STAGE TO SCREENS: "Hairspray" Filmmakers Meron, Zadan and Shankman; TV's Jerry Mathers

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: "Hairspray" Filmmakers Meron, Zadan and Shankman; TV's Jerry Mathers This month we talk to producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, and director-choreographer Adam Shankman, who created "Hairspray," the coming (July 20) film musical of the Broadway hit. Plus, a chat with Jerry Mathers ("Leave It to Beaver"), a Broadway newcomer.
Jerry Mathers
Jerry Mathers

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After "Chicago" won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar, many thought that it might signal a return to the days of movie musicals, when Gene Kelly was "singin' and dancin' in the rain." But skies were less sunny for other Broadway transfers, including "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Producers" and "Rent."

The scene brightened again with "Dreamgirls," a box office success, and among those awaiting their fates are "Sweeney Todd," starring Johnny Depp, whose Caribbean-pirate derring-do has given him a sure hand for the demon barber's swift blade strokes, and Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!" (which could be nicknamed "The Devil Sings ABBA").

First, however, comes "Hairspray," which its creative team hopes will be a big hit. I attended a recent screening, witnessing a cinematic evolvement from Brooklyn's Tony Manero ("Saturday Night Fever") into Baltimore's Edna Turnblad (Saturday hot flashes). Is John Travolta divine? After creating a sensation 30 years ago, dancing in a white suit, he now kicks up his heels in a red dress (plus fat suit and wig).

Making an impressive debut as Tracy Turnblad is 18-year-old Nikki Blonsky, a 4-foot-10-inch native of Great Neck, NY, who remarkably has gone from leading roles in high-school musicals (e.g. Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Lilli/Katharine in Kiss Me, Kate, and the title role of Carmen) to a starring role in a major motion picture. (Paging Cinderella!) Also starring are Amanda Bynes (Penny), Christopher Walken (Wilbur), Zac Efron (Link), Elijah Kelley (Seaweed), Queen Latifah (Maybelle), Michelle Pfeiffer (Velma von Tussel), Brittany Snow (Amber), James Marsden (Corny), Allison Janney (Prudy Pingleton), Taylor Parks (Little Inez), Jesse Weafer (IQ), Paul Dooley (Spritzer), and Jerry Stiller (Mr. Pinky). Stiller, by the way, originated the role of Wilbur Turnblad, opposite Divine, in John Waters' 1988 film (that inspired the stage musical). Based on Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's Tony-winning libretto, Leslie Dixon wrote the screenplay, which was shot in Toronto.

There are three new songs by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman: "Ladies' Choice" sung by Efron, who played Troy Bolton in "High School Musical" (2006), and "High School Musical 2" (2007); "New Girl in Town" (done during the montage as Tracy becomes popular; it was originally cut from the musical pre-Broadway); and "Come So Far" (sung during the end credits by Blonsky, Efron, Latifah, and Kelley). The song "The Big Dollhouse" was replaced by "I Can Wait," but the jailhouse scenes were removed from the movie (and, along with them, the song). If you can wait, it will be on the DVD.

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Neil Meron and Craig Zadan say that, following "Chicago," they "wanted to do something completely different." They chose "Hairspray" because "it was so full of fun."

Zadan: "Chicago," which we cherish, was very contained. "Hairspray" was a much bigger film to make — enormous in terms of scope and size, with very big musical numbers.

Meron: John Travolta was our first and only choice to play Edna. He's probably the most exciting musical star of our generation.

Zadan: I've known John since he was on Broadway in Over Here. Neil and I offered him the role of Billy Flynn in "Chicago," and he turned it down. After he saw the movie, he was very upset. He didn't really understand what the role in the film was going to be; he hadn't met with [director] Rob Marshall. With "Hairspray," we said, "Remember, you turned down "Chicago," so consider this very carefully. He took one year and two months. Some thought the reason was that he was concerned about playing a woman. That was never a concern. He wanted to make sure that it was the right part [for a return to musicals, following "Fever" and "Grease"].

Meron: Nikki Blonsky told us that she had to play Tracy, because literally she is Tracy. Adam Shankman was the first person who [championed] her.

Zadan: We saw thousands of girls. Travolta saw her audition [tape], and said that she had an early-Streisand vibe.

Meron: She has star quality and an electric smile.

Zadan: John Travolta wanted Chris Walken to play Wilbur. We had met with a number of agents. Variety announced that Jim Broadbent was going to play the role. We had spoken to his agent, but an offer was never made.

