Producers worried, but Vilanch stays put

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What happens when Fierstein leaves?
Producers worried, but Vilanch stays put
By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

Sunday, March 21, 2004 –

The New York Times recently devoted a front-page arts story and a full inside page to a matter that must constitute one of the great crises on Broadway: How was “Hairspray” going to survive the impending departure of Harvey Fierstein as the matron of the 1960s pop musical phenomenon, “Hairspray”?

The show, which garnered eight Tony Awards in 2003, still draws 96 percent of capacity, which translates to nearly $1 million a week, but producers are nervous. So nervous, in fact, that they compiled a list of 75 potential replacements. The list reportedly included Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, Horatio Sanz, John Lithgow, Drew Carey, Eddie Izzard, Louis Anderson and even Dr. Phil.

They settled on Michael McKean, who played Lenny on “Laverne & Shirley” and recently starred in the Christopher Guest film, “A Mighty Wind.”

One name missing from the list was “Hollywood Squares” star Bruce Vilanch, who has played the role Fierstein originated on Broadway the past six months on the “Hairspray” national tour.

Many Broadway shows season new actors by sending them out on national tours, then cherry-pick them back to New York whenever the need arises for a quick casting change. But the “Hairspray” creators are not about to do that with Vilanch because they want to keep the core touring company intact.

“Harvey is leaving May 4, and I am committed to the tour through Sept. 5,” Vilanch said. That includes extended high-profile stops in San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and it made no sense to mess with a winning formula.

“Bruce is absolutely brilliant in the role,” said his co-star, Carly Jibson, who plays Edna’s chipper daughter, Tracy. “I think they are really happy with the tour right now and one thing you have to understand is that we are the only unit now that has worked directly with (directors) Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell.

“Maybe only one-ninth of the kids on Broadway have worked with them from the beginning,” she said. “The rest are all new and have worked with the assistant director and choreographer, who are great, but Jack’s brilliance is what gives you the heart of John Waters and the heart of this musical.

“That we have that family unit, and that understanding, is why they don’t want to break us up. I think Bruce will definitely have longevity in this role.”

Jibson contends that too much has been made of comparing Vilanch to Fierstein. But Broadway history is laced with actors who have been so successful in their roles that they have proven irreplaceable. “The Producers” is a case in point: Since Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick left the show, audience response has been mild. Sometimes audiences simply never accept anyone else in certain roles.

“Harvey is unique, but I have been playing the show for six months now without him, and it’s been going fine,” Vilanch said. “The show was not written just to be done by Harvey, and Harvey would be the first to tell you that,

” If you cast it properly, it plays brilliantly on its own,” he said. “I think the ‘Hairspray’ producers were very shrewd in never making it a star vehicle, the way the producers of “The Producers” did. When you do that, you can only replace your stars with other stars.”

The template for Edna is Divine, who played her in Waters’ 1988 film long before it was turned into a musical. Edna’s chance to shine comes in the song “You’re Timeless to Me,” which Vilanch performs with Edna’s husband, played by Todd Susman.

The Broadway producers toyed with the idea of replacing Fierstein with a real woman, such as Roseanne or Lainie Kazan, but it was vital to Waters that the role be played by a man.

“For one thing, on our song, the man takes the high part and the ‘woman’ (character) takes the low part,” Vilanch said. “That’s quite charming for the audience.

“And John has always emphasized that Edna must be played by a man because that is part of the whole message of the show.” he said. “‘Hairspray’ is all about acceptance. It’s about accepting who you are. It’s about accepting everybody else whether they are thin, fat, black or white – we can all dance together. And part of the joy of the show is the audience accepting that this is a man playing this part, and yet they buy that there is a real relationship, and they buy that she’s a real mother because it is presented to them as real, not gimmicky or jokey. And the fact that they are in on the joke that’s part of the pleasure of the show.

“I think a lot would be lost if a woman played it. It wouldn’t have quite the same effect. Something would be missing.”

Vilanch said playing a woman in high heels while wearing a fat suit is a challenge because there is no center of gravity. “So you are kind of like the Eiffel Tower walking,” he said. “It’s a Godzilla kind of presence. If you topple over, you might wipe out Tokyo.

“But it’s a blast and I love it all – except the pantyhose. Did you know pantyhose were invented by a Nazi scientist? It was some kind of a last-gasp effort …”