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Hairspray: Tumblin’ Towards Tempe…Arizona

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East Valley Tribune
Divine shoes to fill
By Chris Page, Tribune

For most of his career, comedian Bruce Vilanch has worked on the down-low, writing jokes for stars such as Bette Midler and Billy Crystal on variety shows and major awards ceremonies — including 14 Academy Awards telecasts.

Vilanch’s obscurity was such a Hollywood insider gag that his life story was made into an independent film, 1999’s “Get Bruce!” And until a late-’90s stint on TV game show “Hollywood Squares,” the shaggy, husky, flamboyantly bespectacled comic was more likely to be confused with Mr. Munch from Chuck E. Cheese’s than recognized as himself.

Vilanch’s latest gig likely won’t help earn the 55-year-old any more public recognition, but it’s put him further into the spotlight: Since September, he’s been donning a dress and wig — and shaving his beard — to tackle the campy drag role of mother Edna Turnblad in the touring production of the musical “Hairspray,” a Tony-showered smash on Broadway that was based on the 1988 John Waters film.

The musical comes to Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium on Tuesday for a two-week run.

Last week, halfway through a three-week stint in Denver, Vilanch talked with the Tribune about “Hairspray,” his work and the dastardly side of pantyhose:

Q: I couldn’t help but notice, you’re booked into the hotel in your own name. Have you ever used an alias?

A: No, I haven’t yet. I’m looking forward to the day. It hasn’t happened yet. Someday. The problem is that the names I come up with are all dirty.

Q: You’ve been doing “Hairspray” for quite some time now. Is this the most road work you’ve done?

A: Yeah. It’s the most of this sort. I mean, I’ve gone out on tour with singers like Bette Midler where we do one night in a big arena and go on to the next town, but I’ve never done anything like this, where you sit in a place for weeks on end and do eight shows a week, you know, a real Broadway theater schedule. It’s a whole new way of working, but I like it.

Q: Is it something you could imagine keeping on doing, or are you looking forward to working on other stuff?

A: No, I like doing it for a while. I’m having fun. And then we’ll see what else, you know. Maybe a tractor-trailer. (laughs.)

Q: Talk to me about playing Edna. I can’t imagine dressing up in drag and getting to do that character like her as ever becoming a grind.

A: It’s not, really. It’s a tremendous amount of fun. Everything but the pantyhose. The pantyhose is worrisome. I have to be lowered into mine. There’s a cherry-picker involved. The fire department is called in. Pantyhose was invented by a Nazi scientist. They’re not pleasant. But the rest of it is actually a lot of fun. It’s big-time dress-up, and you get to create this whole other person when you put on all this stuff.

Q: It seems like she’s become the de facto star role in “Hairspray.”

A: It’s hard to look at anything else when she’s on stage. (laughs.) She’s quite a force.

Q: Do you think it will always have to be played by a burly guy — like in a few years, when “Hairspray” hits regional dinner theater, Edna will be John Goodman putting on the makeup?

A: (laughs.) It probably almost was this time. I think it’ll always be played by a man because John Waters envisioned it that way when he had (cult-movie drag queen) Divine play it in the movie. And it’s part of what makes the show charming, the audience knows it’s a man playing the part. But in a bigger sense, “Hairspray” is all about acceptance. It’s all about tolerance and diversity and taking people at face value and loving yourself for who you are. And part of the joke of it is that the audience knows it’s a man and they buy it. It’s kind of an upside-down world, with the chubby girl who’s a great dancer and she gets the gorgeous guy and integrates television at the same time. It’s a worldview, and I think it would be ruined if you had a woman play the part.

Q: Now John Waters, his movies are certainly injected with at least a little bit of irony.

A: A little? Yeah. More like a major dose.

Q: But to sell it on Broadway, you have to make it broad and believable and positive. You have to legitimize it. How does that change the show?

