Takes His Turn(blad)
By Michael Moeglin
Nathan Lane is quoted as having said of Bruce Vilanch that he “has given more lines to celebrities than a Hollywood coke dealer.” In fact, Lane’s cheeky assessment isn’t far from the truth.
In the course of a diverse career spanning more than three decades, Vilanch has penned reams of pithy banter and snappy one-liners for the biggest names in the entertainment business.
From Bette Midler’s seminal concert film Divine Madness and Dolly Parton’s short-lived sitcom Dolly to his much-publicized gig as the go-to gut-buster at the Academy Awards, the fuzzy funny man has made a vocation of putting words in other people’s mouths.
Vilanch now finds himself headlining the touring production of the bouncy Broadway musical Hairspray.
As the zaftig hausfrau Edna Turnblad, Vilanch has faced the unenviable task of following in the celebrated footsteps of drag superstar Divine and gay institution Harvey Fierstein, who preceded him in the role.
Recently, I caught up with the genial star to get the skinny on all things Edna, finding his inner mother, and the loss of that trademark beard.
In the past, you’ve referred to a Carol Channing Broadway musical called The Vamp as having had an enormous influence on you. What was your connection to that show?
It was the first show I saw. I think I was eight years old. It was a huge flop, and every time I mention it, Carol gets very upset. But it’s what got me into show business, I’m convinced.
The spectacle was just so grand. Everybody looked pink and happy, and there were lights and sparkles, and things flew in and flew out–I just thought it was amazing.
And it was vaguely about Hollywood. It was about silent movies, so it was combining my two favorite things, movies and plays.
I was in awe and remain so. But I had nothing to do with it. Even at eight, I didn’t write it. People said it was like it was written by an eight-year-old. It wasn’t me. Not guilty.
These days, you’re completely consumed with Hairspray.
I’m in a cloud of it.
You are just about the only gay man in the entertainment business whose beard is actually on his face.
[Laughs] And it’s gone! I couldn’t talk them into a bearded lady. Now, I’m shaving and moisturizing, and kind of developing my own queer eye.
Was that traumatic for you to lop it off? That beard has been so much a part of your image.
Well, the idea of it was. I decided that I couldn’t really shave it by myself, because if I did, I might kill myself if I didn’t like what was under it.
So, I went on Regis and Kelly, because I figured if it really was awful, I wasn’t going to kill myself. I wouldn’t give him ratings that high. He’s a very nice guy, but I don’t know her.
I thought it would kind of be a fun spectacle to lose it on the air. And it was, actually.
They brought in Sal, the demon barber of Fleet Street, and he cut me. I was bleeding, but I didn’t realize it until I looked at Kelly Ripa, who was looking at me with such horror, I felt Kathie Lee had to be standing behind me.
Then, I began to feel drippage, and I knew that something was amiss. So, it became an immediate trauma.
Once I shaved it I thought, well, I look younger. I wasn’t in love with the jowls. It’s very Hitchcockian. One critic said I have the face of a canned ham, which is kind of true.
I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to it, so I don’t know what’ll happen when I’m done with Edna, if I’m ever done with Edna. She may be my Dolly Levi.
At the moment, I’d say I’ve shaved for my art. I always said if a good part came along, I would shave, and, by golly, a great part came along.
Speaking of Edna Turnblad, did you actively pursue the part, or did the producers approach you when they were putting together the touring production?
My agents at William Morris approached me, because a casting call went out, and it was impossible to replace Harvey Fierstein, yet somebody had to. So, they called and said, “Would you be at all interested in this?”
I had told them I wanted to do some theater. Now that I was on Hollywood Squares, and I had done a one-man show and toured around with that, and I was on the other side of the lights, [I thought] it might be fun to actually get some stage work.
Once I said I was interested, there were a bunch of auditions that I had to go through. But they weren’t chasing me around, sending flowers.
Unlike the John Waters film, the stage production of Hairspray is a musical. Does Edna have to sing?
Oh, absolutely, yes. She does a big vaudeville number in the second act with her husband called “Timeless to Me,” which is quite wonderful. It’s sort of a love-song soft-shoe.
It’s not a big singing part like Max [Bialystock] in The Producers. He has a lot more to sing, and he has to really sing.
Obviously, if Harvey could play it, it’s not going to be an operatic singing part. At the beginning, I said I want to sing at least as well as Harvey, so I went to Bea Arthur for coaching. She sings in the same key.
So, you were able to cozy up to the singing pretty easily?
Yeah. I’d always sung, but I’m kind of what they call an “eccentric” singer-dancer. There used to be an actual category in the old days of people who weren’t singer singers who would plant their feet on the stage and belt, and who weren’t dancer dancers who did lots of steps, but who moved well and could hammer out a tune, and had their own style.
