When I read that a stage version of John Waters’ 1988 movie Hairspray was coming to Broadway, I imagined Tracy and Edna Turnblad go-go dancing through Johns Hopkins Hospital or maybe the Broadway Market in Fells Point. But apparently there’s another Broadway up north somewhere, and it’s there that Hairspray has become the biggest musical comedy hit since another movie-turned-stage-show, Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
But something happened to Hairspray as it traveled up I-95 from Baltimore to New York, something that went unremarked upon in The Sun’s gushy coverage. It’s something that provides a key insight not only into John Waters and his work but also into the differences between the two cities.
The version of Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York is a lot of fun—full of candy-colored costumes, bubble-gum songs, and sugar-fueled dancing—but something is missing. What’s absent is the weirdness that’s Baltimore. Waters once urged the local chamber of commerce to adopt the slogan, “Come to Baltimore and be shocked!” There’s nothing remotely shocking about the stage version of Hairspray.
Waters, of course, is the filmmaker who started out as the “Prince of Puke” and “Sultan of Sleaze” with such underground pictures as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs. Over the years, though, he has transformed himself through witty interviews and accessible movies like Hairspray and Serial Mom into an iconic Baltimore mascot, in much the same way that Cal Ripken and William Donald Schaefer are. Has there been a national magazine piece on Baltimore over the past dozen years that hasn’t mentioned Waters?
All of Waters’ films have been Baltimore stories, shot on Baltimore locations with Baltimore extras. More importantly, those movies have captured the city’s defining quality—that willingness to wear our hair a little higher and our clothes a little louder, to live in Formstone and to eat crabs with our hands, to say what we think and to dance in public without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. Baltimore’s true motto is, “This is who I am, Hon, take it or leave it.”
One of the few times Waters has ever filmed outside his hometown was in 1998’s Pecker, perhaps the best picture of his career. It’s the story of a Hampden kid who takes snapshots of the rats, housewives, gay strippers, and laundromat tyrants in his neighborhood. When he shows them at the local sub shop, the photos are appreciated as a scrapbook of the familiar. “Those are some nice pictures, Pecker; can I have some extra onions on my cheese steak?”
But when the same photos are displayed in a New York art gallery, they are praised as a commentary on a culture as far removed from Soho as the Amazonian Indians. The sophisticated gallery-goers can chuckle at the artwork from a safe distance because, for them, the pictures are wrapped in irony. The same thing that happened to Pecker’s photos during the trip to New York has happened to Hairspray.
The Hairspray story on Broadway is nearly exactly the same as in the film. Modeled on the The Buddy Deane Show (which Waters first wrote about in this magazine), The Corny Collins Show is the favorite TV program of Baltimore’s teenagers in 1962. Every afternoon (except for the once-a-month “Negro Day”), good-looking, white teenagers, their hair stiffened at great heights by clouds of hairspray, gather at WZZT to dance to the latest rock’n’roll records.
When Tracy Turnblad, a fat girl from Highlandtown, dances her way into the show’s regular cast, she threatens not only the program’s skinny-Minnie look but also Amber Von Tussle’s role as top dancer and Link Larkin’s girl friend. And when Tracy discovers that her black friends are barred from the show, she kicks up a ruckus that leads to demonstrations, race riots, prison, miscegenation, and redemption.
But somehow it all seems sweeter and safer on stage than it did in the movie. Playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman prefer to talk—or, more often, sing—about Baltimore’s flashers, falsies, rats, and bums than to actually show them. When Amber develops a pimple, for example, her mother Velma merely talks about removing it. But in the film, Velma donned rubber gloves, grabbed hold of a zit the size and consistency of the Hope Diamond, and yanked it off with a loud popping noise.
The movie offered dozens of challenges to our sense of decorum: the way Tracy’s father’s beer belly stuck out through his untucked shirt, the way a Corny Collins dancer thrust his hand down his pants, the way one black kid sneered at his white classmates, the way the white adults tossed off racist epithets, the way the alleys were full of rats and garbage. The Civil Rights demonstration on stage is as neatly choreographed as the TV dances. In the movie it degenerated into a riot where the club-swinging policemen were matched only by the purse-swinging housewives.
