Broadway San Diego is back live with 'Hairspray'
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Hairspray began as a very indie 1988 film by John Waters and then became a musical play in 2002. The touring production of hairspray marks Broadway San Diego's returned to live performances. This week. The show is helmed by former old globe, artistic director, Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell, KPBS arts reporter, Beth Huck Amando speaks with O'Brien about transforming a film into a musical.
Speaker 2: (00:29)
So when you are tackling a play, that's based on a very iconic movie, what are the challenges of that? Do you try to make it look like the original source material or do you try to kind of be radically different?
Speaker 3: (00:44)
Look, all movies do not make musicals. And it's a sort of lazy formula now that we can take birth of the nation and make it into a musical. One of the worst things in my estimation you can do is ask the original screenwriter to do the adaptation because they have created what they wanted to do. And they think basically by adding a couple spoonfuls of music in there, they're home free, but all screenplays or in fact, all stories don't sing. I was always fascinated when I was working on Shakespeare on the fact that he, the elevated texts, very common people spoke for pro's intelligent people, spoken blank verse, but people who are raised to a higher consciousness speak poetry. And I don't know whether how many people know this, but when Romeo and Juliet meet, they speak in interlocking sonnets, perfect match sonnets. Now the average playgoer, isn't going to know this, but what he's suggesting is there's no way these people cannot be together because they share a rarer form of communication.
Speaker 3: (02:11)
Only reserved for shakes, parenting characters, and angels. I think now what is above poetry music when you're passionate enough about whatever it is, you're thinking that pro's blank, verse poetry don't work for you. You open your mouth and you sing. That's what I mean. When you look at the piece that you're thinking about, does it need that other dimension? And if it doesn't, can it, can you shift your focus in such a way as to make the characters want to soar if they can't and that cannot be just love or passion, it can be anger. It can be righteousness. It can be a lot of things, but it's an exalted state that requires music. And if the person contemplating making a Mo a musical out of their film or any film, can't find that structure, I would ask them not to do the thing. Does that make sense? Yes.
Speaker 2: (03:18)
So in casting, this, uh, divine has very large shoes to fill And you have Nina west stepping into that role. So talk about that casting.
Speaker 3: (03:32)
Well, let me just say something about the 22 years intervening history that have occurred since we launched hairspray. Now, when we did the original, there was Harvey who was instrumental, not only in creating it, but in writing a lot for himself. Wow.
Speaker 4: (03:51)
I am big. I am blonde heirs. And if you say I'm beautiful, I guess I'm beautiful it,
Speaker 3: (04:00)
But Harvey is Sui generous. It's Harvey there's there are very few Harvey Firestone's in the world, but we also found there were fewer and fewer male stars that wanted to get into the dress and pumps and play that part. Maybe the most accomplished was Michael Ball in London. He saw the wit he saw the humanity in that character and he wanted to play her. And so he did here. We did find many people who want, thought they wanted to do it. George went, I mean, I really had some wonderful people, but there wasn't a cadre of natural performers that were dying to play that part. And you got to have a larger than life person do it. You just do. Uh, and then comes Ru Paul, who was not even a blip in the radar when we started this. And if you had said to me, uh, or the turn of the century on one of the most popular and appealing television series in, uh, coming down the pike is the drag race.
Speaker 3: (05:11)
I would have said, you're not NGS. RuPaul has pulled this off. Where's thinking, wow, you know what? There's another category of performer out there that the younger generation will flock to see. And I think that, that Andrew as Nina west, although he's not playing Nina west in hairspray, I, I, I beg you to understand this is not a special guest appearance by Nina west, camping it up in hairspray. One of the interesting things in working with Andrew on this, that Jerry and I and Matt Lenz and all of us actually putting the work back together have tried to explain is it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman that reality of being a parent, an insecure parent does not have to do necessarily with John with gender. It has to do with the heart. Andrew, God bless him, started shedding his mannerisms and finding the simple truth of Edna Turnblad, which was that she's a big woman who was disappointed in history, where she grew up and not being appreciated or encouraged to be creative. She wanted to be a designer. She said, and there were last words on the stage is America. I designed this myself is just enough to make you wait,
Speaker 2: (06:42)
Do you think has contributed to Hairspray's longevity? What is it about this that appeals to people over generations?
