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Lead actors enjoying their big roles in ‘Hairspray’
By Pat Craig

Anyone who has battled a problem with too much weight can share the giddiness of Bruce Vilanch and Keala Settle, the two big stars of the “Hairspray” production opening in previews Wednesday in San Francisco.

Vilanch, better known as a big, bearded star of “Hollywood Squares,” has shaved his face and legs to play the role of Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad, played by Settle. He also has to eat a big meal after each performance to maintain the size required for the role.

Both Vilanch and Settle gleefully report that they must don “fat suits” for the show.

The Turnblads are large gals in the ’60s musical based on the film by John Waters, and both are thrilled that, for the run of the play, anyway, fat is where it’s at in the theatrical spotlight.

“In a weird sort of way, I’m being celebrated for my weight and being accepted for being me,” says Settle, who took over the Tracy role in the touring “Hairspray” production in Arizona in mid-April. “I’m not out with picket signs about it or anything, but it’s very different. Just look at the magazines to see what the society we live in usually looks at.”

But, truth be told, after her first round of auditions, Settle, then weighing 300 pounds, was told to drop 25 or 30 pounds if she wanted to be considered for the role. That was after an initial “cattle call” audition in Los Angeles, where Settle was selected for the series of callbacks. She went to seven or eight of them before being flown to New York, where the producers liked what they saw, but mentioned that she needed to lose weight.

“Not for the part, but for my own health and well-being. They were concerned about my stamina, because the show is about two hours and 45 minutes long, and Tracy is onstage about 21/2 hours of that,” she says. “I’m Polynesian, and we ain’t skinny. But when they told me to lose weight, even though they didn’t promise anything else but another callback, I was ready to do it. I was chasing a lifetime dream.”

When they checked in on her about four months later, Settle had dropped 40 pounds and was summoned back to New York City, where she won the role of standby to the road-show Tracy character. Then the road-show Tracy was called to Broadway, and Settle donned the fat suit and bouffant hair as the star of the show.

It’s a suit that delights Vilanch, who says that once he had it on, he was astounded by how much he looked like his Aunt Pauline.

“Or maybe Aunt Blanche Vilanch,” he says. “You know my family was totally nonplused when they saw me the first time, with how much I looked like those ladies from the early ’60s, the era where women wore gloves and dresses to go grocery shopping.”

Vilanch is the ’60s Baltimore housewife who presides over her family in changing times. Daughter Tracy dreams of being a dancer on “The Corny Collins Show,” a local TV dance party. But before her efforts are close to reaching full tilt, she’s in the midst of a movement to racially integrate the show (and, for her own part, to win the affections of the show’s heartthrob, Link Larkin).

The show is filled with early ’60s-style music and dialogue (pop-history experts coached the younger members of the cast on the subtleties of some of the lines and lyrics, Settle says). But what has made the show a hit, in addition to the infectious music that ranges from do-wop to the Beatles, is the pure energy of the show.

During the first week of rehearsals, Settle says she lost 10 pounds, and Vilanch may occasionally drink a post-show milkshake to maintain his figure. It’s the first time, he recalls, being urged to eat.

“A real red-letter day,” he says.

For Vilanch, a starring role in a Broadway musical is a huge midlife career switch. Although he performs occasionally, he is best known for his work as a comedy writer. When he has traveled with shows before (aside from a one-man piece he wrote after his “Squares” success), it has been as a backstage writer for customers such as Bette Midler.

Now, though, he’s the one wearing pantyhose in the spotlight — a feat, he claims, that takes a cherry-picker crane to accomplish.

Actually, his road-show debut came at no small sacrifice. He had to remove the beard that has been a part of him for most of his adult life. He shaved it off during an appearance on the Regis and Kelly show, because he didn’t want to be alone and possibly depressed when he denuded the lower half of his face.

“I always thought there was a thin-faced person underneath the beard, so I was surprised when I saw all those jowls,” Vilanch says. “It looked like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s lost relatives. Those jowls, I’ve got them in spades. But people have said I look much younger. And now, I’ve made shaving part of the whole ritual of putting the Edna costume on.”

The process of going from Bruce to Edna takes something over an hour and involves not only a fat suit, wig and dress, but a pair of high-heeled shoes and a completely different body.

“It’s a matter of finding my center of gravity when I get all that weight on me,” he says. “With the wig and heels, I feel kind of like Godzilla. But I didn’t get into the full costume until technical rehearsals. Before that, I was walking around in heels and a rehearsal skirt, having a great time. Then I put everything on and it hit me like a land mine. It was a totally strange feeling tottering around the stage as a woman.”

Aside from sharing a family name onstage, Vilanch and Settle have another thing in common — this is their first big road show, and both of them are enjoying it.

“I’m loving it,” says Vilanch. “I get to see America, and this cast is a particularly wonderful, young and energetic group. And the play is a lot of fun, not like slogging through a Greek tragedy every night and having to get up onstage and kill your children.”