Los Angeles Times
July 11, 2004


America, seen in a 'Hairspray' haze
Give me high heels, big wigs, a fat suit and a song, and the country is mine.
Author: Bruce Vilanch

"A veteran comedy writer with limited theater experience." That's what another newspaper, also called the Times but on another coast many thousands of miles to the east of Los Angeles, called me last July in announcing my being cast as Edna Turnblad, housewife-superstar of the musical based on John Waters' beloved "Hairspray."

Me, who worked summer stock even before I was a former game show star. Me, who played every Stubby Kaye role in musical comedy history, some even Stubby forgot he played. Me, who single-handedly kept an equity-waiver musical about singing, dancing, wisecracking alcoholics running for an entire L.A. summer in a theater without air conditioning or parking, Sunday matinees included. Me limited!

I pick myself up off the floor and go to rehearsal anyway.

Soon I am surrounded by the rest of the cast, all younger than myself, most of whose professional experience consists of impersonating cats or French revolutionaries. We are starting our odyssey as the first national tour of "Hairspray," the big, fat musical hit about big, fat musical people who integrated television in Baltimore in 1962. Being big, fat and musical myself, I know I'll fit right in.

The next day

The swelling is going down and the physical therapist says if I keep putting ice on the knee, the elbow, the ankle, the wrist and the shoulder, I should be able to get rid of the bedpan and make it across the room to the john by the middle of the week. Musicals have clearly gotten more physical. You never saw Ethel Merman doing step aerobics.

Truthfully, it wasn't the dancing that got to me, or the singing. It was the breathing and the fact that you must keep doing that in order to do the other things.

I know Rex Harrison was a big musical star who couldn't sing, but clearly he managed to breathe. And where is he today when I need him for tips? And I would have been OK, but the high heels got to me. See, I'm playing a woman in this show don't ask, just assume a Zen patience and go with it. Edna wears heels a lot of the time. Also a fat suit, which I need about as much as Michael Moore, and many towering wigs, all of which combine to give me a center of gravity known only to Godzilla. One wrong move and I take out the Tokyo train station.

The real culprit in all this is not even the costume designer but the choreographer, that malicious spawn of Gwen Verdon and Satan. I have to keep reminding myself that, no matter how much they love the show, the audience will not ask us to do the same number over again seven times in a row. Only the choreographer does that, and with a big, broad grin.

A-five-six-seven-eight

The next week

Rehearsals jog right along, and I limp somewhere near them.

In the theater, we waste not a moment of a jam-packed day. Unlike movies or TV, where hours can drift away while virtually nothing is done (except by the lighting people), every nanosecond of the rehearsal day is utilized. Also unlike a movie set, where something wonderful called "craft services," featuring a horn of plenty of snacks, is spread out mere inches from the camera, rehearsal breaks in the theater are taken near a machine that will cheerfully sell you a bottle of water for a buck and change.

On a movie set, you are more or less indispensable if you catch cold or get a hangnail, and it's a good reason for the entire company to shut down and go to Palm Springs. In the theater, your understudy is watching you, gimlet-eyed, from the shadows. They have all memorized the legend of Shirley MacLaine, who went on for the star the night the big Hollywood producer was in the audience.

Understudies the world over have made Shirley rich by buying her spiritual books, hoping they can somehow tap into her karma.

Three weeks later

Just when you finally feel you've got a grip on your role, the production plunges into technical rehearsals, which is where they add the lights, the sets, the sound all of which makes you forget who you are playing, what you are saying and why you're even bothering. To enrich the merriment, we're doing all of this in Newark, N.J., where you can step outside for a quick breath of air and the prolonged coughing fit that must follow, hoping none of the passing gangs will interpret your flailing hand gestures as dissing signs and come back later for retribution.

Tonight we perform the show for our first audience: The "Hairspray" cast from Broadway. In a spirit of show business bonding, they laugh at nothing except the things that go wrong.

But they have plenty to laugh at, including ironing boards that fall over, phones that don't ring and wigs that fly off my head during my smartly executed dance moves. No wonder Yul Brynner stayed bald.

Baltimore

We're opening here because it's the town where "Hairspray" takes place and also because this is John Waters country.

The man who created the movie that serves as the source for our show lives and works here and is its biggest cultural icon, along with Cal Ripken Jr., which should give you some idea of how weird a place Baltimore really is.

John says everyone here is insane but they all think they're perfectly normal. As their only previous literary icon is Edgar Allan Poe, John is viewed by the locals as a sober citizen. The mayor of Baltimore, who is slightly less popular than John, comes onstage after the show to give him a plaque his home is now decorated exclusively in honors given him by the city of Baltimore and the festivities are cut short by Hurricane Isabel, which announces her presence with a fearsome thunderbolt that cuts all the power. The skies open up and Baltimore's inner harbor rises to flood much of the downtown area and cancel the next day's performances.

So far we're a smash.

Hartford

Of Hartford it can be said, 'It's no Baltimore.' I don't know what it means, either, but you get the idea. Be happy you live in L.A.

Baltimore, odd place that it is, does have two things going for it. One, they love John Waters, and they get every single local reference in "Hairspray." It's doubtful the phrase "Essex Community College" will ever get as big a laugh, or any laugh at all, anywhere else on the planet.

