Big Hair, Black Comedy
I haven’t seen the 1988 John Waters film of the same name upon which Hairspray is based. Or, perhaps I should say that I haven’t seen the Broadway adaptation of the Waters movie that debuted in 2002 and is still going strong with the tourist crowd. But this state of blank ignorance will be the case with 99 percent of the multiplex audience who catches this 2007 film either in theaters or later on DVD. How else? Apart from the expense of a trip to New York, orchestra seats are going for $110 and “premium seating” tickets for a whopping $240! Hell, even ordinary, non-Donald Trump New Yorkers can’t afford that.
So perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that we’re seeing a spate of movie-to-Broadway-to-movie adaptations… if we can call three a “spate.” (There was the movie musical Little Shop of Horrors two decades ago, but that was multiple trend cycles in the past.) Because so far, they’ve been really quite good. Chicago was 2002’s Oscar Best Picture, and not undeservedly so. The Producers was a delightful lark, and the staginess of its presentation near to re-created the experience of seeing it on the Great White Way. And now there’s Hairspray, which couldn’t be more charming and joyous, more get-up-and-dance toe-tapping, more simply agreeable. If bringing Broadway to the masses works this well, well, why the hell not? This probably means we’re in for a lightning fast double turnaround for Legally Blonde: The Musical before too long, because that’s the tourist trap of the moment currently infuriating New York theatergoers lamenting the disappearance of serious theater, even as it garners decent reviews. But we’ll deal with that as it comes.
These shows — on stage — are tourists traps, no matter how enjoyable and singalong-snappy they may be. They’re designed to be theme-park amusements for theatergoers who want a taste of the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd but wouldn’t want to know from Pinter if he paused to bite them on the ass. And their bright, bubbly, please-don’t-force-me-to-think-too-much attitude actually works much better onscreen. Oh, sure, there’s satire galore in Hairspray, about the wages of conformity and the price of small-mindedness, but it’s couched in bouffant cotton candy and spritely songs. And it’s all perfectly wonderful — I don’t want to sound as if I’m damning the movie with faint praise. It’s as good as entertainment for the masses gets… and it’s actually in a medium better suited for it than the Broadway stage.
It’s a nice indication of how far we’ve come as a culture that there is no hedging in the sendup here of the idiocy of racial segregation, the crux around which Balitmorean teen Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who’s lovely) experiences her coming of age in 1962. She’s hooked on a local TV dance program, “The Corny Collins Show,” but her dreams of dancing on the show are dashed by the fact that, well, she’s a short, round little thing, and no matter how cute or vivacious she is, she is never going to be one of the tall, willowy creatures the show favors for its girl dancers. Until, shockingly, her dream comes true when herself bustin’ a groove catches the eye of Corny (the slyly superb James Marsden: Superman Returns, X-Men: The Last Stand) and she lands a part on his dance floor. But she can’t leave well enough alone: now she wants to integrate Corny’s show, get all the black kids out of their ghetto of the show’s once-a-month “Negro Day” and in front of the cameras every day.
Tracy isn’t so much a rabblerouser as she is merely naive enough to not really grasp the implications of what she starts by wanting to dance with her negro friends, who are simply really fantastic dancers. The touches of 60s cluelessness on display — the smoky teachers’ lounge at Tracy’s high school, the unused seat belts hanging out of a car — add sprigs of bitter irony, but mostly Hairspray wears its tender, sweet heart on its sleeve, singing itself hoarse on chipper tunes about being nice, being in love, and being yourself no matter what anyone else thinks.
Which makes it very easy to love, utterly unchallenging but utterly unobjectionable with it. Even John Travolta (Lonely Hearts, Wild Hogs) in his drag fat suit as Edna, Tracy’s mom, is cuddly and adorable. (Whether his Scientology makes the actor anti-gay — and hence, presumably, anti-drag — as some detractors have tried to point out, there’s not a whiff of anything insulting or antagonistic in his performance.) If you want the John Waters’ original — which I’m guessing is more redolent of his snide, acid humor — that one still exists. But if you want the fluffy, featherweight, but enchanting Broadway version, here ya go.