PLAYBILL ON CLOSING NIGHT: Hairspray The Fat Lady Sings

By Harry Haun
January 5, 2009

Edna Turnblad croaked her last on Jan. 4 at the Neil Simon Theatre as Hairspray went out in a blue blaze of glory with its 2,641th and final performance.

The 19th longest-running show in Broadway history did not go gentle into that good night. Far from it. It was a raucous, exuberant, exhilarating affair from start to finish, and it gave the staid old Simon a solid rafter-rattling that it won't soon forget.

When the cheering subsided to a manageable roar, the man in the Fat Edna suit — a rather large vision of feather-lined gossamer and psychedelic paisley — wafted center stage and started waxing eloquent in his gravelly, diamonds-in-the-rough fashion.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Harvey Fierstein, "for the past six and a half years, these walls have barely held in the happiness of this building. Miracles like Hairspray don't happen every day, as we all know. Shows like this just don't come along, and it has been our privilege — those of us on the stage and many more — to participate and gain from this wonderful, wonderful show. But the best part is, no matter what mood we were in coming into the theatre, everyone of us knew that we could turn the audience into a screaming bunch of wild people."

Despite the gossamer (or maybe because of it), Fierstein's Edna was voted a 2003 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. He subsequently did two other Broadway shows that didn't require high heels (Fiddler on the Roof and A Catered Affair), but he returned for one final swoop at Hairspray — as did the Best Actress in a Musical Tony-winner, Marissa Jaret Winokur, who played Tracy Turnblad, a rotund miniature of her mama. At the curtain call, Winokur was wearing a baby pouch — baby (five-month-old Zev) included. "My grandson," beamed Fierstein proudly.

They weren't the only Tony winners in the house, and, when Fierstein issued the clarion call ("Hairspray family, get up here, and let's dance!"), most of them charged the stage and boogied with the cast: director Jack O'Brien, book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, costume designer William Ivey Long and producers Margo Lion, Adam Epstein, Richard Frankel et al. Tony nominees joined that number as well: choreographer Jerry Mitchell, scenic designer David Rockwell, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and orchestrator Howard Wheeler.

"It's been an adventure for us all, I have to say," Fierstein said, wrapping it up graciously, "and it's been a pleasure for us all to do this for the audience and for each other. And thank you. May something as wonderful as this happen to you."

Last-nighters had a bracing, nine-block stroll to the closing-night party scene, the newly refurbished Arena, at 41st and Seventh — and still the club staff wasn't ready for the deluge of shivering customers. A hulking, impassioned doorman who had obviously seen it all from the professional party set could not be moved, and the club manager informed the crowd gathering behind the velvet ropes that the show had ended earlier than anticipated and there would a 20-minute wait, which, in that weather, translated as The Ice Age. Fortunately, some clever person pointed out a patient little old lady right behind the ropes and spoke the magic words to the manager: "Harvey's mother." It was "Open Sesame," and the crowd streamed forth.

At first glance, Arena seemed not nearly big enough to accommodate the attendees, but there was a second-floor balcony that led into other party areas. The place was packed, all right, but not unpleasantly so. It was skipped by the major stars at the theatre — namely, Sarah Jessica Parker who had no qualms about hauling three boxes of popcorn to her seat for Matthew Broderick and their five-year-old James, twice-Tonyed Christine Ebersole, whose cabaret act with Billy Stritch just won a Nightlife Award, Jack Noseworthy, who's doing a musical serial-killer in Douglas Cohen's No Way to Treat a Lady at L.A.'s Colony in March, and TV weatherman Al Roker.

View the Entire Photo Gallery
Harvey Fierstein
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
Most of the "star power" of the evening was reserved for the immediate family — Hairspray alums, both on Broadway and on the road: Linda Hart and the Legally Blonde Laura Bell Bundy (who recently made their Carnegie Hall debut together with the New York Pops), Kerry Butler, Mary Bond Davis, Adam Fleming, Cry-Baby's Alli Mauzey, Chester Gregory, Andrew Rannels (a onetime Link Larkin who's crossing 52nd Street on Jan. 13 to become Jersey Boy Bob Gaudio), Hollie Howard, Aubrey O'Day, Annie Golden, George Wendt (Fierstein's immediate predecessor as Edna), Shannon Durig, John Hill, Carly Jibson, Wicked's Shoshana Bean, Katherine Leonard, Jennifer Gambatese, Peter Mathew Smith, Hayley Podschun and Caissie Levy.


Buy this Limited Collector's Edition

A comedic odd couple if ever there was one, Jackie Hoffman and David Greenspan found each other across a crowded room. She, it might be remembered, won a Theatre World Award for the gaggle of goofs she played in Hairspray (gym teacher, jail matron, etc.), and he covered for both Edna and Wilbur Turnblad.

Greenspan also writes plays: "I have a musical that I've co-written. It's going up in the spring with Manhattan Class Company called Coraline. It's based on a children's book about a girl who goes through a mysterious door and fights with a malevolent character called The Other Mother. I'm playing The Other Mother."

