Hairspray: A Big-Hearted Musical

Deidre Lang as “Motormouth Maybelle” and Company in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

That wunderkind offspring of John Waters’ 1988 subversive film, Hairspray, with its tale of a plump East Baltimore girl who achieves her dream of dancing on a local television show, is about as improbable a subject for a hit musical as you’re likely to come across.

Think about it. Tracy Turnblad is the girl in question, an overweight teenager born of an even heavier mom — famously played by Divine (original 1988 movie), Harvey Fierstein (first Broadway production and subsequent live TV film) and John Travolta (musical film). Tracy rockets from obscurity to stardom under the most unlikely of scenarios.

Set in 1962, Tracy is transformed from social outcast to sudden star when she gets the chance to dance on the popular “Corny Collins Show.” But she must use her newfound power to vanquish the reigning teen queen, win the affections of heartthrob Link Larkin and integrate a TV network, all without denting her “do.”

No small feat (not to mention no small hair).

So what is it that has made this giddy show about big women, big laughs and big, blind ambition such an unprecedented hit? A big, loving heart at its core, of course. There’s a sweet and funky tenderness at the center of this musical with a sign on the door that reads, “All outsiders welcome!”

Welcome, accepted, enabled. While not a “message” musical extravaganza, the underlying theme is one of welcoming the differences that make us human.

Good direction, a knowing book and irresistible music bring the story home. Composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman delivered a sly and splendid score while book writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan made this a hip, modern fairy-tale. Director Jack O’Brien provided the canny staging, both in this new North American Tour as well as the show’s original Broadway debut in 2002, which won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. And O’Brien reunites with Choreographer Jerry Mitchell who infuses the show with exuberant dance numbers and a showstopping performance.

But above all, to quote The Guardian, “It becomes unstoppably joyous, placing its politics (on conventional femininity and on size, as well as race and protest) alongside its joy.”

Hairspray is even more relevant than 20 years ago when it first burst onto the scene,” said O’Brien. “I always call the piece ‘sweetly subversive.’ It’s overwhelmingly joyful. The timelessness of it is because it doesn’t really belong to any period. It’s the unimaginable triumph of the heart.

“The fact that no matter how bad it gets, there’s a way out. That’s a message we need to hear again…and loud.

Mar 5-10 • Buell Theatre