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Arts & Culture

Broadway San Diego is back live with 'Hairspray'

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Phil Martin and Jeremy Daniel
The touring company of "Hairspray" marks Broadway San Diego's return to live performances this week.

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.

'Hairspray' marks Broadway San Diego's return to live performances

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.

RELATED: The Trash Cinema Of John Waters

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.

How John Waters' 'Hairspray' found mainstream success
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.
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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.