The Summer Youth Conservatory is hard at work on this summer’s production of Hairspray. This week we’re featuring “Timeless to Me: A Charm City Chronicle,” a three-part series by PlayMakers dramaturg Gregory Kable.
Hairspray captures both the reality of Baltimore at a climactic moment in its social evolution, and that utopian sense of possibility informing its variations on Cinderella stories. Amid his several works of non-fiction (“When you’re unemployable, as I am, you have to think of ways to supplement your income,” Waters explains of his creative expansions), Waters writes with humor and insight about influences ranging from Johnny Mathis to Tennessee Williams, and the original Hairspray successfully bridges the two in a work as poetic and musical as a prose, non-musical film can be. Though he confesses to initial skepticism about the transition of his film into a Broadway Musical, Waters quickly became a convert as he grasped the implications of the underdog motif which continues to faithfully anchor the narrative but now characterized the project itself. As is always the dream if more rarely the result, the creative team of Hairspray, The Musical—librettists Mark O’ Donnell and Thomas Meehan, composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—succeeded in amplifying those musical virtues that were still latent treasures in the original.
Waters’ decision to green-light the musical has added immeasurably to the delight of many a joyous audience, and implanted a retroactive memory to give my hometown a boost. Baltimore’s troubled social history with class, economics, religion, and particularly race, has never made it that appealing for artists. Granted, it’s the locale for Fanny Brice’s galvanizing diva turn, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in Funny Girl, but she’s just passing through, writer/director Barry Levinson’s (another son of the city) coming-of-age comedy Diner is mostly notable for making movie stars of Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke, veering a little too far toward sentimental nostalgia, and Al Pacino’s role as a beleaguered defense attorney in …And Justice for All caused a flurry in its time but blurs into that medley of trademarked tirades of disaffection marking Pacino highlights. Levinson returned with TV’s Homicide which largely begat The Wire, two procedural studies in urban decay, with loads of local color but windows on the soul of the city? Hardly. For that gift, we finally have to thank Hairspray.
One more point bears mentioning. The consistent tone of exaggeration in Waters has always been part of his power. Everyone in and from Baltimore is peculiar; the place is a hotbed of idiosyncrasy. If I hear you’re from Baltimore it won’t explain everything, but it sure will account for a lot. Hairspray effortlessly captures the look, sound, and tone of all manner of gentle and insistent non-conformity, as evident in Charm City’s towering beehive hairstyles as anywhere. The extreme bouffant is among Baltimore’s enduring hallmarks, as expressive of a basic love of tackiness as a visible symbol of personal yearning: in Baltimoreans, the hairdos themselves reach for the sun and the stars. So the heightened quality in this further iteration of Hairspray isn’t just the consequence of the musical treatment, but emblematic of its core fidelity. In all incarnations (film comedy, stage musical, movie musical), Hairspray is as faithful and loving a portrait as any play by Noel Coward. It offers us Baltimore as it truly is by way of what it was, a heady cocktail of wishes and warts, both speaking to and singing of its glorious eccentricities.
In conclusion, here are a few important life lessons learned from John Waters and Hairspray:
- Dare to cross those stale borders of taste and utility. Time misspent can be time well spent.
- A kid from the shoals of suburban sameness can end up a rebel—and probably should.
- Maybe there’s no insider status, really: to live on the margins might be our natural, and healthiest, habitat.
- Scratch the ordinary and you’ll discover the strangeness it only superficially conceals. The same might be said of the mundane and miraculous.
- Find the music in everything. As Tracy affirms in her opening number, “every sound’s like a symphony.”
For these and more reasons, to his many fans, the John Waters universe is a land of liberation. Thank goodness (or badness) he’s not through freeing us yet…
Bonus Track: Listen to an NPR podcast of Waters’ latest writing project, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America here.
Hairspray, presented by the PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory, runs July 16 – 21, 2014. Get tickets and info at www.playmakersrep.org/hairspray.