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In the summer of 2002, as a giant can of hairspray was hefted into the air on 52nd Street, New Yorkers could not have imagined how a big girl with an equally big heart from Baltimore would set new, incredibly high standards for innovative, heart-warming productions on Broadway, turning The Neil Simon Theatre into a stage for ‘60s Americana.
Hairspray Finale

Hairspray’s last number is “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” which will also appropriately be the musical’s swan song on Sunday, Jan. 4, after a six-year run. Like the motion of the ocean, or the sun in the sky, the dropping of Hairspray’s curtain and the closing of the Neil Simon’s doors won’t stop the beat of this musical’s heart in the memories of thousands of theatergoers who saw it over the years.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 hit cult film of the same name, Hairspray had many early skeptics. Could a small independent film starring Ricki Lake and a transvestite actor named Divine really make it in the Big Apple?

“I was really surprised they were doing it, because the movie was somewhat strange, and I couldn’t imagine what they could possibly do with it in a musical!” said Roger Kenter, 37, a native New Yorker and a twelve time Hairspray audience “veteran.” “Now I can’t imagine what Broadway would be like without it!”

Changing Times in America

With a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the music and plot couldn’t have been in better hands.

Shaiman and Wittman’s songs follow Baltimore’s Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and a love for dancing, as she wins a spot on the local TV dance program, “The Corny Collins Show.” Overnight, she is transformed from outsider to out-of-control teen celebrity. Although the show is loaded with catchy tunes and big dance numbers, it also explores race-segregated America, interracial relationships, the blossoming of integration, and finding confidence in oneself.

With director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell in tow, Hairspray had a creative team to die for. The buzz on the Great White Way began to grow as Harvey Fierstein signed on to play Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s shy and hefty mother. Who could pass up the opportunity to hear Fierstein sing with his guttural, scratchy voice…oh, and he would simultaneously be dressed in drag?
Hairspray Harvey Fierstein, Marissa Jarret Winokur

Marissa Jarret Winokur, who won the role of Tracy right before the show opened, was previously known only for a quick but memorable moment opposite Kevin Spacey as the Mr. Smiley’s counter girl in “American Beauty.” Dick Latessa joined the cast as Wilbur Turnblad at Radio City Music Hall where they all won Tony Awards in 2003 for their energizing performances. Hairspray swept eight Tonys that year, including Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Choreography.

The parts in Hairspray have taken on many incarnations over the years. Funny man Bruce Vilanch brought his loud guffaws and heft to Edna’s shoes, and Michael McKean did a slightly whinier and thinner rendition in heels. MadTV’s Paul Vogt also came aboard for a time, as did Cheers’ George Wendt, among others.

Teenage favorites like Ashley Parker Angel, Alexa Vega, Haylie Duff, and Diana DeGarmo also came on board as various supporting characters. However, Tracy Turnblad became the hottest role out there for overweight girls who rarely find roles on Broadway.

“That’s what’s ironic about being in this business, that it’s all about what you look like, that’s why being in this role is so fortunate in so many different ways,” said Carly Jibson, one of Winokur’s first successors as Tracy. “Normally a girl like me is like the cameo character actress, does the five-minute entrance and steals the show, and it’s NEVER like this kind of a situation, it’s never like this,” she said in 2003.

Jibson went on to star in the next Broadway musical to be based on a John Waters’ film, “Cry Baby.” “I think Hairspray is just trying to get back to a time when it wasn’t so important what everyone looked like. In the ‘60s it was about what you said and how you felt.”

Big Bodied & Beautiful

More big bodied, beautiful actresses started to pop up all over Broadway after Hairspray made a splash, and many theatergoers appreciated “real” actresses on stage.

Lisa Howard proved that you don’t have to use your weight to be funny in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Sara Ramirez, who won a 2005 Tony Award for her performance as The Lady in the Lake in Spamalot, earned a role on the hit television show Grey’s Anatomy.

Shapely actresses were also proving that they could dance and sing just as well as their thinner competition in shows such as Taboo, Avenue Q, Mary Poppins, [title of show], The Ritz, and Shrek the Musical, to name a few.

“I just think that there’s a lot of parts available [for bigger actresses] now,” said Ashlie Atkinson, who made her Broadway debut in The Ritz in 2007. “A lot of that has to do with the writers willing to be more adventurous and casting people, being more willing to take chances on people who are talented and less on what we look like.”

Atkinson also starred in an Off-Broadway production of Fat Pig, which received a lot of focus due to its head-turning title.

“I’ve gotten many, many, many, messages from women of all shapes and sizes,” said the curvaceous Heidi Blickenstaff after [title of show] opened on Broadway in 2008. In her role as Heidi, who is based on herself, Blickenstaff even removed her shirt and showed off her assets.

“Women are always so happy to see a woman that looks like me on stage. I have gotten many women who say ‘Thank you for doing that, and having there be an image out there that is not this tiny little girl.’ And I am very proud of that. If women are feeling somehow liberated by that in some way, it’s awesome. I’m so glad that that makes women feel good. I’ve also gotten a lot of fan mail from some straight men. So there are some straight men out there that like a curvy girl!” Blickenstaff laughed.

Fanatical Fan Base

Because people were so affected by the heart and size of Tracy, as well as the realistic nature of the show and its fantastic presentation as a whole, fans came back to see Hairspray repeatedly. “I’ve seen Hairspray six times, and it makes me feel so good inside every time,” said Renee DiIorio, 33, of Oceanside, NY, after a recent performance. “I just had to get one more time in before it closed!”

Other fans are quick to compare the Broadway musical to the 2007 hit film “Hairspray,” which is based on the Broadway musical.

“I wanted to see the Broadway show because I loved the movie so much. They were both really good,” said Emma Balsam, 12, of Lawrence, NY, as she sang the show’s catchy tunes following a performance.

“The musical was a lot of fun, and I was really excited to be able to watch the movie when it came out,” said Zack Block, 24, of Albany, NY. “Now I can hear and see the music all the time, and when I have kids, they will be able to enjoy the fun too.”

The film “Hairspray” launched the career of Nikki Blonsky, a young woman from Long Island whose biggest claim to fame was performing as a cashier at Cold Stone Creamery. Blonsky and John Travolta were nominated for 2008 Golden Globes for their performances in what have now become iconic roles.

Marc Shaiman also scored a 2008 Grammy nomination for his music, which was made even more famous because of the film’s release.

Returning to Its Roots

In its last month on Broadway, Hairspray has found its roots once again with the return of original stars Fierstein and Winokur. To tourists and residents alike, its clear that Hairspray’s big numbers, huge hair, and messages of tolerance have left their marks.

“Hairspray touched my life on so many levels. Being in that show and a part of the wonderful message it conveyed was truly the single most rewarding experience I have to date,” Jibson recalls. “I will never forget playing Tracy Turnblad or all of the wonderful things she brought to my heart. I only hope that it will continue to live in the souls of all of the people it has touched and moved the way it will forever stay in mine.”