It’s About Time: An Interview with Bruce on Hairspray

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It takes more than hairspray
09:17 AM EST on Monday, November 10, 2003
The Quincy Patriot Ledger

Can a big girl with a big heart and big hair realize her dreams of TV dance-show stardom and win the man she loves?

Can she make sense of her wildly eccentric, agoraphobic mother, Edna?

And, by the way, how does a guy named Bruce become a dame named Edna Turnblad?

Bruce Vilanch, a veteran comedy writer, is at PPAC in the Hairspray role that earned Harvey Fierstein a Tony award on Broadway.

Becoming Edna means “no rest” and “getting physical,” Vilanch says. On a given night, he goes through seven full-on costume changes, dons a fat-suit and an inexhaustible supply of gaudy accessories, and prays that his practice walking in high heels doesn’t elude him.

Vilanch had to shave the thick beard he’d had for decades — “I discovered I had jowls!” — and get in touch with his feminine side.

“High heels, yeah,” Vilanch laughed. “It’s a whole different center of gravity, and you’ve just got to stand tall. I never realized how much they elongate your body, and with the rotundity of Edna, well, let’s just say the most relaxing part of the show is when I’m actually on stage.”

Over the course of 30 years, Vilanch has emerged as one of the most in-demand comedy writers in the business. He has written for almost every major awards show, including 15 Academy Awards telecasts, and collected six Emmy awards.

A humorist, essayist and satirical philosopher, Vilanch was the subject of a comical documentary, Get Bruce!, and appeared on TV’s Hollywood Squares for three seasons.

Stepping into the role of Edna Turnblad doesn’t mean imitating Harvey Fierstein, Vilanch said in a recent telephone interview, but rather applying his own background to the flamboyant matriarch.

“Harvey is one of a kind,” he said. “But this is a show with tremendous emotion and heart, and you don’t need my background in comedy or really any performance background to be able to see that.”