There just weren't any parts for an 18-year-old character actress on Broadway, so Marissa Jaret Winokur, a Broadway vet from Grease!, did what any actress who wants to work would do — she went Hollywood. After landing some small but memorable parts in movies ("American Beauty," "Scary Movie") and TV ("Moesha," "Dharma & Greg"), she heard about plans to make a Broadway musical out of the John Waters film, "Hairspray." She auditioned for composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman in his home studio in Los Angeles — the very first actress to try out for the leading role in the show that would blossom in summer 2002 as a Broadway hit — and she nailed it. Since the first workshop in 2000 to the Broadway opening in August 2002, Winokur, now 29, has embodied Plain Jane-turned-superstar Tracy Turnblad. Now, in a case of life imitating art, Winokur herself has become Broadway's latest sweetheart.
Right now, you are the nation's musical theatre "It Girl." Is fame everything you thought it would be?
Marissa Jaret Winokur: That's my joke: "Where's all the glamor? Where's all the glitz? Where's all that stuff you saw in the movies with the Broadway stars leaving their dressing rooms with capes and glasses? Where's that?" I want to hide and run home. I want to go home and go to sleep so I can get up and do a show tomorrow. Everyone's like, "How's the ride?" and I'm like, "I forgot that I have to get on still." It's not what I expected and not how I expected I would be feeling. I thought I was going to love being a leading lady, having fun, signing autographs, but I just want to do a really good job in the show. Who cares about how much press we're doing? If I'm not feeling good, then the show's not good, so who cares what press we did? And I was such a press whore! I would go to parties in L.A. just to network, do my thing and get seen. Now I just want to do a good job in the show. There's so much crazy hype, I feel like I owe it to everybody.
How did you and Harvey form that convincing mother-daughter bond?
MJW: We met in May 2000 for the first workshop and it was just instant chemistry. It was the same with Dick Latessa. It's why the three of us are still here. You can't fake that. Harvey and I are very much like Edna and Tracy. Harvey is very protective of me and wants to see me soar and shine, but is very scared of me getting in over my head. We have a true mother-daughter relationship. I respect highly everything he says. Not only has he been here before, but he's broken ground here before. I'll be like, "Yes, Harvey, I'm fine! I can take care of myself," but then I'll read his e-mails 10 times over to make sure I really understand what he wants me to do. I always joke with him, "All you have to do is come out there in a pretty dress and just stand there and they applaud and I'm out there singing for two and a half hours killing myself!" He'll joke back, "You know what, in 50 years from now, you'll go out in a pretty dress and all you'll have to do is stand there." He's truly there supporting me. I'm never like, "Here's a man playing my mother." Harvey is my mother. He's what makes my Tracy real.
You and Harvey had years to bring your parts together. You and Matthew Morrison only had a few weeks. What was that process like, adjusting to a new heartthrob after performing through the workshops with James Carpinello?
MJW: Matt's actually the person I knew the least out of this whole process because most people have been here through at least a workshop or a reading. It was much different with James. At the time, when he left, I was like, "We're going to Seattle in a week!" But even when there was talk of James leaving, I was on the bandwagon for Matthew from day one. Matthew is nothing like James, but he was going to be perfect. James was one way and Matthew was the exact opposite. What happened was [Matthew's Link] grounded me. James and I were older and we'd [been in development with the show for] so long. But Matthew is 22 or 23. Bringing Matthew in totally took me back to being a total 16-year-old. I'm so in love with him. My boyfriend always makes fun of me because I'm like, "I love Matthew." He's become one of my best friends, which is weird because we're so different onstage. While Harvey and I are exactly the same onstage as we are offstage, Matthew and I are opposite of what we are like onstage. Onstage, we're giddy, in love, we're so Tracy and Link. Offstage, we're lying in my dressing room on the floor, going, "Oh, we're so tired." But Matt makes it real for me. too. I'm so grateful for that. He sweats into my mouth the entire show, so if I didn't love him, it'd be totally nasty! It is so gross — we're about to kiss at the end of the number and he's leaning over my mouth and just dripping into my mouth. At the time, I'm so Tracy, so getting off on it. My idol is dripping sweat on me? That's the coolest thing ever! But afterwards, walking off stage, I'm like, "Matty! Ecchh! It was in my eyeball today!" What's your favorite moment in the show?
MJW: Other than kissing Matthew? Because that's my favorite part. [Laughs.]
Even when he's sweating into your mouth?
MJW: Well, other times kissing Matthew.
Did you have any memorable advice from John Waters?
MJW: No, but he's so protective. Whenever my Tracy got too sexual or too smart for her own good, he would be the first to say, "No, no, no, no, no. Tracy wouldn't do that." He's been so great with everyone and so supportive. He's been our greatest fan, which, from him, means so much.
I've read you're also a big fan of his. What's your favorite John Waters movie?
MJW: "Serial Mom." That is so, so, so, so my favorite.
Was there a moment, an epiphany, when you knew you were in a hit?
MJW: Everyone had that way before me. I don't think I had it, honest to God, until after opening night and we got good reviews. You shouldn't really care what critics say, but I needed that. I wanted that. After opening, it's been "Oh, my gosh!" We really are something so extraordinary. We've become mainstream. People nation-wide are talking about us. But we're doing what we love and having such a great time, it's so silly that it's become such a phenomenon. I would have done this if it were a cheesy Off-Broadway show.
Do you feel that you're a role model — for character actors, for chubby girls?
MJW: I definitely feel like I am now and it would be ungracious for me not to say it. And even more than for character actresses, it's for anyone that's not what they are. That's what our whole show did. It took all the ingenues and made them the sidekicks. My sidekick is Kerry Butler, who played Belle [in Beauty and the Beast], and Laura Bell Bundy, who's a gorgeous blonde, is playing a wacky, crazy role. It took all the girls who play ingenues and let them be characters. The whole show is a total mix-up. It's like you got the part pulled out of a hat — "Okay, I'm the leading lady; you're the wacky sidekick." As much as I'm going to be a role model for young character actresses or chubby girls or for the person who doesn't really fit in, the show also opened up things for ingenues who look like ingenues, but are also comedians. Granted, my role is more different and more extraordinary — there's never been a role like this ever on Broadway. The same with Harvey's role. That's part of the fun of this show — you've never seen this before and God knows if you'll ever see it again.
Do you have a dream role, something you're thirsting to play?
MJW: I'm doing it right now! I always thought when I'm 50 or 60 years old, I could play like Gypsy — Mama Rose — or Mame, those kind of roles, because I'm old-school Broadway. I never ever would have dreamt of doing the young leading lady and being funny — this is so beyond anything I would have dreamt of. People keep saying what do you want to do next year? I'm like, "I only opened a week ago. I want to do this! This is the only thing I've ever wanted!"