All those rough edges have been sanded off for the Broadway version. Even the eccentric elements that are retained from the movie—the towering hairdos, the eye-blinding fashions, the fat girl as the high-stepping heroine, and the gigantic drag queen as a Baltimore housewife—are rendered safe by the dreaded wink. You know, the wink that lets us know that we don’t have to take something seriously because it’s all a big joke, because it’s at such a safe distance that it could never intrude on our lives, because it’s not really strange; it’s only quirky.
That’s the crucial difference between New York and Baltimore. Things are what they are here, and you can’t avoid them by pretending they’re cute or quirky. That’s what New York’s art hipsters discovered when Pecker brought a busload of them down for his new photography show at a Hampden bar. Forced to make conversation with the subjects of Pecker’s photos, the Manhattanites found they couldn’t hide behind their ironic detachment any longer. There was no choice but to loosen up and start dancing. And when Pecker’s father raised a toast to “the death of irony,” every-one cheered.
“Of course, I don’t really believe in the death of irony,” Waters once told me. “My whole sense of humor is based on irony. Everything is backwards in the world of John Waters. The good characters are bad; the bad characters are good; beauty is ugly. Everything is reversed. I love that kind of irony. What I can’t stand is camp.”
Irony grows weak and sick when infected with camp and cynicism, by hipsters who put air quotes around everything they say. When the jaded chuckle knowingly that a fat girl couldn’t really be a rock’n’roll star, that a drag queen couldn’t really be a good mother, that teenage love couldn’t possibly be serious, that Baltimore couldn’t ever be glamorous, it runs against the grain of Waters’ ethos.
The director’s strongest movies— Hairspray, Pecker, Polyester, and Serial Mom—are all filmed with the conviction that there are many, often strange ways to be human and each should find its place in the real world, even if it hasn’t yet. In the struggle between what is and what should be, Waters never patronizes or loses faith in the “should be.” And that’s what’s wrong with the Broadway show.
On stage, Marissa Janet Winokur plays Tracy as if she has to apologize for being fat, as if it were a miracle that she is even on TV. As a result, her character seems to reassure us that our culture’s unspoken rules about overweight women have not been repealed. By contrast, Ricki Lake played Tracy in the movie without a trace of apology, as if it were her birthright to be on TV, no matter what her weight, if she were a good enough dancer.
Likewise, the obscure R&B songs on the movie soundtrack were delivered with the urgency and secret language of teen desire, while the Broadway lyrics poke fun at adolescent passions, as if there were something foolish about first love.
On screen, Divine threw himself so totally into the role of Edna—the housewife with the fluttery voice, the hair-pinned curls and the genuine concern for her daughter—that you could easily forget a man was playing the role. When you remembered, the effect was truly unnerving.
By contrast, when Harvey Fierstein plays Edna on stage, he never lets you forget who he really is. Every so often he drops down into a baritone and delivers a sarcastic crack that could only come from a sophisticated New Yorker and never from an earnest Highlandtown housewife. He’s giving us the wink.
It’s no coincidence that Waters’ four best films feature a well-balanced collision of weird Baltimore and the normal world, because it’s only when this contrast is sharp and evenly matched that the comedy and irony flourish. When Waters writes stories with too much weirdness and not enough normality (as in Desperate Living and Cecil B. Demented) or too much normality and not enough weirdness (as in Cry Baby), his work suffers.
But the success of Hairspray on Broadway can only be good for Waters. Because he didn’t write the script and only served as a consultant, he doesn’t have to accept any responsibility for any of the adaptation’s flaws, but he can accept all the credit for inspiring the show. We can feel confident that he, at least, understands the danger of succumbing to ironic detachment.
In a 1994 interview, Waters described his first meeting with Kathleen Turner for the title role in Serial Mom. “I wanted to do a movie about a normal family in a normal house with famous actors,” he said, “because I thought that would provide a new kind of shock, or at least a new kind of irony. The main thing I stressed to Kathleen was I never wanted her to wink at the audience. I wanted her to play it as straight as any other role.”
He should have given the same advice to the Broadway production.