Saturday, September 29, 2007

Musings on Hairspray Movie and Hairspray Stage

So onto a subject from left field, a replay of an episode from The View at the end of summer got me thinking. It was from the pre-release of Hairspray media blitz with guests John Travolta and Queen Latifah.

A Man in Sheep’s Clothing
In it, John Travolta was asked why his character was played by a man in woman’s clothing. His answer was that this is basically the way the conceit of the show because of the original film.

I beg to differ. Now, I’ve never seen the original film. I’ve seen Hairspray on stage twice and the musical movie in theaters several times . . . I guess that’s as many versions as I need to be familiar with before I die. But the reason for this creative bit of casting was always more than a gimmick to me. It was watching Bruce Vilanch during “You’re Timeless to Me” on tour that I got it.

When I brought my mom to the movie, she turned to me and said of Edna Turnblad, “That is the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”

That’s the point. Yay, she got it. She makes me so proud.

The story is about accepting people for who they are, no matter what they look like—skin color, weight, whatever. Edna Turnblad is not only a hefty hideaway bargain hunter, she’s extremely, ah, funny looking. But her husband worships the ground she walks on. After all these years—despite the weight gain—he’s still madly in love with her.

And once we get a chance to meet her, we love Edna too. She melts our hearts, no matter what she looks like, and in the end, she learns to love and embrace herself as well.

And that’s the point. If the Von Tussles ever gave Tracy a chance, they’d adore her. But they immediately dismiss her because of her size. We get the chance to know and adore Edna Turnblad as well. The conceit of a man playing the part fits into the development of the theme. It is far more than a gimmick.

Vlema vs. Velma
In the stage version, I really liked that the Von Tussles came around at the end and learned to shake their fanny muscles. It is a tad out of left field, but the characters are more childish and uninformed on stage, so you can easily forgive them when they see the light and learn that you really can’t stop the beat. It seems very fitting.

In the movie, however, that would have been an uneasy transition. Amber Von Tussle basically comes to realize that she is the one in the wrong, seen through her eyes in the final scene. Velma in the movie, though, is far too nasty to allow for such a turnaround. I think there are two key reasons for this.

First of all, it is the writing. Velma does more evil in the movie. When she slams Edna in the restaurant with that comment on Edna’s weight, she’s really cruel. Not only is it rude, it deeply hurts Edna, who has come so far in accepting how she looks since her weight gain. After all, this is a woman who has not come out of her house for many years in fear of her weight.

Velma goes as far as to break up Tracy’s family by attempting to seduce Wilbur. Again, unlike the movie, this is more than just trying to defend her understanding of life, this is wickedness. It’s believable that Movie Velma would attempt this, but it is still wicked. So because these two scenes are added in the movie, Velma crosses the line too far to go back by the end of the movie.

Another large factor is that Michelle Pfeiffer is not a character actress. What this means is that Velma becomes a more calculated cruel. Stage Velma is usually played by a character actress who says and does cruel things but always couched by a tinge of caricature, while Movie Velma isn’t so caricatured, if at all. Stage Velma is comparable to, say, Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove, while Movie Velma you could imagine shouting slurs at the Little Rock Nine as they tried to go to school.

We hope—and have to expect—that many of those people shouting at the Little Rock Nine have since seen the light, but they probably didn’t do so after a well-written song on the subject.

David Edelstein, in his commentary on CBS Sunday Morning (in which he also implied he was about the only straight man who likes musicals . . . which makes me mad), criticized the film’s “pop” music.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll just say it again. People criticize Hairspray for having pop music, but it is no more pop than the ragtime tunes in Ragtime or the flapper stylings of Jeanine Tesori’s Thoroughly Modern Millie. At one point, songs in these styles were popular, but they are not pop anymore. There’s nothing any more generic about 60’s pop than there is about 00’s pop or 20’s pop.

Furthermore, like those other shows, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s music for Hairspray is written in the musical vernacular of the characters. Tracy Turnblad is a typical teenage girl in the early 1960s—she’s not going to be belting out “Good Morning Baltimore” like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Just because we all like theatre doesn’t mean that that is the musical vernacular of every character to appear on a Broadway stage.

It’s easy to see Shaiman and Wittman’s skill in doing this because the songs performed primarily by adults are not in the pop vernacular. Velma Von Tussle’s “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” while orchestrated to fit in with the other songs, is definitely not in the same vein as the songs performed by the teens. Similarly, “The Big Dollhouse,” while tons of fun, is more of a traditional theatre song. “(You’re) Timeless to Me” and “I Know Where I’ve Been” are also fitting the older characters singing them.

the Broadway Mouth
September 29, 2007

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