Speaker 3: (06:49)
Well, I wish I, I actually, I wish I knew that because I could sort of mint this entire idea. Um, I, I think it was with a certain amount of trepidation that we all looked at this piece in today's market with hypersensitivity in terms of role playing and tropes and what you're allowed to say and what you're not allowed to say. And we found basically that it was just fine, that it is in fact, a very accurate historical representation of what was going on in 1962, from which we can then see how we got here. It's a little tiny time capsule of race relations. Um, do you see the innocence of these kids who do not quite understand why they shouldn't be allowed to dance together? And you see this little girl who has a dream be fueled by the imagination and talent of the black kids and given enough of her own spark of divine fire, to be able to make her dream come true. It couldn't be more contemporary in that respect, but we've preserved basically John Waters formula, which is can't. We all just get along.
Speaker 5: (08:11)
Speaker 1: (08:17)
That was Beth Huck. Amando speaking with Jack O'Brien hairspray runs tomorrow through November 21st at San Diego civic theater.
Speaker 5: (08:26)
You can stop the season's girl [inaudible].
Old Globe's former artistic director Jack O'Brien talks about adapting "Hairspray" from screen to musical theater.
"Hairspray" began as a very indie 1988 film by John Waters and then became a musical play in 2002. The touring production of "Hairspray" marks Broadway San Diego's return to live performances this week. The show is helmed by former Old Globe Artistic Director Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell.
John Waters and "Hairspray"
John Waters has been called The Sultan of Sleaze, The Prince of Puke and The King of Schlock – all titles he wears proudly.
He shocked audiences in 1972 with “Pink Flamingos,” a no-budget independent film set in his hometown of Baltimore and starring his beloved Divine, a 300 pound drag queen who plays the notorious Babs who is fighting to maintain her title of the filthiest person alive. The film was an all out satiric assault on the middle class values that Waters saw as oppressive and hypocritical. The film lobbed a bomb in the cultural war of the early '70s but what made Waters unique was the joyous quality of his work, the wicked delight he took in trashy obscenity.
Although he dealt with topics like incest, exhibitionism and singing anuses, his approach to filmmaking relied on a Hollywood tradition of straightforward narrative plots, entertainment over enlightenment, and a stable of stars. By embracing these Hollywood trappings, he eventually found mainstream success with “Hairspray,” which dealt with racism through the lens of teens in 1960s Baltimore and featured Divine as Edna Turnblad. The irony of that success delights Waters.
The film eventually became a hit musical, in which Harvey Fierstein made his mark as Edna, and then the stage musical got translated back to the screen in 2007 with John Travolta donning drag and a fat suit to play Edna.
'Hairspray' the musical
O'Brien admits that turning movies into musicals has become a "lazy formula" because not all stories are meant to sing. He turns to all his years directing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre to explain.
"I was always fascinated when I was working on Shakespeare on the fact that the common people spoke prose, intelligent people spoke in blank verse, but people who are raised to a higher consciousness speak poetry," O'Brien said. "And I don't know how many people know this, but when Romeo and Juliet meet, they speak in interlocking sonnets, perfect matched sonnets, what he's suggesting is there's no way these people cannot be together because they share a rarer form of communication only reserved for Shakespearean characters and angels. I think now what is above poetry, music. When you're passionate enough about whatever it is you're thinking then prose, blank verse, poetry don't work for you. You need to open your mouth and you sing. That's what I mean. When you look at the piece that you're thinking about, does it need that other dimension? And if it doesn't, can it? But it's an exalted state that requires music. And if the person contemplating making a musical out of their film or any film can't find that structure, I would ask them not to do the damn thing."
But Waters' film was filled with rock and roll music and with teen passions, so a musical works.
Staging a play that deals with race relations back in the 1960s against today's social and political backdrop did give O'Brien pause.
"We all looked at this piece in today's market with hypersensitivity in terms of role playing and tropes and what you're allowed to say and what you're not allowed to say and we found basically that it was just fine that it is, in fact, a very accurate historical representation of what was going on in 1962, from which we can then see how we got here," O'Brien. "It's a little tiny time capsule of race relations where you see the naïveté, you see the sweetness, you see the innocence of these kids who do not quite understand why they shouldn't be allowed to dance together. And you see this little girl who has a dream fueled by the imagination and talent of the Black kids and given enough of her own spark of divine fire to be able to make her dream come true. It couldn't be more contemporary in that respect."
"Hairspray" runs Tuesday, Nov. 16 through Nov. 21 at San Diego's Civic Theatre.