Directors / Film / Movies / Musicals / Screenplays / Writers

‘Hairspray’ – A Look Back on its Tenth Anniversary

Time flies. 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of the movie musical version of Hairspray. It premiered in theaters on July 20, 2007. To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to look back on it. Talk about its success. Why it worked. When so many movies in the same genre fade from memory.

The movie musical may be the most troubling cinematic genre. For every Chicago there’s a The Producers.

Why?

Because for a movie musical to be successful, everyone and everything working on it must compliment each other. The cast, the costumes, the production design, the producers, the writer, the director – all must be syncopated.

Hairspray was in great hands from the start. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron believed it could be a hit movie musical. If done properly.

Their relationship with the filmed musical goes back to the 1990s. They produced a new version of Gypsy for HBO, starring Bette Midler as Mama Rose. Its success proved there was an audience for this genre.

Zadan and Meron went on to produce Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Whitney Houston and Brandy; plus Annie, starring Kathy Bates. Both for ABC.

After the success of Moulin Rouge, Zadan and Meron believed it was time to make the leap to the big screen. That project, Chicago, became the first movie musical to win the Best Picture Academy Award since Oliver! in 1968.

Zadan and Meron knew how to do it. Their approach? Adapt A VERSION of the stage production into a movie. What works on stage doesn’t always translate well to film.

Lots of movie musicals fail because they try to be straight adaptations of the Broadway show. This is mostly done to assuage fears and pacify die hard fans of the stage production. Well, as Stephen King has written, “tough titty said the kitty.” Sacrifice scenes and songs for the transition.

To make an effortless stage-to-screen transition, you need a believable conceit. Chicago languished in development hell for decades until its director, Rob Marshall, had the idea to make every song take place inside the main character’s head. A sort of delusion, an escape from a life she hates.

For Hairspray to work, Zadan and Meron needed a conceit just as believable. Something to hook the audience. Make them suspend disbelief of people breaking out into random songs.

Director Adam Shankman knew just how to make Hairspray work. His idea: Tracy Turnblad always hears music in her head. Life was a song to her. Notice in the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore”, Tracy is backed by a chorus of disembodied voices. Most directors would have had the people on the street be Tracy’s background singers. But not Shankman. That wouldn’t fit his narrative. Tracy’s in her own world of eighth notes and dance steps. And the audience buys it.

With this idea cemented in stone, the producers and Shankman brought in Leslie Dixon to write the screenplay. An inspired decision, considering her comedy writing credits. Two of which are Overboard, and a rewrite on Mrs. Doubtfire.

Dixon saw eye-to-eye with the producers and director. The movie should honor the source material (the 1988 Jon Waters film and the 2002 Broadway show), yet stand out. Be different. Having seen the Broadway show three times, I can attest Dixon did just that. She excised several songs that didn’t fit the film’s narrative (like “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now”), and added one that was cut from the stage show (“The New Girl in Town”).

Scenes opened up so they wouldn’t become stagnant and bore the audience. In numerous interviews, Dixon states that film audiences won’t accept several songs consecutively taking place in the same setting. That’s why none of her scenes bog down in the same location for more than five minutes without cutting away. A film editor’s delight.

Unlike in the stage version, every song in the movie after the opening number is a segregated performance. In a film dealing with race and inclusion, this cannot be a coincidence. James Marsden (Corny Collins) and the Council Kids perform the breathless “The Nicest Kids In Town”. Michelle Pfeiffer gives us “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”. Solo numbers that mirror the segregation of 1960s America.
The first true duet occurs with the show-stopper “Welcome to the 60’s”. The song Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) persuading her mother Edna (John Travolta) to leave their house for the first time in over a decade. When Edna steps outside, she gives up on self-imposed isolation to try something new. In doing so, she’s THE FIRST outside character to integrate with Tracy’s colorblind world.

This doesn’t happen in the stage show. Perhaps the inevitable Broadway revival will take a page from the screenplay and tighten things up.

Two other major defections occur with the finale. In the stage version, the villains see the light. Racism is atrocious. They repent. In the movie, only Amber Von Tussel (Brittany Snow) shows a hint of ideological change. Her mother Velma (Pfeiffer) will never change her mind.

The second defection is the winner of the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant. In the stage show, it’s Tracy. Her dream of acceptance is rewarded. In the movie, Little Inez Stubbs (Taylor Parks) takes the crown. This symbolizes the death of racism and that everyone is important, no matter your color or how much you weigh. Tracy doesn’t need to win the pageant; it isn’t what’s important to her anymore. Now she accepts herself and is accepted by others. Her mother has rejoined society. And she has single-handedly integrated Baltimore. That’s Tracy’s true reward.

The movie had a total box office haul of $202.5 million. Its soundtrack hit number two on the Billboard 200.

Hairspray was a hit.

From beginning to end, Hairspray is a flawless movie musical. A new classic in the genre. An example of a great adaptation. Rock out to it. Learn from it. Then rock out to it again.

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