A Word In Edgewise: “Hairspray” – Timeless To Us

From the first burst of “Good Morning, Baltimore” to the final bedazzled strains of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the Orpheum was a-roar, recently, with the gleeful din of Hairspray, the crowd responding with energy rivaling the cast’s.

Once again, Nicki Metcalf, as irrepressible, plus-sized teen, Tracy Turnblad, chafing under the watchful eye of ur-mother-hen Edna, played by the equally irrepressible and stentorian Andrew Levitt, pleads, “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” determined one day to break free and dance with chosen teens on TV on the Corny Collins Show, (whites only, except the once-a-month “Negro Day”…this is 1962 Baltimore).

While a comedy, Hairspray’s themes embrace racism, body shaming, wealth elitism, bullying, and, of course, gender. Edna’s role was always written for a male actor, and as Levitt (aka Nina West) has said, “I’m just a big ol’ man in a dress, and I celebrate that.”

It’s interesting in a world where drag queens who read stories to little kids have come under the censure of vocal, aggressive groups posing far more danger. After all, most of us grew up surrounded by drag artists including Warner’s Bugs Bunny (who introduced grand opera to many), or Klinger, a-swish in M.A.S.H., or Tony Curtis’s Josephine and Jack Lemmon’s Daphne in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in 1959. A decade later, there were drag queens at Stonewall, bringing reality to action.

Drag performances started as early as 1783 among the (then all-male) Harvard University students, when budding poet James Russell Lowell donned skirts, while on December 13, 1844, The Hasty Pudding Club’s first drag theatrical, the “tragic burlesque” Bombastes Furioso, in which Distaffina displayed “a low neck and short sleeves.”

The original Hairspray was written and directed by Baltimorian John Waters in 1988. Aimed at a broader audience than earlier, edgier works, it received Waters’s sole PG rating. It starred Ricki Lake as Tracy, Divine as mama Edna, and included Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, and Jerry Stiller.

The film’s 2002 adaptation as a Broadway musical went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical in 2003, and a second film, an adaptation of that stage adaptation, was released in 2007.

Essentially, where there have been men, there has been drag, though this is not the moment for an exhaustive century-spanning study. And drag, in the persona of Edna Turnblad, is not the sole reason for the play’s popularity. As seen on the Orpheum stage and elsewhere, it is Hairspray’s heady blend of joy, hope, and energy tackling concrete issues of racism, body-shaming, and the right to pursue individual happiness that charm. Still, the role of Edna Turnblad, always intended to be played by a man, may be considered a linchpin. All of the yearnings in all of the disaffected and excluded young people are realized in Edna and husband Wilbur’s duet, “(You’re) Timeless to Me.”

Alone together onstage, away from the others’ teeming energy, Edna, the frumpy housewife who once yearned to be a clothing designer, and Wilbur, who runs a joke shop, sing their love to one another. Their kind of love song; sly, raunchy, straight from the heart.

In 2002, Hairspray was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

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