A: Well, the thing about a John Waters movie is, generally, the worse you are, the better it is. He likes to cast unusual people and just let them run riot. This show has that edge in it, but at the same time, it’s a big Broadway show so it’s got people who are really good at what they do, and it’s got a lot of heart that it wears on its sleeve. I mean, it has so much music in it, so much of that emotion that’s generated in a musical. And all of that is married to that strange John Waters worldview. Everybody is nuts but they all think they’re normal.

Q: And that translates to Broadway. (laughs.) You still get a little fuss over comparisons to Harvey Fierstein. How do you play Edna different?

A: Harvey has that voice, which you can’t really duplicate. I wanted to sing as well so I went to Bea Arthur for coaching. (laughs.) . . . But that’s what Harvey does, he sings down there, so you have to find your own way to do it. We’ve rewritten some of it that was specifically written for Harvey, because you can’t do some of those jokes without having that voice.

Q: Talking about Harvey’s voice, I was thinking about it, and Divine wasn’t gruff in the movie. I was listening to Harvey’s “Timeless to Me” on the Broadway soundtrack, and it occurred to me, he sounds so gravelly, it’s like listening to a gay Tom Waits.

A: (laughs.) That’s quite a visual. I picture Tom Waits sitting in a jail with a Minneapolis hooker on Christmas. Being gay.

Q: One of the things you do is regionalizing some parts of the script.

A: There’s a spot in the second act that’s kind of a vaudeville number, where you get to break the fourth wall and do some ad-libbing, so I tend to do stuff about wherever we are.

Q: For folks coming to see the touring show, what do you think they’ll get out of it?

A: Well, it’s a big, joyous evening. The music is unstoppable. It’s that early ’60s Motown, doo-wop, American rock ’n’ roll music. It’s all original, but it’s got that feel. The audiences usually wind up dancing, they’re having such a good time. It’s not like going to see “Faust.” You’ll have more fun than at the average Eugene O’Neill play.

Q: How much other work do you get to do? You do a piece for The Advocate?

A: Oh, I didn’t get to work on the Oscars this year because you have to be there to do that. But otherwise, I’m writing a novel as I go along, and a couple of other long-range things. I’m just not doing any of that awards show stuff.

Q: Is that a thing that’s good to take a break from?

A: Well, I’ve been doing that for 30 years. They made a movie about it. This part (Edna) came along, and it was like a gift. It’s like having a second act, a whole new thing to do during my male menopause. (laughs.)

Q: When you go to the different towns, do you get to soak up much? What do you tend to do on your time off?

A: All the usual misbehaving. In Phoenix, of course, you soak up sun. I’ve been there before, and that’s been a favorite pastime. But I like to get out, get around. It’s difficult, because you’re working every night, so I can’t do the restaurant tour. Other than that, though . . .

Q: But, of course, we have a 1 a.m. last call.

A: Oh really? That’ll upset the cast a great deal. We might have to revert to an all matinee schedule.

About ‘Hairspray’
Show synopsis: In 1960s Baltimore, chubby teen Tracy Turnblad (played by Carly Jibson) dreams of dancing on the “Corny Collins” dance TV show, but first she’ll have to get past her mother, Edna (Bruce Vilanch), and more svelte dance rivals. Along the way, Tracy wins the hunky boy and, as if no small feat, promotes racial integration over the airwaves.

Accolades: Broadway production garnered Tony Awards in 2003 for best musical, book, score, director, actress in a musical, actor in a musical, featured actor in a musical and costume design. It also was named best musical by the New York Drama Critics Circle and the Drama Desk Awards. Album recording of Broadway show won best musical show Grammy.

Up next: John Waters’ 1990 film “Cry-Baby,” starring Johnny Depp and Traci Lords and set in 1950s Baltimore, is being crafted into a Broadway musical follow-up to “Hairspray.”

COMING THURSDAY
Read Tribune theater critic Chris Page’s review of “Hairspray” in Thursday’s Get Out section.