Harvey Fierstein told Marissa Jaret Winokur, “They can never take this away from you” at two pivotal moments in the history of Hairspray. But those were a long time after Winokur first began her journey with the musical.
Following a bit part in the 1999 film American Beauty, Winokur received a call from film producer Dan Jinks asking her if she’d like to meet with a friend developing a new musical adapted from the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, so off she went to meet the creative team.
Unlike the other Tracy Turnbalds (Ricki Lake in the original 1988 film, Nikki Blonsky in the 2007 musical film and Maddie Baillio in the upcoming Hairspray Live!), who range from late teens to 20 years old when cast as the optimistic teenage hair-hopper, Winokur was in her mid-20s when she first signed on and 29 by the time Hairspray opened on Broadway. Prior to opening night, she had one other Broadway credit, a few screen appearances to her name, and a cancer diagnosis.
“I had done the first reading or workshop, and then I found out I was sick,” she explains on her way to a rehearsal for the Hocus Pocus musical parody in Los Angeles, her new hometown. “There are some [roles] where you’re like, ‘Oh, I wish I’d get that!’…but this was like, ‘This is my role.’ All the stars were aligning, and then I was like, ‘I have cancer,’ and I thought, ‘If I tell anybody that I’m sick…’
“They were already trying to find a new Tracy. We did four workshops, and at every single one they were like, ‘I’m letting you know, we’re doing an open call. We’re auditioning for a new Tracy.’ And I thought, ‘If they have any reason to think that I’m sick they’re going to replace me immediately.’ I’m smart. I wasn’t 18. I was in my 20s. I knew the job.”
She kept quiet, only sharing the news of her cervical cancer diagnosis with immediate family.
At the time, Hairspray was still in the reading stage with only Act I in progress. “There was no ‘I Can Hear the Bells,’” she explains. “We had ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ ‘Welcome to the ’60s,’ and ‘Big, Blonde & Beautiful,’ [which] were like really our big songs. I was sick and having surgery, and [composer] Marc Shaiman would be like, ‘Listen! Here’s a ‘Without Love’ song!’ … It propelled me to be strong.”
Back and forth to doctor appointments, she’d listen to “Good Morning Baltimore.” She would run the entire show in her head during 90-minute MRI scans. She admits, “At the end of the day, had [Broadway] not happened, [Hairspray] still would have been what got me through that moment.”
With no other Tracys on the horizon, things became real for Winokur when she was given a blue-haired wig for promotional pictures that would eventually show up in Shubert Alley—a big deal for her and a turning point in her career.
“I was there with [director] Jack O’Brien and [choreographer] Jerry Mitchell,” she says of the photo shoot, “and I was like, ‘Holy sh*t! I am creating a poster.’ I didn’t know what they were going to use, but my whole thing was, ‘Shubert Alley! There’s going to be a poster in Shubert Alley of my show!’ I remember getting the phone call from Marc Shaiman a month later—because I moved [to Los Angeles]—[and] he said, ‘The poster’s up in Shubert Alley.’ I called Corey Reynolds, who was playing Seaweed. We were just losing our minds, you know? But never did we know what we were getting ourselves into, [until] we opened in Seattle.”
Hairspray had its out-of-town tryout at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre before opening at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre August 15, 2002. Winokur played the girl trying to change the world (with big hair and a big heart) alongside an overbearing and extremely protective mother, played by Harvey Fierstein.
On opening night in Seattle, “The audience was out of control,” she remembers. “That was the first time Harvey said, ‘Well, they can’t take this away from us.’ He said, ‘Enjoy this moment, no matter whatever happens after this.’ He told me onstage while everyone was screaming.”
She compares the whirlwind that was Hairspray to the current Broadway phenomenon, Hamilton. She was asked to do The Morning Show and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; she went to bed early every night and sacrificed her social life. (“It was literally my one shot,” she says. “You know, from Hamilton? Literally that’s how I felt.”)
The movie and television show offers streamed in, prompting a deal with ABC that forced a move back to Los Angeles after her time in Hairspray. She occasionally ponders what would have been if she stayed in New York to pursue more Broadway work, but deals had already been done by the time she left the show a year after opening in August 2003.
By the time the Tony Awards rolled around in June 2003, Winokur received a Leading Actress in a Musical nomination for her performance in Hairspray against Melissa Errico for Amour, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio for Man of La Mancha, Elizabeth Parkinson for Movin’ Out, and Bernadette Peters for Gypsy.
Winokur sat there, up against her musical theatre idol, Peters, thinking of herself, “Who the f*ck do you think you are?” Still, she was awarded that year’s prize. Flustered, she stood to accept her award, but first… “Harvey grabbed me,” she says, “and said, ‘They can never take this away from you.’”
Though she had planned a speech, Winokur flew by the seat of her pants. “If a 4-foot-11, chubby New York girl can be a leading lady in a Broadway show and win a Tony,” she said, “then anything can happen.”
Winokur never loved Tracy because of her size, but because of her spirit—and, in doing so, she says, she learned how to love herself. “I saw her as this f***ing awesome teenager who was always out to change the world and didn’t know she was doing that,” she says. “She was changing the world because it’s the right thing to do.
“Everything I did in Hairspray was everything I wanted to do. … I literally was like, ‘I’m going to beat cancer and star in this Broadway show and succeed.’ I’m such a little Jewish girl that I live in constant fear of making everybody else happy and thinking, ‘Am I doing enough?’ I lived my life, and then Hairspray came, and it was like: ‘Oh, if you commit, you can do anything.’ … People are going to say no all the time, and eventually someone says yes. … I was enough, and what I was doing was enough, and I didn’t have to be more. Jack O’Brien always [said], ‘The words are funny. Trust the words. You don’t have to do anything more… Just say the words.’ And I’ve taken that in my life, in every job I’ve ever had—just say what’s written, just be enough.”
The role revolutionized the way young, aspiring actors think about themselves. “I always go back and think, ‘Everybody wanted Tracy Turnblad to win that Tony in the end. It finished the story.’”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.