Two, as odd a town as it is, Baltimore definitely has local color, something no one will ever accuse Hartford of having. The economy is dominated by the insurance business, so I move for dismissal, your honor. As punishment for my working on the Jewish New Year, a prop chicken I do some business with in the second act refuses to do the business we've rehearsed. So I just look at the audience and say, "Some chickens just don't work on Jewish holidays." It turns out to be the biggest laugh of the night.

Cincinnati

A critic here does a lengthy comparison of me and Harvey Fierstein, who played the same role in the Broadway production to riotous acclaim. I don't know why a critic in Cincinnati bothers to do such a thing, since almost no one who's reading his review will have the opportunity to see both Harvey and me. But I used to be a critic in Chicago, so what do I know?

I don't have much of a chance to think about this, though, because Cincinnati is where an interviewer from another paper asks the following: "There was a movie made about you a few years ago, 'Get Bruce.' It was released by Miramax, the studio run by Harvey Weinstein. How did Harvey Weinstein have time to run a studio and also star on Broadway in 'Hairspray'?"

I swear to you I am not making this up. I will never forget Cincinnati.

Providence

Things were moving along swimmingly tonight when the phone rang in the middle of a scene and I went to answer it as I always do but there was no phone. The prop man had neglected to put it on the table in its usual spot.

It's tough to answer a phone that isn't there. Existential, and tough.

So I picked up a powder puff off a nearby shelf and announced to the audience: "At this performance, the role of Phone will by played by Powder Puff." At this point, a burly hand thrust a telephone from out of the wings and dropped it on the table. I looked at Powder Puff. "You're fired," I said, putting her back in her place.

If Donald Trump ever plays Edna, he's now got his big scene.

Rochester

Of Rochester it can be said 'It is no Hartford,' which, as you will recall, means it is also no Baltimore and so really no more need be said about Rochester. Except that during one number in the show someone says the Hebrew expression "Shabbat shalom," which may mark the only time this expression has been uttered on the stage of the Rochester Auditorium with the possible exception of a bus-and-truck company of "Fiddler on the Roof" that got lost in a snowstorm between Toronto and New York and wound up parking its wagons and putting on a show for the local farmers who paid them in root vegetables and small bits of string.

Chicago

Great town, great audiences, great reviews, temperatures that do not reach double digits for nine weeks.

On Dec. 30, my dresser, a spooky sort who still believes in his heart of hearts that Miss Cleo really knew what she was talking about, reminds me that the theater we are playing is on the site of the Iroquois Theatre, a spectacular showplace that burned down 100 years ago to the day, causing a great many deaths and a wholesale revision of theatrical safety laws.

Curiously, no one in Chicago is observing this. Duh. More curiously, every theater built on the site (there have been two since) has had to employ the same basic floor plan because of the way the site is configured. So you can actually retrace some of the steps people took on the fateful day. And of course, there are ghosts.

Every theater has ghosts, but this one has more than the usual claim. Of course, no one notices any of them until they are told they might see some, and suddenly it's like a casting call for "The Addams Family." Every creak, groan or flush is Sarah Bernhardt rattling her chains or some old Brunhilde running scales or the faint, plaintive bark of a dead-dog act.

How come none of these people is haunting the William Morris Agency?

St. Louis

The theater here seats 5,400 people, many of them evidently somewhere across the Mississippi River in Illinois.

The orchestra pit is larger than the swimming pool at Aaron Spelling's house (the main pool, not the servants') and somewhere beyond the dim and distant figure of the conductor you can barely make out the audience on the opposite shore. They hear us, because they seem to be laughing, but it takes a moment for the sound to get back to the stage. Or it could be the delay it takes for the translator to put it in whatever language they speak on the far side of the orchestra pit.

Minneapolis

One of the actors faints onstage tonight. It's just low blood sugar, and it happens during a rare serious moment, so the audience thinks it's part of the action. I would like to bend over and help him, but I can't because I am in the fat suit, pantyhose, wig, etc., and if I go over, there's no getting up. The audience knows this and finds it very amusing when I try, further convincing them this is all a part of the action.

After a moment, the actor gets up and strolls offstage under his own steam. This, of course, was not supposed to happen, which the audience figures out when there's dead silence on the stage because the next line was his.

At moments like this, it's good to know we have a Homeland Security department, because you can always blame stopping the show on them.

Denver

I really thought nothing could faze me now, several hundred shows under my pantyhose. But I had not reckoned with performing Edna at 5,000 feet.

Remember the breathing thing back in rehearsals? I must now move from breathing to extreme breathing, which is a sport even "Fear Factor" fears to factor. Management has kindly placed oxygen tanks on each side of the stage, but it sort of defeats the purpose when you have to wait in line for them.

The whole backstage area resembles a very modern emergency room, with lots of resuscitation devices. I think we owe that to a ballet company, which has just pranced through town. They keep telling me my body will adjust. But meanwhile we all have to keep muffled so they don't hear the pitiful wheezing out front.

The next week

My body has adjusted, but I'm leaving town. Just when I had acquired the lung power to move to Aspen and become an industrial-strength snow bunny. We're heading for Los Angeles which, at least in all the disaster movies I've seen, still seems to be at sea level, which means I should now be able to hold a note until sometime next Tuesday, at which point I'll take a breath and continue on till the weekend.

Who knows what Hollywood will bring? In my dreams, I am the toast of the coast. But right before I wake up, Meryl Streep gets the movie.

*

'Hairspray'

Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Opens July 21. 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Sept. 5

Price: $27 to $87

Contact: (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-7878