They were called eccentric singers, and there were a lot of big stars who were like that, like Bert Lahr. And a lot of the comics were like that. You wouldn’t put them in the middle of the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet, yet they were musical performers, and they did fine.
You’re following Divine and Harvey Fierstein in Edna’s plus-size shoes. She’s a well-known character. Was that at all intimidating? Were you able to talk to Harvey prior to taking on the part?
I talked to Harvey a lot. Harvey is an old friend, and he just said, “You’ll find your inner mother.”
And have you?
Yeah. Obviously, I can’t do it the way Harvey does it, because Harvey has that voice, and he can do tricks, and I can’t do that kind of stuff, so I have to find my own way. But at the same time, Harvey’s interpretation is different from Divine’s, because Harvey has different materials to work with.
Overall, Edna is what John Waters intended her to be–there are just different ways of approaching it. Everybody who plays the part is or is going to be a personality performer. You find out how to mold your own personality or your own stage persona into what Edna’s got.
It’s no fun being compared with Harvey, because he’s incomparable. I can’t do what he does, but I do what I do, and the audience likes it a lot. I’ve enjoyed reading reviews by critics who haven’t seen Harvey and enjoy the show nonetheless.
The farther away you get from New York, the less comparison you get. I used to be a critic for the Chicago Tribune, and I don’t understand reviewers who compare one performance to another performance that the reader has had no chance to see.
It’s an empty comparison. It doesn’t mean anything. I don’t know why they even bother. But a lot of critics are lazy. Having been one myself, I can tell you.
You are best known as a writer and a comedian. Hairspray is, I think, the first time you’ve had to carry a show as the headliner.
Well, in truth, I don’t. Carly Jibson, who plays Tracy, carries the show. It’s her show. She’s not well known, but certainly, it’s Tracy’s story from the jump. I’m just a celebrity name that [people] know. I’m billed next to [Carly]. It really is her show.
So, the producers didn’t put the entire weight of the world on your shoulders when you signed on.
No. They couldn’t, because the show wouldn’t support it. The show is not about Edna. The show is about Tracy.
I haven’t acted in anything like this in a long, long time. I did tons of musicals when I was a kid, in college, in summer stock, and all that kind of stuff, so I feel like I’m coming home to something that I’ve always done.
But since it wasn’t done on a celebrity level, nobody knows about it, really. They just assume, “Oh, he’s never done anything before.” So, let them assume what they want.
Were you able to talk with John Waters as well?
Oh, yeah. Officially, John’s a consultant on the show, which is good, because he’s around. I’ve known him for years before this from lots of other benefits and things.
He was around New York for the rehearsals, and then, he came to Baltimore for the opening. He was starting a picture the same day that we opened in Baltimore, so he was incredibly busy shooting…but we talk a lot.
Obviously, he’s in love with it. When the show first opened in Seattle when they tried it out, I went up to see it, because [composer] Marc Shaiman and [lyricist] Scott Wittman are good friends of mine, so I wanted to see what they’d done.
The night I went was the first night John had seen the show, and we sat together. At intermission he said, “This is like The Twilight Zone. All these characters I dreamt up in my kitchen are on stage in front of me, singing and dancing and carrying on.” He was having a great time.
And how much longer is the tour scheduled to carry on?
The tour will go on forever. I’m in it to the end of September at least, unless I re-up. And we’ll see. I’ll see where they’re going.
Hopefully, it will stop being the cold-cities and cold-weather tour. But you never know.
I’ve been in Minneapolis warm, and I’ve been in Minneapolis cold. And the skyways are the same. They’re air-conditioned or they’re heated.
Sort of maintaining tepid all year round. So, do you want to do more performing after the run of Hairspray ends?
Sure. Absolutely. Whatever comes along.
Hairspray was a finished product and a great success before you became involved. Even though you weren’t called in as a writer, do you have any latitude for ad-libbing in the show?
Oh, yes. There’s a section, in fact, in that song “Timeless to Me,” where we ad-lib.
Also, I changed some things as we went along that were more suited to me than to Harvey. There were a couple of jokes in there that were really dependent on having Harvey’s vocal equipment, so we did some rewriting along the way.
So, it’s a little different from New York. And in one section, I’m allowed to break the fourth wall.
And do you do so violently and with great vigor?
Uh-huh. With a big old chisel.
It sounds like you’re having a terrific time with this, and it’s dewy-fresh and exciting every night.
[Laughs] That’s true. The audience makes it that way. If they’re alive and energetic, then you get more energetic. If it’s uphill, then….
It can be a slog for everybody. But the material is so much fun, it’s impossible not to like it.
It’s very smart, and it’s got a heart. That’s what makes it so good. I mean, in a John Waters movie, the worse you are, the better.
But it doesn’t work that way on Broadway, and this combines the two. It has that edge, but at the same time, it’s a real Broadway showstopper.