Keep Your Wig On

It's a huge success on Broadway and has been turned back into a movie, but how will British audiences respond to Hairspray the musical? Maddy Costa goes backstage

~ The Guardian - 25/10/2007 ~

'Look at this," says Michael Ball excitedly. He thrusts forward both hands, cradling the floppy, rubbery skin of a single, outsize plastic breast. "It's got a nipple! A real nipple! And look at the sequins! The feathers!" He gestures to his wardrobe, crammed with huge, brightly coloured and extravagantly embellished frocks, his cheeks dimpling with delight. "I saw this show on Broadway four years ago, and I came out with two thoughts. One - and this isn't bullshit - I've had one of the best evenings in the theatre I can remember. And two: I have never seen a part I have wanted to play more, and a part I'm less likely to be offered."

"This show" is Hairspray, the Broadway musical of the cult John Waters movie, in which plus-size teenager Tracy Turnblad challenges racism, conservatism and fat-ism in 1962 Baltimore by dancing on a local TV programme. The part is that of Edna Turnblad, Tracy's even more expansive mother. Cynics might argue that Ball, as one of the West End's most bankable stars, could have his pick of musical roles. But one that requires him to gain several pounds, then don curvy padding, high heels and a Pucci-print dress? It's not exactly Andrew Lloyd Webber. But Hairspray is a musical about wish-fulfilment, in which life takes on the hues of our silliest fantasies and happiest dreams - even for its cast.

"If you're not at all taken by the fantasy of the Supremes showing up to bestow a little Motown magic on your bedraggled, overworked mother," wrote New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his review of the original Broadway production, "then you will probably be in the minority of theatre-goers who will not find this musical irresistible." Certainly, most of New York found it irresistible: Hairspray won eight Tony awards and is still running five years and several cast changes later. It's since toured the US, opened in Las Vegas and South Africa, and been turned back into a movie, starring John Travolta and Christopher Walken.

Hairspray arrives in London burdened with hype, which can break as much as make a show, and facing a fight for attention. The West End is in the midst of a glut of musicals, many of them transfers from Broadway. The film version opened in Britain just three months ago, stealing the musical's thunder. The show also has the misfortune to be opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre, a "house of flops" long considered cursed. No wonder its producers wanted to bring over not only the American creative team but also some of the American cast, as a kind of security measure.

Director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell were having none of it. In 2002, the same year the pair opened Hairspray in New York, they shipped their stage version of The Full Monty to London, only for it to close after nine months. "Having brought Americans over for that," says O'Brien, "Jerry and I were determined that, if Hairspray is to find a root here, it should be an English company that does it. There was talk that, gee, maybe we should bring one of the girls over to play Tracy. We said, 'Are you kidding?' You can't tell me there's not some adorable tubby little girl over here who deserves this."

Sure enough, in open auditions O'Brien and Mitchell came across Leanne Jones, an ebullient 22-year-old who graduated from Mountview drama school last year. Jones hadn't even heard of Hairspray until friends told her to try out for it. She then watched the Waters movie and, in December, the Broadway show, and found in Tracy Turnblad the image of herself. "She's so like me. I have a couple more insecurities than Tracy: people constantly refer to her weight and she just bats it off, whereas when someone has said something like that to me I've brushed it off but I've also been a bit hurt. But I'm definitely very confident, and very happy with the way that I look."

Not just that but, like Tracy dreaming of dancing on TV, Jones spent her teens dreaming about starring in a West End musical, thanks, in part, to Michael Ball. "When I was 11, I was given the 10th-anniversary video of Les Mis, where he was Marius. We sang those songs at school but I didn't know what a musical was. I watched the video and I thought, 'Oh my gosh! What is this? It's singing, but with a story and amazing costumes.'" From that moment she was determined to become an actor - and it's a mark of her self-belief that Jones has never changed her figure to achieve her ambitions.

She has had to lose weight, however, simply to get through this show. "It's difficult casting," she says. "Tracy has to be big, but at the same time she's never off stage, and she's running around like a lunatic doing all these dance routines. Since I got the part I've been going to the gym six days a week, and I've been running - although not very fast! In rehearsal we've done aerobic warm-up and I've been dancing every day. So I can just about do it now without being out of breath."

At least she doesn't have to worry about her wig: although voluminous, Tracy's famous beehive is incredibly light. "I forget it's there," says Jones, "until I catch my reflection and go, 'Woah, what the hell is that?'" Others aren't so lucky: Ball is developing back problems, unaccustomed as he is to dancing in heels and "this fucking huge off-kilter Mae West thing" Edna sports at the end.

The outrageous wigs, and the casting of a man as Edna, help keep Hairspray true to the subversive spirit of John Waters' film. But in its early stages, says O'Brien, the musical risked being nothing more than an evening of glitzy, light-hearted camp. "It has to have some tinge of reality to it," the director argues, "otherwise it's just a jeux, it can float right away from the stage."

The 68-year-old found that reality in his own memories of America in 1962. "I was just out of college, and I remember vividly how innocent we were. That spring before Kennedy was shot may be the last moment of the America that we all refer to and love. Everything that was not cynical, that was not sarcastic, that was not greedy, was there before a lot of our hopes and optimism collapsed in Dallas. And, like many of my fellow countrymen, I'm appalled by how our reputation has been sullied by 10 or 15 years of unspeakable behaviour. Remembering where we came from, it was very important to me that the company take this seriously, that there be a clear shot at where we might have begun to go wrong."

That's a lot for a cast to take on - especially a British cast, many of whom weren't even born in 1962. What makes it easier is that Tracy's indomitable, cheerful quest to dance on TV has politics built in: an early civil rights activist, she wants her black friends to dance on TV, too.

O'Brien has found crafty ways of communicating to his actors Hairspray's historical moment. When he first started working with the original cast, in the US, he would call everyone in for rehearsals, only to leave the black actors sitting on the sides while he concentrated on the white cast. After a week of this, the black actors were understandably frustrated and angry. "See?" he told them. "That's a week. Imagine that for a lifetime." In London, he was able simply to tell this story for the young cast to appreciate the point.

There have still been myriad cultural differences to iron out, including a crackdown on the American accents. "You have to be specific," says Ball. "At first I was very New York Jewish - you know, 'twalk', 'cwaffee' - but Edna is Baltimore Catholic. I was told, 'Very funny - in a different show.'" Sometimes individual words have caused a commotion. "There was a big thing about the word 'fanny'," says Jones. "As in, bottom. We're all shaking our bums when we sing it, but the Americans were worried the audience would be offended. We were going to change it to all sorts of things - tushie, booty - but we decided fanny translates."

With two days to go before previews start, the mood backstage is animated with an undercurrent of nervous tension. Mel Smith, playing Tracy's father, is ill. Ball is worried that, although he's having the time of his life, it might backfire horribly. "I need an audience to work out what's funny," he says. "I'm bursting out in that big Pucci number to an ocean of silence, and I'm thinking, 'Is this just embarrassing? Is it a Springtime for Hitler moment?'"

Jones admits that, mentally, she isn't quite ready for the "enormity" of leading a West End show. At the same time, she has a humbling appreciation of her good fortune. "I've got constant reminders of where I've just come from - I was working at the Halifax," she says. "It's still unbelievable that this has happened to me." As she skips off to have her wig fitted for another run-through, you think: how true to the Hairspray spirit that her teenage dreams have become reality.

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