This is like 'The Twilight Zone' for me," cult film director John Waters said, introducing the May 8 press preview of Hairspray, the new Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman-Mark O'Donnell-Thomas Meehan musical based on his most popular film.
When Waters is equating something outside of his demented cinematic universe to "The Twilight Zone," there's suddenly a sense that anything can — and will — happen in Hairspray, set for its Broadway run this July.
Take, for instance, the musical comedy's loving couples. First, there's the popular and handsome Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), who falls for spunky and chunky dancer Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur). Then there's one of musical theatre's rare interracial matches — black and proud Seaweed (Corey Reynolds) who romances Tracy's white bread best friend Penny (Kerry Butler).
But none of those youngsters have anything on what's sure to be Broadway's hottest new couple of the next season — Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa as Tracy's parents, Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. The two exhibited an immediate chemistry that many opposite sex couplings lack on stage.
"We had that the second we saw each other," Fierstein said. "We probably knew each other in another life," Latessa explained.
"Or in a backroom bar," Fierstein added.
They run with the idea. "Yeah, one of those dark places where you can't recognize anyone." Latessa said.
"It was the '70's, you know. The drugs were good. It was hit after hit after hit. He didn't care what was going on." Fierstein laughed, indicating Latessa.
Their big number is "Timeless to Me," in which Wilbur compares his wife to a stinky old cheese ("just getting riper with age ") and a fatal disease ("but there's no cure/so let this fever rage"). It's a stylistic break from the early 60's rock 'n' roll pastiche of the young people's score and features a comic ballroom-style dance which accentuates Fierstein's height difference over his "lead," Latessa.
The opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore," finds Tracy waking up in the morning, ready to begin another cheerful day in the city she loves. Although Winokur sat perched on a stool with the ensemble singing back up around her, choreographer Jerry Mitchell explained the effect would be very different in the theatre, where Tracy will be laying in bed and everything will be seen from the ceiling's point of view.
Tracy's life changes when she's spotted doing the Madison at a high school hop and wins a guest spot on "The Corny Collins Show," home of "The Nicest Kids in Town," according to the show's host (Clarke Thorell). TV teens dance regularly on the "American Bandstand"—"Mickey Mouse Club" type show.
Tracy becomes the most popular dancer on the show and soon she's a hot item in Baltimore. Her mother Edna, a little shocked, but very excited by her daughter's fame, gets an introduction to the new era in "Welcome to the '60's." The number includes a billboard of girl group The Dynamites coming to life and Edna parading in an outrageous new outfit.
As Hairspray deals with acceptance in all forms, a major subplot revolves around black and white relations. Seaweed introduces his white friends to his world in "Run and Tell," a paean to black music and dance and African-American spirit and pride. Seaweed is the son of Motormouth Mabel (Mary Bond Davis), who DJs the "Negro Day" on "The Corny Collins Show," and becomes part of Tracy's effort to integrate the show. Motormouth also joins in the finally successful integration attempt and leads the finale number "You Can't Stop the Beat!"
Also in the score are "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," "I Can Hear the Bells" and the four-way love song "Without You."
Personal and professional partners, Oscar nominee Shaiman ("South Park") and Wittman found writing the songs easy. The four they first presented to producer Margo Lion (including "Good Morning, Baltimore," "Welcome to the '60's" and "Big, Blonde and Beautiful") are still in the show.
"I hope we don't get our comeuppance. Like, we read articles about shows where they say 'We wrote 75 songs for that slot.' Gee, are we doing something wrong that we're not rewriting and rewriting?" Shaiman said.
Life-long Waters fans, they managed to slip one subtle homage to their favorite of his films, "Female Trouble," into the women-in-prison scene. Also because they love his work, Wittman and Shaiman are especially interested in getting the show right.
"Sometimes he'll tell us [to change something because] 'Oh, they didn't say that word,' or something like that. But he's happy that we get it. He's like the fairy godfather," Wittman said.
Hairspray premieres May 30 at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre, opening June 12 and running through June 23. It will then transfer to Broadway's Neil Simon for a run beginning July 18. Opening night is Aug. 15.