Meron: Same thing happened with Aretha Franklin. We never even considered her [to play Maybelle], but it ended up in the papers.

Zadan: Upcoming [among several projects], we have "The Bucket List," starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, and directed by Rob Reiner [a fall release], and [for ABC-TV, in early 2008] "A Raisin in the Sun" [with its 2004 Broadway cast]. "Raisin" will make [director] Kenny Leon a major filmmaker.

Meron: For television, we're doing a new version of the "Peter Pan" musical [that starred Mary Martin]. And we're preparing a new Broadway musical, but it's too soon to talk about that.

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Congratulating Adam Shankman on the fast pace of his first movie musical, he acknowledges, "I was relentless about that."

Having choreographed several films, he's delighted to have had the opportunity to direct his own dances. "I got to shoot 'Hairspray' the way I wanted. [Laughs] But it's never good enough."

Asking how Blonsky, a Long Island student, graduated to a Hollywood musical star, he observes, "With great care. Hers was one of about eleven-hundred auditions. She had such purity and honesty; she seemed to love her body and to be comfortable with herself. She was unapologetic, brash, and confident. I called everyone right away: 'I think we have our girl.' At that point, she was working as an ice-cream scooper [at a Great Neck store]."

When he got the movie assignment, states Shankman, "I felt like I knew exactly what to do. I've been friends with Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] for 20 years, and they approved all of my ideas.

"Things that make you smile in a play would make you retch in a movie." He cites examples: "Having every principle character somehow manage to get to Maybelle's [in the play]; how the detention kids suddenly get police uniforms; and the way Link gets Tracy out of jail — he would never have gotten past the front desk. I had to change all of that."

"I've been involved in many, many movies, and 'Hairspray' has the most consistent [favorable] reaction of any. People come out [from screenings] wanting more, with insane smiles on their faces. It's like movie-crack."

Next for Shankman are two movie projects: "Bedtime Stories" ("a giant effects-laden family comedy, starring Adam Sandler") and a remake of "Topper," with Steve Martin in the title role ("it's in development").

Concludes Shankman, "I don't think anything will ever reach the [same] heights emotionally as ‘Hairspray.' I got to return to my roots [as a dancer/choreographer]. I was working with two best friends [Shaiman and Wittman]. I'll never, ever have the same kind of emotional experience. ‘Hairspray' was great fun!"

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Jerry Mathers is the only actor who's had Bob Hope save his life and Shelley Winters (erroneously) announce his death on national TV. Forever identified with the role of Theodore "Beaver"/"The Beav" Cleaver, whom he played on "Leave It to Beaver," from 1957 to 1963, he's celebrating his 59th birthday (June 2) by making his Broadway debut in Hairspray June 5, the show's 2,000th performance.

An enthusiastic Mathers exclaims, "For an actor, Broadway is the pinnacle! My agent called and asked, 'How would you like to do a Broadway show?' For me, just to be able to tell people I auditioned would be a treat. I flew in [from L.A.], did it, and the next thing you know, here I am."

Admits Mathers, "The dancing [in Hairspray] is the biggest challenge. But I'm kind of a perfectionist and I like challenges. When I auditioned, I sang the chorus of 'Timeless' [Wilbur and Edna's duet, "Timeless to Me"], and read some lines. I went in thinking: It's just an audition. When I finished, I started to walk out, and one of the producers asked me to wait, so the dance captain could work with me. I wasn't very good at it; I've never been a dancer. I'm also diabetic, which I control with diet and exercise. I have to be in good shape and check my blood sugar to be sure I'm alright to go onstage." (The actor's a spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson's OneTouch UltraMini System, which monitors blood glucose.)

Previous stage appearances include two tours with Tony Dow, his TV-brother, Wally. They appeared in Boeing Boeing and So Long, Stanley. The latter had an 18-month run, and had originally been written for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, near the start of their career as a comedy team, but had not been produced.

Mathers has often been asked if the "Beaver" connection was a blessing or a curse, and he always replies, "I consider it only a plus. I grew up in people's living rooms. I took the money I made and used it to put myself through college [earning a BA in Philosophy from UC-Berkeley]. Another question he's often asked is if he'd have one of his offspring be a child actor. "I tell people if you are putting your child in show business, don't. If the child is begging to do it, that's different. My children [Noah, Mercedes, Gretchen] were in children's theatre."

