Bay Area Reporter
Bruce Vilanch weighs in
‘Help is on the Way Goes to the Movies’ on Sunday
by Adam Sandel
As Hairspray fever grips the country, with the bubbly film musical bopping through America’s cineplexes, two alumni of the Broadway musical will take the stage in San Francisco on Sunday, August 5, for the Richmond Ermet AIDS Foundation’s Help is on the Way Goes to the Movies benefit at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.
Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony Award as chubby teen Tracy Turnblad on Broadway, will be on hand, along with Bruce Vilanch, who stepped into Harvey Fierstein’s pumps as Edna Turnblad for the year-long national tour and a year on Broadway.
“Hello, San Francisco,” says the bountiful Bruce when I ring him up. “I’m high on a hill in Provincetown, overlooking a sea of lesbians in kayaks.” Vilanch is at the seaside resort to receive an award from a local theatre group and to perform his un-named one-man show. “I was going to call it Brad Pitt Nude, then in tiny letters: ‘Just kidding, it’s actually Bruce Vilanch.'”
What does he miss about performing in Hairspray? “Everything but the pantyhose.” The company played 10 weeks in San Francisco. “It was May and June, which is apparently the dead of winter. I love the Golden Gate Theatre, even though you risk your life walking home at night.”
His nightly transformation into the Baltimore matron initially took an hour and a half, “but we got it down to an hour, with a makeup artist, a wig master and a dresser helping me into the fat-suit and pantyhose. I had five wigs and seven costume changes, so every time I left the stage, I was besieged by ‘the squad.'”
Vilanch’s greatest challenge in doing the role was not making it a drag turn, but keeping it real while still retaining the ironic John Waters humor. “The director Jack O’Brien used to always remind us, ‘You’re not funny, it’s funny.'”
Aside from the fact that Edna was first played by drag queen Divine in the 1988 film, Vilanch explains the gay subtext beneath John Waters’ insistence that the role of Tracy’s mom be played by a man. “The movie is about acceptance, of other races and body types, and in the course of the evening, the audience accepts the Turnblads as a loving married couple. It’s a very subversive, insightful idea.”
What does the former Edna think of the movie musical? “It’s very different from the play; they restructured a lot and geared it to an audience of young girls. They’re going to have a big hit, but it’s a different animal. Edna is much softer, and John Travolta is absolutely adorable. It reminded me of why he’s always been such an adorable performer.”
Vilanch initially came to show biz prominence as a ghost writer to comics, and like Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Katie Sagal and many others, his career began while working with Bette Midler.
“Bette was the first person I ever wrote for, and I’ve been working with her for 37 years now.” He’s currently collaborating with Midler on her Las Vegas show, which moves into Caesar’s Palace next February once Cirque du Celine finally un-pitches its tent.
Vilanch’s skill for putting funny words into other people’s mouths landed him the gig of writing the annual Oscar show, which he’s done for the past 18 years. “The hard part is writing for actors who are used to playing characters, but have no persona of their own. Who is Keanu Reeves when he comes out and talks? I once wrote something for him to do in his Bill and Ted character. It didn’t work.
“The biggest challenge of writing the Oscars is keeping it afloat for three and a half hours. As they give out more and more awards, the room fills up with losers who just want to go home and start firing people.”
Vilanch will be joined in Help is on the Way Goes to the Movies by Lucy Lawless, Queer Eye ‘s Jai Rodriguez, Kimberly Locke, Broadway’s Raul Esparza, Joey McIntire, B.D. Wong, Susan Anton, and the cast of Jersey Boys, among other stage and cabaret luminaries.
Help is on the Way Goes to the Movies
Sunday, August 5, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St., SF.
5 p.m. Pre-show Gala reception
7:30 p.m. Performance
9:30 p.m. Dessert & cocktail reception with the cast
Gala tickets: $175 (includes pre-performance Gala reception and show); general tickets (show only): $75. Call (415) 273-1620.