HAPPY 20TH, HAIRSPRAY! By Peter Filichia
When you think of it, HAIRSPRAY will actually be celebrating two anniversaries this week.
Twenty years have passed since the musical theater aficionados met the Turnblads of Baltimore. And aren’t we glad we did?
In his 1988 film, John Waters gave us irrepressible teen Tracy Turnblad that songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman beautifully musicalized a dozen years later. Here was a girl who came from a poor family and wasn’t a likely Queen of the Prom contender. And yet, she woke up full of optimism in “Good Morning, Baltimore.” In the two decades since the song’s debut, it has become somewhat of an anthem for the beleaguered city.
Of course, teenage girls often war with their parents, so Tracy and her friend Penny – and her enemy Amber – remind their mothers “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.” It’s a terrific song, but did you know that one of its best lines was dropped?
An early demo reveals that the teens originally sang, “Mom, you’re always telling me to act my age. Well, that’s just what I’m trying to do!”
Don’t we all wish that we, as teenagers, had had the presence of mind to say that to our parents when they levied that “Act your age!” charge against us? Indeed, we were acting our ages, but our mothers and fathers nevertheless expected us to be more mature. Had the lyric been retained, the many teenager HAIRSPRAY groupies would have been grateful for the solid counterargument.
“Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” suffered an even more ignominious fate in the 2007 HAIRSPRAY film; there, the entire song was dropped. Luckily, when HAIRSPRAY LIVE! became an NBC special in 2016, the song (and sanity) returned. Thus, the rollicking hit can be heard and savored on both the original cast album and TV soundtrack.
Tracy’s mother Edna would be the first to admit that she should have let herself stop before she let herself go. Now she’s so ashamed of her appearance that she rarely goes out. Tracy proves herself a worthy daughter in getting her mother out of both her housedress and house en route to a happier fate.
“Welcome to the 60’s,” Tracy sings, and Edna soon gets a miraculous makeover. No question that even the theatrical film knew enough to keep that pulsating earworm.
How ironic that HAIRSPRAY played the same theater where a show with similar sensibilities opened – ANNIE.
That classic is also celebrating a significant anniversary this year, too: its 45th. (Can you believe that Andrea McArdle is now a grandmother?)
Just as ANNIE brings rich and poor together, HAIRSPRAY does the same for black and white. The apotheosis comes in “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” one of the great eleven o’clock numbers. Ironically, the beat does stop every now and then for a split second, allowing for some delicious tension. As the famous show business maxim goes, “Always leave ‘em wantin’ more.”
Both musicals are Cinderella stories. Tracy Turnblad’s winding up with Link Larkin may be as unlikely as Annie getting the world’s richest man to adopt her. But if you can’t have fairy tales in musical comedy, where can you have them?
Soon after ANNIE had opened at the Alvin Theatre, the large vertical sign outside the house that had spelled out A-L-V-I-N for decades was changed to A-N-N-I-E. In 1983, the Alvin was renamed for Neil Simon. Granted, the NEIL is in substantially smaller letters on the sign than is the SIMON, but HAIRSPRAY was such a major hit that it deserved to have its nine-letter title replace the nine-letter “Neil Simon” for the length of its run.
True, the two shows are very different. That they sound nothing alike is no surprise, given that the writers come from vastly different generations.
Composer Charles Strouse was born during the Hoover administration as mentioned in one of ANNIE’s songs. Lyricist Martin Charnin was slightly younger; he didn’t come on the scene until half of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term was over.
As a result, both grew up savoring the classic Broadway sound. Despite the fact that Strouse provided some rock and roll (as rock was once called) for his first hit BYE BYE BIRDIE, the bulk of that score was pure Golden Age / Great American Songbook. “Put on a Happy Face” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” were quintessential Broadway-at-the-time.
Charnin started out as a performer. Being cast as a Jet in the original cast of WEST SIDE STORY may well have subliminally drawn him to Little Orphan Annie. After all, Sondheim’s lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke” do include Annie’s favorite expression: “Leapin’ Lizards!”
Wittman wasn’t even three years old when WEST SIDE STORY opened. Shaiman had merely reached his fifth month of life when BYE BYE BIRDIE began its Philadelphia tryout. Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s afforded the two writers the opportunities to hear a good deal of rock and Motown. In HAIRSPRAY, they had the two musical genres meet and, my, did those genres get along in what became a Tony-winning score.
Room was made for one nostalgic song that became a worthy grandchild of the Big Band Era. “You’re Timeless to Me” has Edna and husband Wilbur compare notes on their marriage to a melody that matches the type of ditty that they heard on the radio when they were young.
Well, most people do have the greatest affection for music they heard in their youth. That’s why we now have so many jukebox musicals. The generation that has aged into theatergoers wants to be reminded of the songs from what is now way-back-when.
Has there ever been another musical where performers making up an entire family all won Tonys? Granted, Tracy was an only child, which meant that only three Tonys were required to reach this goal. Still, this trifecta happened thanks to Marissa Jaret Winokur as daughter Tracy (Best Actress in a Musical), Dick Latessa as paterfamilias Wilbur (Best Featured Actor in a Musical) and Harvey Fierstein, as mater (oxymoronically, Best Actor in a Musical).
Alas, neither Mark O’Donnell nor Thomas Meehan, the show’s co-librettists, is still here to celebrate the anniversary. That may have been expected of Meehan, who was already 73 when the show opened. (Five years ago, he died at 88.)
At least Meehan lived a good, long life, with ANNIE and THE PRODUCERS also on his list of achievements. But O’Donnell tragically died in 2012 at a mere 58.
I first became aware of his wit in the ‘70s when he was a librettist for Harvard University Hasty Pudding Shows. He took Knute Rockne’s famous inspirational line — “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” – and put his own more realistic spin on it:
“When things get tough, the tough get things.”
(I see his point. Don’t you?)
Meanwhile, what’s the other anniversary that HAIRSPRAY has reached? Considering that the show is set in 1962, we can celebrate 60 years of Tracy and Link’s romance. If you winced at McArdle’s grandmother status, you may very well cringe when you realize that Tracy and Link are now in their late seventies.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.