LOS ANGELES — “Hairspray” has always been a peppy musical about a “pleasantly plump” teen in Baltimore who becomes a local superstar, brings her city together and gets the boy.
It’s cutesy and fun on the surface but a deeper look reveals the musical as a dark comedy fighting against racial segregation in 1962. While the musical may seem dated in its wardrobe and copious amounts of hairspray, the airing of NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” on Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. feels oddly current.
In light of the recent election, it’s a sad reminder of life, yet again, imitating art.
The Washington Blade was able to speak with some of the cast and visit the set of “Hairspray Live!” at Universal Studios in California. A brightly colored version of Baltimore lives on the West Coast filled with fake storefronts of the iconic “Hairspray” locations such as Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway and Motormouth Records. The set of the “Corny Collins Show,” originally based on the real life “The Buddy Deane Show” which aired on WJZ in Baltimore, and the Turnblad living room stood empty waiting for the cast to bring them to life.
The cast was brimming with excitement for the show and some of the younger cast members bonded eating chips and salsa at Ariana Grande’s house the night before.
Harvey Fierstein, who reprises his Broadway role as Edna Turnblad and penned the NBC teleplay, was invited to join.
“Last night, they were texting me at 11 o’clock. All the kids were at Ariana’s house having a party. ‘Harvey, come on out. Come on out,’” Fierstein says. “I’m old. Leave me alone. I’m in bed.”
Baltimore native John Waters’ quirky mind gave birth to the original 1988 film. However, “Hairspray Live!” promises to be closer to the 2002 Broadway version with its teleplay. Fans of the original film won’t be disappointed though if they spy for Easter eggs on set like Divine Pet Food, Edie’s Eggs and Dairy and Waters Plumbing.
One thing for sure is that the events of the musical ring true now more than the last go around.
“Those kids in 2002, we had to educate them about segregation,” Fierstein says. “The black kids would sit out in the hall while the white kids rehearsed, and they started getting a very weird feeling. People started getting very territorial. There was a fight over Little Inez’s doll, whether it would be prettier if it was a white girl’s doll. We were feeling that stuff, and that stuff was foreign. It had to be brought to the show because it was not part of who they were growing up. This group of kids, very unfortunately knows it’s true, and we don’t have to educate them about it.”
Fierstein and Martin Short, who plays Wilbur Turnblad, find themselves concerned but also oddly optimistic about the evolution of the LGBT community under a Donald Trump presidency.
“You know, Donald … I mean I sat with him at a gay wedding. He was not happy to be there … but he was there at the gay wedding,” Fierstein says.
“I think the interesting thing about Donald Trump, who I’ve never met, is we don’t know very much about him,” Short adds. “We know that in 2009 you can see him sitting with Wolf Blitzer praising the genius of Hillary and Bill Clinton. We know that he was a Democrat. We know that he was always pro-choice. So I think that there’s so much opportunism tied to what he is that I’m sure that in private he is much less what his policies will be.”
Fierstein has donned the wig and dress as Edna more than 1,000 times and says he first prepared for the role by following women around at the mall. While both Fierstein and Edna are firecrackers in their own right, he couldn’t help but feel the gender difference.
“I do love that nurturing side of Edna, and I love being around the cast and the kids that way,” Fierstein says. “And I adore her. But there’s a sadness about her that I love too. I’ve always been an overweight person, and to be an overweight woman is different than being an overweight man.”
Grande and Kristin Chenoweth also felt the weight of the timing of the musical and the election. Grande plays Penny Pingleton, Tracy Turnblad’s friend who falls for a black boy named Seaweed, played by Ephraim Sykes of “Hamilton.” Grande, a “Hairspray” super fan, can hardly contain her excitement about taking on her dream role of Penny. Meanwhile Chenoweth is Velma Von Tussle, the show’s racist antagonist. Chenoweth, a veteran Broadway performer, is more quietly understated about her role but her eyes light up when discussing the show’s significance.
While their onscreen relationship couldn’t be further apart, the pair couldn’t have been closer offset, often seen walking arm and arm together.
“I love her like she’s my own kid,” Chenoweth says of Grande.
For these songstresses “Hairspray Live!” airing in a post-Trump world had to happen.
