" put together.

The show's book has a few showbiz references, both of its period (Penny, quoting Louise from "Gypsy," plaintively states, ""I'm a pretty girl, Mama!") and out of it (Amber gets anointed Miss Hairspray and, when Tracy and her supporters demand the crown on her head, proclaims in her most menacing Charlton Heston fashion, "You'll have to rip it from my cold dead hands"). But most of the writing has a fidelity to character comedy that kept me smiling as I was typing these now-familiar snatches of dialogue. It also tucks a moral inside: not the 60s dream of racial justice but the very-now notion that the You inside you is faaaabulous. For Penny and Seaweed: black and white is better than gray. For Tracy and Edna: Fat is Phat, baby!

O'Donnell and Meehan: they do musical comedy.

"WUH. UH. OH."

Waters' "Hairspray" was as much tribute to the early 60s as parody of it. He loved the old songs, loved the dances that accompanied them — the Madison, the Twist, the Continental, the Fly, the Roach — and in his film reproduced a dozen of them, with an archaeologist's fidelity. For the Broadway version Waters is listed as "consultant"; he claims he was much too bossy ever to collaborate. He also knew that the shoe would have "new" songs; the pastiche conceit embraced not only the ransacking of tacky 50s-60s modes of decor, coiffure and couture but the rephrasing of less-than-classic Brill Building song styles.

Marc Shaiman, the show's composer (and lyricist, with his partner Scott Wittman), built an exceptional body of work as arranger of pop standards for Bette Midler. He also collaborated with Trey Parker on the settings for the wonderfully knowledgeable songs in "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut." "Hairspray" is his first "original" score. I'm sorry I have to put quote marks around the adjectives modifying his work here, but the score is not a general evocation of first-decade rock 'n roll, as "Grease" so famously was and "The Rocky Horror Show" so brilliantly. Almost all the Shaiman songs are canny paraphrases of songs that children of a certain age still find rattling around in their memorial juke boxes.

The first four sounds heard — a drum slamming, "Bum. Ba-bum. Pow!" with the clock of castanets on the fourth beat — tell the audience that the music aims directly at pastiche, for those are the first four notes of "Be My Baby," the Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich song from which producer Phil Spector and arranger Jack Nitzsche created a sonic masterpiece for the Ronettes. (Martin Scorsese recognized the power of this opening: he used it at the start of "Mean Streets.") A few bars later, the first syllables uttered in the show — a cutting "Wuh. Uh. Oh." for the song "Good Morning Baltimore" — cue the audience to the tone and intent. Winokur, with a voice that shouts High School of the Performing Arts in its "Fame" years, gives the "Oh" that diphthong that identifies anyone from Baltimore (or from Philadelphia, South Jersey or Delaware; it's a widespread contagion from which many of us are not cured).

Most of the songs evoke, or quote, old favorites. "The Nicest Kids in Town" echoes both "The Peppermint Twist" and "Mony Mony," cutely tweaked to "Money money!" The sextet "Mama I'm a Big Girl Now" is the Crystals' "He's Sure the Boy I Love" (the saxophones primmer than Nino Tempo's on the Spector singles) with a twist of "Twist and Shout." Tracy's ballad "I Can Hear the Bells" summons the ghosts of white-girl singers and the ultimate white-girl tribute song, Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl"; instead of the months counted off, we hear "Round One... Round Two..." The bluesy "It Takes Two" borrows the chord pattern from "Sea of Love" and the mood of Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing" (a Waters favorite oldie, used in the movie). There's a black-girl-group uptempo number, "Welcome to the '60s," that echoes "Heat Wave" and other Martha and the Vandellas tunes.

(The one slightly naughty song — the only tune that conjures up the joyous anarchy of early John Waters movies — is not in the show. I suspect that someone urged cutting it because the more sensitive souls in the audience thought it too ugly to be funny. It is on the CD, though, hiding 11 seconds after the end of the final song. "Blood on the Pavement" is a parody of 50s-60s public-service jingles and is delivered with a perky confidence that makes the message ever so much more ghoulish. Just a few lines, for the curious: "Don't drink and drive, please keep your head,/ Or come Graduation Day, you'll be dead.")

Shaiman has written a few generic Broadway tunes, in the High Generic mode — simple, singable, reverberative, just like Brooks' songs for "The Producers." And toward the end of the show he seems to realize he's run out of early-60s musical signatures to filch from. So in the last two songs he steals from 70s retro-rock. "Cooties" is nothing but Steve Martin's "King Tut." The finale, which brings the entire female company together to sing "You Can't Stop the Beat," begins as yet another Spector classic, "River Deep Mountain High," the raids pretty much the entire oeuvre of Jim Steinman, of Meat Loaf notoriety.

This last number, I confess, has my heart. It's the cut I play over and over, at lease-breaking volume, and whose lyrics I copied so I could sing along. It's where the show's spirit finally shouts, after two-and-a-half-hours of clever smiling. It's the song that elevates, levitates, rejuvenates the Hairspray" audience and keeps them jumping through the curtain calls and inevitable encores. It's where rock'n roll could have gone, or should have stayed. It lets you sing along with the "Hairspray" sisterhood. And, since it's got a great beat, you can dance to it.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. Next