Hairspray Officially Opened Tonight: Baltimore Extends Love Fest to John Waters, Bruce, and the Cast

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Mister D: I am still writing about my trip, but this article got me all excited, I had to go ahead and put this up….give me a chance to get my little story ready, but in the meantime enjoy this. I am thrilled for Mister V’s new venture and it looks like he is having so much fun. I know it’s work, but when you like your work….it’s fun:-)


September 18, 2003
New York Times
Baltimore Embraces Its Offbeat Child, ‘Hairspray’

BALTIMORE, Sept. 17 ? It was just after 8 p.m. that the capacity crowd for tonight’s performance at the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in downtown Baltimore erupted in delighted roar, screaming for the song “Good Morning, Baltimore,” a catchy little tune that celebrates their city and all the rats, alcoholics and flashers therein.

The song is the first number from the hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” which is set in 1962 Baltimore and which opened a planned multiyear national tour here tonight, coming home to the city whose very grittiness inspired it.

“It makes you feel proud,” said Nancy Robusto, a Baltimore native who arrived at the theater early. “It makes you feel good that the place you grew up in is a place that people are finding funny, and interesting, even with its faults. You can make fun of something and still love it.”

Indeed, the musical’s arrival marks another step in the remarkable transformation of “Hairspray,” based on the 1988 John Waters film, from a sweetly subversive cult movie into a revered point of civic pride.

The story of a chubby teenager, Tracy Turnblad, who conquers prejudice (and the hunky male lead) by integrating a television dance show, “Hairspray” sold out its two-week run at the 1,600-seat Mechanic Theater here before tickets even officially went on sale to the public. (The theater’s subscribers and theater groups bought out the run.)

Online scalpers and those on the street have been getting several times the face value of the $75 orchestra seats, despite the lack of a big star in the cast. As in the film and on Broadway, Tracy’s mother, Edna, is played by a man, in this case, Bruce Vilanch, a comedy writer with little theater experience.

(Harvey Fierstein plays the role on Broadway, while the drag queen Divine played Edna on film.)

In the days leading up to the show’s opening, however, the hype has only increased, with the city’s downtown business development group offering “Hairspray” dance parties and lectures on big hair at the prestigious Walters Arts Museum.

A local tour guide has been staging “Hairspray” historical tours, while city salons have been offering deals on throwback 1960’s hairdos.

The city’s academics were also getting in the spirit; last Saturday, the University of Maryland School of Law played host to a sold-out panel titled “Hairspray in Context: Race, Rock and Roll and Baltimore,” which explored the movie and musical’s social value.

“I have never seen a show create so much buzz in an individual city,” said Marks Chowning, the theater’s executive director, who has managed a series of major regional theaters since 1990. “It’s a wonderful story, but its also because it’s pure Baltimore and people like that.”

All of which comes as no small irony to Mr. Waters himself, the offbeat filmic provocateur who has long portrayed his hometown as a haven of losers, oddballs and societal castaways.

“I haven’t changed,” said Mr. Waters, who will begin filming his new movie, “A Dirty Shame,” about sex addicts, in the city next month. “They’ve all changed.”

Mr. Waters, who arrived at the opening with his parents and was surrounded by photographers, has in fact been active in promoting Baltimore, appearing in a promotional advertisement featuring a photograph of Mr. Waters and the tagline, “See the city that inspired the show.”

Local media outlets have followed almost every development of the musical since spring of last year, when plans for a Broadway engagement were solidified. Since then, the Broadway production of “Hairspray,” which opened in New York in August 2002, has already earned back its $11.5 million investment, won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, and continues to sell out regularly.

The Baltimore Sun alone has done 29 articles and editorials on the show in the last two years, including an editorial that named Mr. Waters the “Marylander of the Year.”

“Until last August, Baltimore’s principal claim to fame for the year 2002 was that it led the league in Wheels Falling Off Buses,” said the editorial. “But then `Hairspray’ opened on Broadway and became a big hit ? the biggest hit of the season ? and suddenly there was a national spotlight shining down on a raucous, big-hearted, cross-dressing, mashed-potato-dancing version of the city’s hidden, happy self. Who wouldn’t feel better about that?”

While the musical takes its fair share of artistic license ? The Sun called its version of 1960’s race relations in the city a myth, though a happy one ? the musical’s central conceit is based in reality, in particular The Buddy Deane Show and its host, Winston Joe (Buddy) Deane, a 1960’s Baltimore icon whose dance show played on local television from 1957 to 1964. (Mr. Deane died in July at the age of 78; his widow attended the opening.)

The arrival of the musical “Hairspray” also seems to have offered a momentary respite from such real-life civic concerns as a high unemployment rate, an entrenched drug problem and, of course, the potential arrival of Hurricane Isabel.

“I hope this will help,” said Lola Jones, 56, who was a dancer on The Buddy Deane Show and subsequently became ? no kidding ? a prominent local hairdresser. “They are trying to bring downtown back. And they owe a lot of it to John Waters.”