‘Hairspray’ is hot!
More satire and nostalgia than camp in hit musical
By Jerry Stein
Post staff writer
Bruce Vilanch, who dons a dress for his role in the musical “Hairspray,” has portrayed a woman before. This time, it’s without a beard.
“Hairspray,” the Tony Award-winning musical which opens Tuesday at the Aronoff Center as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati series, is based on John Waters’ 1988 film of the same title.
Written by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (“Annie”) with nostalgic songs recalling the ’60s by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the musical is set in Baltimore.
“‘Hairspray’ is about a chubby girl who goes on television and becomes the hottest dancer on a teenage dance show, wins the heart of the hunkiest guy and integrates television in 1962,” said Vilanch. “She’s told she’s too fat to dance on TV, and the black kids are told they are too black to dance on TV. She manages to overcome all that.
“And while she’s changing the world, she allows her parents the opportunity to change. I play her mother (Edna Turnblad). I have no self-esteem.
“I’m afraid to go out of the house. During the course of the show, I have an extreme makeover and become the most glamour-ish creature you’ve ever seen since Shelley Winters.
“She surrenders to her daughter’s fame and, then, becomes a part of it. She realizes she’s pretty cool herself.”
When asked if he ever played a woman’s role before, Vilanch laughs and says, “Well, in public life.
“I did one really briefly on a TV series that didn’t make it about 12 years ago. It was a show I wrote with Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong) called ‘Cheech.’
“I played a bearded lady — a gossip columnist. But the Writers’ Guild strike intervened, and we only shot two episodes of it.”
Approached to play Edna, the role created by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, Vilanch said the first thing he thought was, “Do I have to shave, because there really isn’t much call for a bearded lady.”
The creators of the show wanted a man to play Edna but not to look like one. “Hairspray” isn’t quite camp. More accurately, it’s somewhere between satire and nostalgia. So, the beard had to go.
“The audience accepts the fact that the girl (Tracy Turnblad) gets the cute guy … accepts that she can change the world. And they accept a man is playing her mother,” said Vilanch.
“Tracy’s parents have this very intense relationship an even though the audience knows one of them is being played by a man, they accept this couple is for real.
“It’s all part of the theme of the show. You take people for who they are.”
Vilanch said he was directed to approach to the role as somewhere between impersonation and drag.
“She obviously is a very broadly drawn character. Edna doesn’t have to be that real of a woman but at moments she does.
“Most of the time when people are doing drag they are doing a parody of the woman. This is not a parody of woman. She’s a very strange woman.”
Still, Vilanch said there is an element of the drag queen about Edna.
“I’m certainly in women’s clothes the whole time. Sounds like drag to me,” he laughs. “But we’re splitting hairs … in this case, wigs.”
In order to get into makeup and costume for Edna, Vilanch said he gets to the theater at 6:30 p.m. before an 8 p.m. curtain.
“If you’re going to do it at a leisurely pace, it’s about an hour and a half. I can do it faster if I really want to slap it on. But, then, I’d have welts under the makeup.
“I put the foundation makeup on. Then, the makeup artist comes in and does all the contouring and specialized stuff. I get into the first wig. Then, the epic struggle of the panty hose begins. This could be a whole half an hour. I need an industrial shoehorn. Nobody warned me about panty hose. Oh, they’re tight.
“Are they tight? It’s like sitting on the wrong bicycle seat for hours.
“Then, there’s the Edna suit that I put on, which is about 35 pounds of silicone, that make you totally round. You could spin her on linoleum.
“I have to put her fat suit on top of my own God-given fat suit.”
Vilanch said the body suit is hot.
“I’ve lost weight. We’ve had to take in some of the gowns and put some more padding in the wet suit. First time in my life I’ve had that problem. I highly recommend it.
“The first costumes go on. I wear heels. As Edna transforms in the course of the show, I go to one size high heel to another.”
Edna finally ends up in floor-length gowns.
“She’s got trains,” said Vilanch. “You forget you have that kind of stuff until somebody steps on it and you fall over.”