An Interview With Mister V and Marissa Jaret Winokur

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Mister D: Here’s a great interview with Mister V and Marissa Jaret Winokur who are now playing at the Panges Theatre in L.A. I’ll be putting reviews up over the weekend. Everybody….Have Fun This Weekend!

West July 21, 2004
Hair-Raising Performances
By Les Spindle

Those who remember notoriously outrageous moments in the cult films of John Waters–such as that legendary dining scene in Pink Flamingos–may be curious to see how a Waters film could be reworked as a crowd-pleasing family musical. Local audiences will get a chance to find out this week, when the 2003 Tony-winning juggernaut Hairspray (with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman) makes its Los Angeles debut at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre following engagements in San Francisco and San Diego.

There are two stellar leads in this touring edition. Bruce Vilanch is noted for the sidesplitting material he writes for celebrity vehicles and major award shows, including the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, and the Grammys. Here he plays Edna Turnblad, the gender-bending role created by drag diva Divine in the original film and performed to Tony-winning success by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. Vilanch, who shaved his lion’s-mane face and dons housedresses and wigs for this role, has been in show business for 30 years. He won several Emmys for his television work and became a familiar face to the masses during his tenure in the center square on the popular game show Hollywood Squares. He has traveled widely in his acclaimed solo show, writes books, appears at charitable events, and stars in the documentary Get Bruce!, about his life and career.

His Hairspray co-star is vivacious Marissa Jaret Winokur, recreating her Tony-winning role of Edna’s daughter, Tracy. She was recently seen in the TV movie Beautiful Girl and in the film American Beauty, performed in Grease on Broadway, and has appeared frequently on sitcoms.

Back Stage West caught up with the two as they were getting ready to begin rehearsals for the L.A. engagement.

Bruce Vilanch: Well, as we start to work together, I’ve had four Tracys already, but I’m only your second Edna. I’m the only one you’ve played opposite other than Harvey [Fierstein], because he never missed a performance.

Marissa Jaret Winokur: What a pain in the ass! He set a bad example by showing up all the time, making it harder for all of us to miss shows.

Vilanch: I joined Equity thinking I’d be the Jennifer Holliday of my generation–never showing up to perform.

Winokur: In taking a role that people will remember from the movie version, as played by Ricki Lake, it wasn’t too hard for me to interpret it my own way, because Ricki didn’t sing in the movie. I have the same hairstyle and wear the same type of clothes, but other than that, there’s not a lot of similarities. I was lucky. Unlike other stage musicals based on movies, this show was quite different from the original, right from the get-go. It wasn’t like the stage version of Saturday Night Fever, for example, where people had been used to hearing John Travolta singing the songs. This is a musical, and the film was not. So instead of just saying, “Good morning, Baltimore,” at the beginning, I sing about it for five minutes. I didn’t have to be Ricki to the audience.

Vilanch: Well, I had to follow Harvey in my role, and when I asked John Waters about it, he told me, “Be your own Edna.” The first thing to keep in mind is that Harvey had a hand in writing the book for this musical, and a lot of the stuff he wrote was tailored for him to play. So I had to decide whether to become Bea Arthur and sing everything in the key of C, or find a different way to do things. With the authors’ blessing, we rewrote some stuff, which has now become a template for people who play this part at this stage of the game. When Harvey did the show, he also had to make it work for him, which was different from what Divine had done in the film. What’s consistent between the film and the musical are some basic elements of the Waters style. Waters is such a great commentator on American society–the great hypocrisies that happen in America. His worldview is ingenious. To me it’s all summed up by a line in the show after Tracy has been knocked out by a dodge ball, and her best friend Penny runs off to get the school nurse. She comes back and says that the nurse is out sick. The one person you depend upon isn’t there; the Waters world is fraught with that sort of thing.