"Dammit! I would have been perfect for that!" groused Hoffman. Meanwhile, Jackie Hoffman's Scraping the Bottom: Special Holiday Edition still playing Joe's Pub is, it has to be said, hilarious. "That's why we're making Hannukah last till mid-January, for people like you. I have two shows tomorrow night — at 7:30 and 9:30 — and I'm undersold. Write it down before you get drunk."

Julie Halston, who followed Hoffman into Hairspray, hugely enjoyed the evening: "It took on particular resonance for a couple of reasons. One, just seeing all the people up there that I haven't seen in a long time — that was like Old Home Week — so that's already very emotional. Two, with Obama [almost] in the White House, it does almost feel like a full-circle situation. This is a show that came out of the mind of John Waters, who remembers a time that was so oppressive and was so backward. That we've come so far in these decades is a miracle. And, too, seeing Marissa and Harvey back in the lead roles again was very exciting because you really do come to appreciate how really magical they were."

In addition to her nightclub act at Birdland, "I bought the rights to Miss Margarida's Way, and I'm going to be doing it in Williamstown. I'm very excited about doing it."

Producer Frankel and book writer Meehan took a double hit on Jan. 4. Of the eight Broadway shows that closed on that day, a quarter of those were theirs (Young Frankenstein being the other one). Looking on the bright side of life, he has two irons in the fire glowing hopefully. One is Death Takes a Holiday with composer-lyricist Maury Yeston, and the other is Elf, a Christmas show based on the movie that starred the Broadway-bound Will Ferrell.

His co-writer, O'Donnell, was brimming with conflicting emotion — "It's a wedding! It's a funeral!" — but, he quickly conceded, "To hear an audience laugh at my jokes is as close to immortality as I'm going to get."

The buzz at the party was how the last performance of Hairspray came on like a house afire and left such a lovely, lasting afterglow. The ovations started with — well, with "Good Morning Baltimore" and littered the performance, making all the obvious stops like "Timeless to Me" (an old-marrieds ditty, dandily delivered by Ken Marks and Fierstein), Winokur's strong-lunged "You Can't Stop the Beat" and the racial anthem socked over by Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley), "I Know Where I've Been."

But what brought the house down in one happy heap were four little sign-of-the-times words that Winokur inserted into one of her closing lines. As written, the line was: "Network television is now officially integrated." What she said was: "Network television, like the White House, is now officially integrated." That brought everyone to their feet, cheering hysterically.

It's hard to ignore and not appreciate the political progress that has been made since Waters wrote and directed his little movie about growing up in segregated Baltimore and integrating the city one teenage dance-floor at a time.

"On election night," recalled Crossley, "our audience was mostly foreigners, mostly Europeans, and they didn't really get what we were talking about. We were doing that show for ourselves. We didn't find out that Obama had won until after the show. For me, it means so much because I'm from Chicago. That's where I got my start, and the things that I had to endure as a young girl growing up, wanting to be in show business and nobody wanting to encourage me."

Since the election, her big number routinely gets ovations. "I kinda saw it out of the corner of my eye tonight, but my job was to hold the anchor because we were all feeling so emotional, to forge ahead and tell the story. And the story means so much more because now the dream we talk about is one that we're living now. That's the phenomenon. That's the miracle. I'm so happy to have been a part of that."

Director O'Brien was rhapsodic about the day's closing performance. "I've never been involved in anything like this in my life. I've opened and closed a lot of shows, but nothing like this. It was so emotional and so rich with love and all those wonderful people over six years coming back and getting on the stage together — I'll never forget it as long as I live. If you're going to go, that's the way to go."

No grass is growing on him, though. On Jan. 20, he starts rehearsing a new Broadway show, Impressionism, with Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen, Andre DeShields and Marsha Mason. Come June, he heads for Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, from whence cometh Hairspray, to do Catch Me If You Can with "all the Hairspray guys" (Shaiman, Wittman, Mitchell, Rockwell, Posner) — and Norbert Leo Butz, Wicked's Aaron Tveit "and, I think, Kerry Butler. Then, I go to London with Jerry to do three sequels to Phantom of the Opera."

Choreographer Mitchell admitted a brush-up rehearsal about an hour before the last performance might have had something to do with the high-octane level of trouping that resulted. "It was very unreal to watch the show. As Jack said to the company afterward, 'All shows close — we know that — but it's about taking what you have gotten from this show on to your next experience.' We all did this because we were in love with the show. We didn't do it expecting it to run for six and a half years. Not only have we given a great deal to a great many people, we have given a great deal to ourselves because we did it for love. It's cliché to say, but that's the truth."

At one point in the evening, a reporter rushed up to Shaiman and assured him that his songs after six and a half years growth loomed a little like evergreens. "Thank you," the composer said with a kind of desperate sincerity. "Unfortunately, if I don't get to the bathroom in about four seconds, this is going to be a very disturbing interview."