“I think it’s cosmic,” Grande says. “I think it was meant to be. I think the universe had a plan and was like, ‘OK, we need to show these people something uplifting but that will also make you get the point.’ It’s a beautiful show. It’s touching.”
Chenoweth agrees and said her role as an LGBT ally is all the more important.
“It’s interesting being a person — not to get weird — a person of faith, a woman in show business in the 21st century. I guess I have to keep saying those words right there. Because to me, whatever God is to us, we have to be. God is love. And it seems like the opposite of that happens a lot. Instead of acceptance and love, not tolerance, acceptance. That’s my message,” Chenoweth says.
Grande and Jennifer Hudson (Motormouth Maybelle) will be giving “Hairspray” their own twist by singing “Come So Far,” written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The song appeared in the 2007 movie version. Both Grande and Hudson admit they are excited for the duet. While “Come So Far” is an upbeat tune, Grande and Chenoweth say “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Hudson inside Motormouth Records, is an emotional rollercoaster.
This isn’t Hudson’s first time in a period musical. However, the mental preparation involved is completely different.
“When I was doing ‘Dreamgirls,’ I had to go back and look at what was happening in the ‘60s,” Hudson says. “I don’t find myself having to do that now. It’s like, turn on the news. It helps us in a way because now we can relate in this day and age. I think it gives the story that much more power and meaning. To us, this is normal. But now, we won’t necessarily see it that way.”
During a panel discussion with the creative team, moderator Dave Karger asked why “now is a good time for ‘Hairspray.’”
Director Kenny Leon couldn’t help but laugh.
“Oh, wow. Man, where were you last Tuesday?” Leon joked. “It’s actually a blessing to be in the throngs of this after last week. And it’s emphasized the role of artists in our world. And so it gave me an opportunity to talk to the company about the importance of what we do.”
The importance of Hollywood’s role as a source of comfort is being highlighted now more so than in recent years. Out actor Billy Eichner, who makes a special appearance as Rob Barker, and Paul Vogt, who plays Mr. Spritzer, see “Hairspray” as especially healing for the LGBT community.
“It was created by John Waters, which is like a gay icon and has always been a great voice,” Eichner says. “He has always been very outspoken about being gay and gay issues and diversity in his casts and the characters. And ‘Hairspray’ is about outsiders, you know? And it’s a great musical and gay people like a great musical.”
“What everyone else considers the normal world that’s his outsiders so I think he likes to show the outsiders and say, ‘Yeah, you have a right to be here’ and a lot of homosexuals and LGBT we feel like the outsiders but we’re not. We’re the same as everybody else and we should be able to just feel that way. I think that ‘Hairspray’ gives you that voice and I think John Waters gives you that,” Vogt adds.
For Vogt, comedy is essential in getting through tough political times.
“You can yell at people and yell at people and disagree with them and fight with them, but then when you do it through comedy, sometimes they’ll hear you,” Vogt says.
Fierstein thinks “Hairspray” is the perfect vehicle for getting that message across.
“The wonderful thing about ‘Hairspray’ is it’s so gentle in its storytelling. It’s the right message. We don’t beat you up,” Fierstein says.
A common thread the cast seemed to share, besides an unwavering passion for “Hairspray,” is that keeping the laughter going keeps hope alive.
“I hear there’s going to be a man playing the mother,” Fierstein jokes. “But I didn’t check anyone else’s penises or vaginas.”
“Well that’s what wrap parties are for,” Short says.
While the cast prepares for the show, so is the actual city of Baltimore. In celebration of “Hairspray Live!” the city will offer “Hairspray” character-inspired cocktails at many of Baltimore’s bars and restaurants. Local hotels will also offer packages with discounts in honor of the show. For a complete list of “Hairspray” activities, visit baltimore.org.
Shaw’s Tavern (520 Florida Ave., N.W.) will also hold a special watch party from 7 p.m.- 1 a.m. with a “Hairspray” sing-along before and after the show.
Catch the rest of the cast including newcomer Maddie Bailie (Tracy Turnblad), Dove Cameron (Amber Von Tussle), Garrett Clayton (Link Larkin), Sean Hayes (Mr. Pinky), Derek Hough (Corny Collins), Andrea Martin (Prudy Pingleton), Rosie O’Donnell (Health Ed Teacher) and Shahadi Wright Joseph (Little Inez) in “Hairspray Live!’