Teased to perfection

Current hit ‘Hairspray’ comes to Beijing tressed for success, writes Nancy Pellegrini

With Nederlanders, Littlestar and Cameron McIntosh production com- panies all vying for turf in potentially the world’s largest theatre market, Beijingers can expect a steady stream of quality musicals. ‘Hairspray’, however, is in a class by itself. ‘It’s the rst show to be playing on Broad- way, the West End, Shanghai and Beijing at the same time,’ says Simone Genatt of Broadway Asia, the largest producing and touring company

for Broadway musicals throughout the continent. ‘It’s the most current successful musical that will come to China.’ Winner of eight Tony Awards (theatre Oscars), ‘Hairspray’ is bright, loud, colourful and lled with loveable oddball characters, including a now famous tubby teen and a shy, plus-size mother played by a man in drag. ‘The characters have a sense of humour about themselves,’ says Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics). ‘The villains are the only ones who can’t laugh at themselves.’

The show’s promotional material emphasises elaborate, gravity-defying hairdos, but the story is better – even weightier – than the marketers would have us believe. Set in Baltimore in the segregated 1960s, the self-proclaimed ‘pleasingly plump’ Tracy Turnblad has big hair and bigger dreams, namely appearing on the local teen dance programme, ‘The Corny Collins Show’. After her rst weight-related rejection, her daring ‘do’ lands her in detention, where black students teach

‘Only in John Waters’ world would the chubby girl be the star of the musical’

her some funky new moves, and she adds achieving racial harmony to
her wish list – or at least, legalising interracial dating, a crusade that lands her in jail. But good triumphs over super ciality; Tracy soundly defeats the skinny blonde competition to win

the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest, racially integrates ‘The Corny Collins’ show, nds the man of her dreams, encourages her reclusive mother to rejoin society and becomes a plus-size model.

Clearly, ‘Hairspray’ is a plot-struc- ture cut above the usual musical storyline, hailing as it does from John Waters’ 1988 lm of the same name. ‘Only in Waters’ world would the chubby girl be the star of the musical,’ says Scott Wittman, the show’s lyri- cist. While movie source material is increasingly nding its way onto the stage, ‘Hairspray’ follows an unusual path from cult classic to Broadway smash, to a second Hollywood success in 2007, and then on to the West End in time to win the 2008-09 Olivier Award for Best Musical. ‘It’s very attractive to mainstream audiences, you can bring your children and your grandparents,’ says Genatt. ‘It has something for everyone.’

As winners of both Tonys and a Grammy for ‘Hairspray’, musical col- laborators (and life partners) Shaiman and Wittman claimed that writing
this show was the easiest part of their relationship. ‘We think alike,’ says Shaiman. ‘When you’re writing lyrics, that old cliché of nishing each other’s

sentences, that really works.’ Shaiman spent decades scoring lms, including Southpark: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, proving to ‘Hairspray’ producers that he could do an ‘insane but joyful musi- cal.’ ‘What I like about Tracy is that she shows an audience how easy it is to do the right thing,’ he says of his lead character. ‘It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out inner battle, you can simply follow your conscience. And you can do it wearing fabulous clothes and singing great songs.’

However, even with ‘Hairspray’s’ comparatively complex subject matter and groaning mantle of honours,
it’s missing a certain staying power. The award-winning choreography and songs work brilliantly with the story, but lack the universality of equivalents from, say, ‘Chicago’ or ‘Sweet Charity’, shows both originally eclipsed by their music. ‘Hairspray’ is thoroughly enjoyable but somewhat forgettable; much like the product it champions, it helps you towards a perfect night out, but the next morning its hold may have weakened. See it anyway. Most of us could use a perfect night out.
‘Hairspray’ is at the Beijing Exhibition Hall from Friday 25 to Wednesday 30, see listings for details.

By NANCY PELLEGRINI

Published on July 2008 by TIME OUT BEIJING