Hairspray Interview: Bruce Vilanch and Keala Settle

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Hair Ball: The early 1960s twists and shouts again in ‘Hairspray’
By Chad Jones
Tri-Valley Herald

Friday, April 30, 2004 – ‘HAIRSPRAY,” the big, ebullient Broadway musical that began life as a 1988 John Waters film, is campy, funny and full of fabulous early’60s pop-tinged show tunes. But it’s also, in its wonderfully subversive way, about championing the outsider, slamming the establishment, promoting self-esteem and demanding equal rights.

The touring version of “Hairspray,” which pulled into San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre on Thursday, will have nearly a week of previews before critics arrive Wednesday to have a look at new leading lady Keala Settle, who plays Tracy Turnblad.

Tracy, the heroine of “Hairspray,” was played on film by Ricki Lake and on Broadway in a Tony Award-winning turn by Marissa Jaret Winokur. When the tour’s original Tracy, Carly Jibson, was sent to New York to take over on Broadway, understudy Settle was prepped to become the show’s new star.

Settle’s story is one of those show-biz tales that’s almost too good to believe.

A half-Polynesian who grew up in Hawaii, Settle, 28, moved to Las Vegas to work in a regional theater that never got off the ground.

“There’s theater in Vegas, but it’s community theater done in libraries or out in fields,” she says from a tour stop in Denver.

Settle heard about an open-call audition for “Hairspray” in Los Angeles, so she drove over and waited in line with 600 other hopefuls.

“You expect to sing for five seconds and then get sent home,” Settle says. “They asked if I knew the show. I lied and said I did.”

Four months and eight

callbacks later, Settle landed her first professional role as the tour understudy for Tracy, the zaftig Baltimore teen who agitates to desegregate an “American Bandstand-like TV dance show.

In short order, Settle has progressed from understudy to star, and along the way, she was asked, for health and stamina reasons, to lose 35 pounds. She lost 100 pounds and was told that if she lost any more weight, she might lose her job.

Vilanch in drag

Amid the big hair and goofy dances with names like the Madison, the Locomotive and the Stricken Chicken, “Hairspray” tells the touching story of a daughter who helps her housewife mother come out of her shell.

Tracy Turnblad’s queen-size mother, Edna, was played on film by the late drag queen

Divine and on Broadway by gravelly voiced Harvey Fierstein (another Tony winner). Finding an Edna for the tour wasn’t all that difficult, according to Tony Award-winning composers (and real-life partners of 25 years) Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

“We’ve known Bruce Vilanch for years,” Shaiman says on the phone from his Manhattan office. “He came to see the show in Seattle before we went to Broadway, and he immediately became a contender to play Edna at some point in the show’s life.”

Shaiman and Vilanch have both worked with Bette Midler for years — Shaiman as musical director and Vilanch as comedy writer. Wittman directed Vilanch’s one-man show following Vilanch’s rise to fame on the new “Hollywood Squares.”

“Bruce was an old friend, but his being cast has nothing to do with our relationship,” Wittman says on another phone line in Shaiman’s office. “He got the part because he’s suited to it. That was actually kind of a relief. We didn’t have to make any awkward phone calls.”

Catching up with Vilanch at a tour stop in Tempe, Ariz., the writer-turned-actor says he loved the role of Edna the first time he saw “Hairspray.” When word went out that producers were looking for a “large man in touch with his feminine side,” he thought he might give a Broadway musical a twirl.

“I’m more in touch with my feminine side than anyone cares to acknowledge,” Vilanch jokes. “Even better, it’s a transcendent experience hearing me sing. Think Leontyne Price with a head cold. I wanted to be able to sing as well as Harvey did on Broadway, so I went to Bea Arthur for coaching.”

Knowing that trying to imitate Divine or Fierstein would be impossible, Waters advised Vilanch, 55, to find his “inner Edna.”

“Edna is a huge character with no self-esteem and uses food as a substitute for everything,” Vilanch says. “She’s big and she’s sloppy, and by show’s end, she has received an extreme make-over. She’s Shelley Winters winning an Oscar — she’s that glamorous, that emotional.”

Vilanch goes through his own extreme make-over before each show. The first thing he had to do was shave off his famous beard, which he did on “Live with Regis and Kelly.”

A naturally hirsute fella, Vilanch has to do a lot of shaving to get into his Edna drag. He applies his own layers of base makeup, and then the makeup artists come in to work their magic.

Dancing in the aisles

After donning a fat suit and a housecoat, Vilanch is ready to play mother to Settle’s Tracy.

“I just love working with Keala,” Vilanch says. “She’s amazing, and I think we make a good mother-daughter team. We’re better than Joan and Christina Crawford and more convincing than they were.”

Settle says she calls Vilanch “mama” on and off stage.

“I think he likes that,” she says. “He’s such a big teddy bear of a man, and he’s brilliant in the show. When I first met him, though, I felt stupid around him because he’s so smart and everything he says is so funny. But now we’re close, and he gives amazing advice. When I got the job as Tracy, he gave me a big hug and said, ‘We’ve done it before, honey. We can do it again.'”

Working with Vilanch has made the transition to star easier, Settle says, but that doesn’t mean she’s not, as she puts it, “scared out of my gourd.”

“I wake up every day going, ‘I can’t believe they hired me,'” she says. “I’m so used to being in the wings or being on stand-by. This is a real gig. I’m not performing for donkeys in a field.”

Having worked with director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Settle says she’s confident she can do the job. Her affection for composers Shaiman and Wittman also helps.

“They are the mom and dad of the tour,” she says.

“They are the reason this show is such a huge hit. The music itself, along with the story and everything else sends such a strong message. There’s so much joy behind it. You can’t really help but get up and dance in the aisles. You’d look like a fool if you were still sitting by the last number.”

Shaiman and Wittman, currently working on a musical based on the Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can,” says “Hairspray” has become a hit because it appeals to people across generations.

“We have literally seen 80-year-old grandmothers dancing in the aisles with their great-grandchildren,” Wittman says.

“Everyone has felt like an outsider at some point,” Shaiman adds. “So there’s that appeal, and then there’s this great multi-racial cast on stage, and it’s so wonderful to watch them. I guess it doesn’t surprise me to see four generations of a family coming to see this show.”

Wittman, who describes himself as a cynic, says: “I never thought I’d be involved with a show that sells booster seats.”

Vilanch says the secret of the show’s success — eight 2003 Tony Awards including best musical, a national tour, a new Toronto production, a thriving Broadway production — is simple: “It’s Scott and Marc’s music. It’s original, but written in the style of the early’60s before the British invasion, so there’s rock’n’ roll, Motown and doo-wop.”

And then there’s the message.

“It has that John Waters edge but wears its big, Broadway-size heart on its sleeve,” Vilanch continues. “It’s all about acceptance, tolerance, diversity and accepting yourself and others for who they are. It’s what I call smart with heart.”