Love Finds Beaver Cleaver

Love Finds Beaver Cleaver The beat goes on for Hairspray's Darlene Love and Jerry Mathers.
Hairspray's Jerry Mathers and Darlene Love
Hairspray's Jerry Mathers and Darlene Love Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Where were you in '62?" asked the ads for "American Graffiti." For writer-director George Lucas, who really arrived with that '73 film, the answer was he was busy living it, cruising the main drag of Modesto in his last summer before college.

That was the west side story. On the East Coast in '62, writer–director John Waters watched racial integration rock ('n' roll) Baltimore when it infiltrated televised teenage sock-hops. Hence that giddy mix of civil rights and hair care known as "Hairspray," his '88 film that, when music was added, turned into the Tony Award–winning Best Musical of '03, which, in turn, just turned back into film form — while the musical's beat still goes on at the Neil Simon Theatre.

If you popped that '62 question to the current Broadway cast, only two were around then, and both recalled that historic year on a recent Saturday between shows, over filet mignon and chocolate cake at The Palm (a Hairspray haunt, with co-stars caricatured on the wall).

Darlene Love, who celebrated in July her 66th birthday and her second year in the show as Motormouth Maybelle, was one-third of The Blossoms, a budding girl-group backing up Shelley Fabares' "Johnny Angel." Jerry Mathers, who turned 59 in June three days before taking over the role of Wilbur (milquetoast hubby of the zaftig Edna Turnblad), was ending seven years as Theodore Cleaver — a.k.a. "The Beav" — on "Leave It to Beaver." Authentic '60s icons very much at home in a '60s show, they crossed paths because they share the same agent. When Love learned the Wilbur role was opening up, she sent the word out, and Mathers' ears perked up, even though his last musical outing was a garage band he formed as a teenager to play proms and sock-hops. The name: Beaver and the Trappers.

Plays, he'd done — on the dinner-theatre circuit with his series big-brother, Tony Dow: So Long, Stanley (which Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis co-owned but would never let the other one open) and Boeing Boeing (which Lewis filmed with Tony Curtis in '65).

"I only did the audition so I could always say I had auditioned for a Broadway show," Mathers admits. The verdict was he needed more work, and, after three months of intense weekly song and dance rehearsals back in Los Angeles, he was Broadway-ready.

"After always dreaming of something but never thinking it would happen, I now just keep hoping I'm not going to wake up. Broadway is the pinnacle for an actor. This cast and crew are the best people in the world, and they've made it really easy for me. They all said, 'It's like jumping on a moving freight train.' A lot of the moves you do are the same as the other 32 people onstage, and if you're just a beat off, it shows. It's like dominoes."

Soon after Mathers started the show, there was a big bump at the box office. "When the grosses went up like that, you coulda knocked me over with a feather. They were turning people away. I thought that happened all the time. I had no reference. It was gratifying. But my fans have always been loyal. Anything they know I want to do, they support me. 'Leave It to Beaver' was the longest-running scripted show in TV history [234 episodes]. On Oct. 4 it will have been on the air 50 years. It's never been off. Sometimes it shows three, four times a day. It's all over the world, in 50 languages and almost 100 countries."

"Leave It to Beaver" didn't make it across the color barrier, he says. "In '63, all of the networks were going to color. We made a show a week for 39 weeks, and to do that with color technology meant cutting corners, so our producers said no rather than compromise. It's nice to walk away when you're on top."

Love struggled with more traditional color barriers: "I understand what this play's about because it chronicles my life. I used to run home from school to see 'The Dick Clark Show,' never dreaming one day I'd be on it. Black entertainers but only white audiences — I was a part of that. In '64, I did a television show called 'Shindig' on ABC, and they didn't want me on it because I was black and it was going national. Now, here I am, going through this 40 years later [onstage] on Broadway. I dated one of The Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley — we almost married back in the '60s — so I really know where I've been when I tell my son in the play that there's a whole lot of ugly out there, coming from a lot of stupid people."

All that, and she believes she has "the best songs in the show." Certainly she plays it that way, delivering a pair of powerhouse punches to the proceedings. The first, a scorcher ironically titled "Big, Blonde & Beautiful," brings the Act One curtain down thunderously.

The other, a stirring number called "I Know Where I've Been," brings the rest of the house down. Queen Latifah leads a protest march singing it in the movie; Love plants her feet center stage and leaves the same impression. "Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman had to fight to keep that song in the show. The producers didn't want it because they thought it was a downer. That song doesn't bring anybody down. It's a song that lifts you up."

And so does Darlene Love. As Maybelle gives her blessing to the show's interracial couple, she doesn't sing out about it as much as she signs in: "I never mind love," says Love. "It's from above."