He started modeling at age two, made his TV debut on "The Ed Wynn Show," and is listed as having made his movie debut in "Son of Paleface" with Bob Hope. Claims Mathers, "I think I did, but I definitely don't remember." He does recall making two other Bob Hope films: "The Seven Little Foys" (1955) and "That Certain Feeling" (1956), adapted from Jean Kerr's 1954 Broadway comedy King of Hearts. Playing young Bryan, one of Eddie Foy's seven kids, Mathers was placed on a catwalk for what was a re-enactment of a real Chicago-theatre fire, where Foy was dancing onstage and prevented many possible deaths by calming the audience. "A stuntman, dressed like Hope, was supposed to rush up a ladder when the curtain went on fire, grab me, and bring me down. They put too much gasoline on the curtain, the extras panicked, knocked down the ladder, and pushed the stuntman to safety. Bob Hope was watching the scene, put the ladder back up, crawled up and grabbed me, and took me through the flames. He saved my life!" (Thanks for the memory.)

Of his pre-"Beaver" films, Mathers particularly likes Alfred Hitchcock's comedy "The Trouble with Harry." He explains, "Shirley MacLaine [making her screen debut as his mother] was very nice, very beautiful. It was the first time I was away from home. We filmed in Vermont. Mr. Hitchcock was very kind to me. Edmund Gwenn [in his final role] was absolutely wonderful! I'd sit on his knee, and he'd tell me stories. It was a great cast: John Forsythe, Mildred Dunnock, Mildred Natwick. I'm in awe of the caliber of people I've worked with, but I was a kid at the time and didn't realize it. To me, they were just really nice people. I've been truly blessed with my life and career."

During the Vietnam War, while Mathers was serving in the Air Force National Guard, Shelley Winters was a guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and told viewers that Jerry Mathers had been killed in Vietnam. Luckily for Mathers, as Mark Twain once said, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Twice divorced, Mathers has also worked in banking and real estate. In the 1982 TV-movie "Still the Beaver," he played a grown-up "Beav," which led to a syndicated series "The New Leave It to Beaver," in which he appeared and many episodes of which he directed. He'll soon be seen on a PBS-TV special, "Getting Around," which "deals with the baby-boom generation, and how they may have to take away the [car] keys from aging parents."

Meanwhile, he's onstage at the Neil Simon Theatre, playing opposite Paul C. Vogt's Edna. "Broadway is an elite club that I've been asked to join," declares Mathers, "and I want to be able to come up to that level, and be an active member of this fraternity. Everyone in the cast and the producers have been so good to me and so helpful. That's what has given me the confidence to know that I can do this!"

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Some Tony Thoughts

Sunday, June 10, is Tony night and I'm not referring to the final episode of "The Sopranos" (which runs that night on HBO). I predict that Audra McDonald will take home her fifth medallion (the first in a Best Actress category). Her talent shines so brightly — both vocally and dramatically — that, with Audra, it's always 110 in the Shade. Long may she reign!

Raul Esparza will earn a Tony for his Bobby, and John Doyle's Company will be chosen Best Musical Revival.

Though Curtains was my favorite, no doubt Spring Awakening will win Best Musical. It proves that teens will be teens — even more than a century ago, when there was sex and education, but no sex-education. And while I preferred Radio Golf, The Coast of Utopia has a lock on Best Play.

Journey's End, which closes June 10, should receive the Best Revival of a Play award. If nominee Boyd Gaines were to win as Best Actor in a Play, it would mark his fourth Tony — one in each of the four acting categories.

Gaines previously won as Actor, Musical (She Loves Me), Featured Actor, Musical (Contact), and Featured Actor, Play (The Heidi Chronicles).

Eve Best will return to England as a Tony winner for A Moon for the Misbegotten, O'Neill's story of boy meets girl, girl makes pass, boy passes out. I think that the Featured Actress winners will be Karen Ziemba (Curtains) and Martha Plimpton (Utopia).

Almost any of the Featured Actor, Play, nominees — Anthony Chisholm and John Earl Jelks (Radio Golf); Billy Crudup and Ethan Hawke (Utopia); Stark Sands (Journey's End) — could win; my guess is that it will be Crudup. And Featured Actor, Musical, is a close call between John Cullum's Dad in 110 and David Pittu's Brecht in LoveMusik.

As stated in previous columns, I think that there should be a Tony for Best Concession Stand Items. Contenders would include the Frost/Nixon Chief Executive coffee mug, guaranteed to have no leaks; the Spring Awakening 1890s neon condoms; and, at Inherit the Wind, Clarence Darrow's briefs. Happy Tony viewing!

Nikki Blonsky in "Hairspray."
Nikki Blonsky in "Hairspray." Photo by New Line Cinema
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