Winokur: On the other hand, Waters also says in the show that you have to learn to love yourself from the inside out, and that’s a big part of what Hairspray is about–accepting who you are, and by extension, accepting everyone around you. I remember John saying he sort of was Tracy Turnblad, that when he was growing up, he wanted to be on the TV dance shows and to be popular. He wanted to be a person who could change the world. Tracy is the ultimate outsider, and that’s how he sees himself. Younger people don’t know anything about Waters, just that he had something to do with this big Broadway musical. Waters has become mainstream now. Growing up, I liked to watch his movies because he was so unusual.

Vilanch: I can’t wait for another outrageous Waters movie to come out so the people you speak of can say, “That John Waters is crazy.” That’s the Waters I grew up with. In a Waters movie, the worse the actors were, the better the movie. The more cut-rate everything looks, the funnier it is. That’s the opposite of what happens in a Broadway show. Yet the great thing about Hairspray is that it manages to preserve that strange John Waters world while bringing a whole new helping of heart to the situation. I call it smart with heart.

Winokur: Yes, when we were just starting out with the early workshops, lines were getting cut because they were too racy. Even cast members were saying, “You can’t say that.” And I would look at them and say, “But this is a John Waters musical.” There has to be that element of crossing the line just enough to preserve Waters. But it’s also a musical, so it has to stay clean and pretty. It definitely has those moments that would fly over a 6-year-old’s head, while they enjoy the costumes and the music.

Vilanch: The ultimate irony is: It’s a musical for the whole family, but it’s not a family musical.

Winokur: When I first heard in 1999 that they were making a musical out of Hairspray, I said to myself, “Oh, my God, I have to check that out.” So I went right over to Marc’s studio. They kept trying to get me to go away, but I wouldn’t. They were looking for the right Tracy and were having open calls. Everyone in the country who weighed more than 100 pounds was coming to audition. I was cast in the workshops, which I did for 2 1/2 years, and finally they let me keep the role. I worked my ass off. I wasn’t a trained singer and had never danced in my life. I had done Grease on Broadway, but that doesn’t count as any real training. I worked with my voice teacher here in L.A., training like an athlete so I’d be able to sing in the show. Now that I am coming back to the show after a year away from it, I’m sort of in a panic. It seemed like a good idea three months ago, and now I’m asking myself what I got myself into. My life was so crazy during the Broadway opening and the Tony Awards, though I was happier doing the show than I was doing my life. The curtain would come up, and I’d be crying backstage because I was stressed about other things. Then I would say to myself, “OK, this is something I know. Nothing’s going to change here, and there’s nothing sad onstage.” I enjoyed being Tracy more than my initial preparation for being Tracy, when my legs and back and everything hurt. During the show, I stop my life completely. I can’t go to a party, I can’t drink. I can’t even talk on the phone. I live like a nun. I tell people, “Here’s my e-mail address. We can communicate this way.”

Vilanch: I can see why you panic, as you basically carry the show. It’s a real marathon for you. Sort of like Christopher Plummer in King Lear or Vanessa Redgrave in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The physical part for me is more offstage, because of all of the costume changes and wigs. Basically the only time you are offstage in the whole show is when I’m prancing around with my husband for 15 minutes in our scene.

Winokur: Yes, and getting the biggest applause of the night.

Vilanch: The good thing is that this show is up and fun. It’s like a party every evening. Even if the audience is a little slow in the beginning, as the show progresses, they come with you, dancing, screaming, and carrying on. Shows such as Hairspray and The Producers that are big, sunny, splashy Broadway musicals are the type that haven’t been done in a long time, and after seeing them the audiences are wanting more. Everybody likes to have a good time.

Winokur: For so many kids who come, it’s their first show. If they have a miserable experience, you will never see them go back to a theatre again until maybe when they are 15 or 16. There are lots of first timers, because it’s a safe show. Kids, husbands, boyfriends–people who never come to the theatre–come and enjoy it. I think the success of Hairspray will lead to more shows of this type. BSW

“Hairspray,” at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 1 & 6:30 p.m. July 21-Sept. 5. $27-87. (213) 365-3500.

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