One Week in September
with Mel Smith (Wilbur Turnblad in Hairspray)
The Guardian - 20/10/2007 ~
Tuesday, September 11 Arrive for first rehearsal of Hairspray. The traditional circle of chairs. Cast, senior crew, director, choreographer et al take it in turns to tell everyone their name, and what they are playing and doing. All very usual, except this is a circle of about 65 people!
When I directed Waiting For Godot, the circle was about six strong and I was still a bit hazy about people's names. Today I went into a trance-like state about halfway round, forgot when it was my turn and by the time the introductions were over I knew who Michael Ball was (did anyway), and was pretty sure the director's name is Jack... or Jerry... or Danny... (But my money's on Danny being a production executive... or the sound designer.) Ah well, I'll fall back on "love", "mate", "Morning, gorgeous" and "'Ello, sweetheart" for the next three weeks.
Wednesday Have attached myself, limpet-like, to Michael Ball [who plays Edna, wife of Smith's Wilbur Turnblad]. If getting through this smash hit American musical is my Everest, then he's my guide and sherpa. No way I can plummet to theatrical death if he's on the other end of the nylon rope, even allowing for the fact that he is rehearsing in high heels. I'm relieved to see him calling everyone "gorgeous", "lovey" and "honeybun" - two West End wendies together.
Rehearsals all over the building, with the opening routine chorus in room seven (huge space with mirrored walls), singing rehearsals in rooms four, three and nine (yes, there are at least four rehearsal pianists, a choreographer, his assistant and two dance captains). Dialect sessions in room eight and, reigning over all, our director - Jack O'Brien (I knew his name was Jack!), who is very bright, oozes authority and experience, and is also extremely funny.
He points out that the joyful, life-affirming opening number, Good Morning, Baltimore, would equate to Good Morning, Swansea in a British version.
"Strong work ethic" would be the polite way of describing the Yank rehearsal style, ah well, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong" as they say (or makes you knackered).
Michael and I rehearse our duet. He has the most incredible voice, such ease and facility. When everyone tells me I sound great, too, I know they're not telling me the truth, what a relief (I do so hate being told the truth in public). I relax a little.
Thursday Every day begins with a half-hour warm-up for the company (minus one half-asleep, slightly embarrassed ex-TV comedian).
I am finding it hard to come up with a suitable expression or attitude to strike while a room full of dancers stretch, bend, jog and gyrate. I've tried "wistful fascination of a doting parent", tried ignoring it (not tenable).
Today, I've settled on the mildly interested expression I use on planes when the nice hostess is demonstrating how to buckle a seat belt. I do, however, start joining in the vocal warm-up (yup, he is a team player). I discover that vocal warm-ups work! They help you sing better. (Duh - who'd a thunk it?)
Friday Just watched the opening number - fully choreographed. Jaw-droppingly excellent; it really is fun, this "musical" thing. The young chorus are a fantastic bunch, disciplined but exuberant, very open and friendly.
The black guys seem to find me hilarious. I keep messing up on the handshake, though, I clutch while they slap and slap while they clutch.
Saturday I have about six costume changes, I try them all on for the perusal of a specially-flown-in American costume person. He wants the buttons changed on my second jacket: brighter, funnier. (Funnier buttons?!)
Sunday Brush my teeth while listening to the US cast album of Hairspray. Joined in with You Can't Stop The Beat, I think I have become a fully paid-up "lovey".
Passed the Shaftesbury theatre on the way to work. Pictures up on display. Yes, I'm definitely co-starring with Michael Ball in Hairspray - bizarre, or what?
Monday Whole morning (four hours) working on the Ball-Smith dance routine. Everyone very encouraging, particularly Ball. (Lovely man or master of deceit? Dunno.)
My main problem is looking straight ahead at the mirror wall while dancing; spend my time looking at my feet - not good.
Tuesday Now, this is unbelievable. Last night Michael said that I wasn't using the mirror correctly! (I nearly laid him out - I THINK I know how to look in a bloody mirror.) Thing is, it's true, I look at my own reflection while rehearsing, when I should be focusing on all the other people alongside me.
Wednesday First full run-through of the show. Marc Shaiman (composer) flies in to watch it. All the great and the good from here and the US in attendance. Got my bits pretty much right. I think what most surprised me was how incredibly nervous I was beforehand, for a run-through. It's a different world, but I am really glad I came here for a while, much, much better than real life.
· Hairspray opens at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, on October 30.