Shaved & Hairsprayed

Shaved & Hairsprayed To play Hairspray’s mother of all mothers, Edna Turnblad, Bruce Vilanch made the supreme sacrifice for his art: he shaved
Bruce Vilanch in Hairspray
Bruce Vilanch in Hairspray Photo by Paul Kolnick

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It wasn't the singing, it wasn't the dancing, it wasn't the acting and it certainly wasn't the comedy. Bruce Vilanch insists that the hardest thing about turning into Edna Turnblad, the frumpy housefrau-turned-civil rights heroine in Baltimore of '62, was the shaving.

"I tried to talk them into a bearded lady," he claims, but his Hairspray producers thought not, so he sacrificed his signature shrubbery as publicly as possible. "I was reluctant to shave, privately. I thought if I didn't like it, I'd kill myself, so I went on 'Regis and Kelly' and let Sal, the human barber of Mulberry Street, shave me. If I didn't like it, I couldn't make a fuss. I certainly couldn't kill myself. Who'd give Regis those kinds of ratings?"

A fellow can amass a lot of face fuzz in 32 years of uninterrupted, unruly growth. "I had the beard so long," he says, "the first thing they searched for was the Lindbergh baby."

Yes, it does make him look younger, he allows that. "It's baby skin, but I think I look very jowly. I think I look like something the Hitchcock family left in the basement." Mind you, he's not entirely "a new man" at this point. "I still haven't made shaving part of my routine. It's part of Edna's routine. I keep all the shaving equipment in the theatre. When I go in, I shave as part of the whole getting-ready-for-Edna ritual. When I have a day off, I take a shaving holiday. I haven't really integrated it into my personal life yet."

Consequently, when he reports for duty at the Neil Simon on Oct. 5, he may be a back-sliding beachcomber. "I have some time off, so it'll be a challenge to see whether I'm going to shave every day or grow it, but I'm going to Hawaii, where even the women don't shave."

A breather does seem in order. He has toured in the show for a year, hitting 14 cities and ending up in his own backyard. "I loved life on the road. When I got home to Los Angeles, I had little red lights put on the phone so I could pretend I had messages — and I had my assistant answer his phone, 'In-Room Dining?' so I'd feel like I was at a hotel being luxuriant."

Performance-wise, "I've had a ball — everything but the pantyhose. They were invented by a Nazi scientist. Few people know this. It was a long-range revenge plot — and it's working."

Probably even more daunting than the pantyhose is the fact that he's filling the high heels of two gay icons who originated the role of Edna — the late Divine, in the 1988 John Waters film, and Harvey Fierstein, in the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2003.

"It's not just the high heels. It's the high heels and the fat suit. There's a 35-pound suit that I wear. It gives me that 54 Triple-D bust and a gigantic toches. When you put that on and then you put the wigs on top of that, and then you get on the high heels, you've got no center of gravity. It's like Godzilla doing a high-wire act."

But, even as Vilanch complains, you sense he's happy to be — finally (at age 56) — making his acting debut on Broadway. He's been here before, in various writing capacities.

In 1978, with Will Holt and Gary William Friedman, he co-authored Platinum, which turned to rust in 33 performances. He also penned the patter for one-person shows. "I did all the Bette Midler shows and a lot of Diana Ross at the Palace and Peter Allen's Up in One. I even got the pleasure of hearing all my old material in The Boy From Oz. They bought it, and I helped them integrate the concert stuff into the show. I didn't get credit.”

I said, 'I've been blamed for all this once. This would be theatrical double jeopardy.'"

Vilanch has also worked with three of the creators of Hairspray. "Tom Meehan and I have written five Tony shows together. Marc [composer Shaiman] and I have done some of the parody songs for the Oscarcasts, and Scott [lyricist Wittman] directed my Almost Famous show down at Westbeth — they also wrote a couple of pieces of material for it."

"Edna is a fabulous, rich character. She starts out with no self-esteem, and by the end of the show, she has had an extreme makeover and is as glamorous as Shelley Winters at the Oscars. She has a genuine arc. She has learned to accept herself and accept her own beauty. And, of course, Hairspray is all about acceptance. It's about accepting yourself, no matter what you weigh. It's about accepting other people, no matter what color they are. It's about audiences accepting a man playing a wife and mother."

So gangway, world, get off of his runway!