A story of defiance in an age of racial injustice, Hairspray remains a highly relevant musical 15 years on

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By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist

Hairspray (2007), was perhaps one of the most iconic film adaptations ever to come out of the Tinseltown, not purely for its star-studded cast, but the central theme which still resonates down the vista of time too. During its preview by a cross-section of movie buffs, it was given the highest ratings possible.

The film was both critically and financially a soaring triumph, breaking the record for biggest sales at opening weekend for a movie musical which the film held until July 2008 when it was surpassed by Mamma Mia! (2008). Hairspray has received cult status and sealed its reputation for many years to come. But what makes it so special?

Courtesy of IMDB

Based on the eponymous 2002 Broadway musical, Hairspray (2007) was adapted from the 1988 John Waters movie starring Debbie Harry, Ricki Lake, Divine, Sonny Bono and Jerry Stiller. From the outset, it may appear a calculated risk even to attempt another adaptation after two blockbuster productions. But this is a story worth retelling.

The heroine of the story not only gets the pretty boy but is willing to sacrifice her one shot for fame for the sake of social justice. Goodness! They do not make heroes like this anymore.

The story is set in Baltimore in 1962 at the height of Racial Segregation. The protagonist of the story is a self proclaimed “pleasantly plump” teenager, Tracy Turnblad who lives with her parents, Wilbur and Edna. Although she is content with the stable and loving family environment, she is stifled by the limitations of the suburbs she grew up in.

Courtesy of IMDB

At school, Tracy keeps staring at the clock, waiting for the bell to ring, for the highlight of her day is watching “Corny Collins Show” on television with her friend, Penny Pingleton. The “Corny Collins Show” is a TV dance show in which local teenage dance sensations, including pupils from Tracy’s school, make an appearance.

Among those dancers, we find Link Larkin, the proverbial school heartthrob and his girlfriend, Amber von Tussle. Amber’s mother, Velma, manages the TV station and makes sure Amber is prominently featured even at the expense of more talented dancers.

The woman responsible for enacting a rule that all dancers who appear on the show are white. As a consolation offer, she allows one day a month in which the show features African-American dancers, an episode that is hosted by the black disk jockey, Motormouth Maybelle. Tracy loves dancing, and she wants nothing else but to go on “The Corny Collins Show”, but she needs to upgrade her dancing skills even to stand a chance.

Courtesy of IMDB

The opening scene of the movie features Tracy waking up in the morning and going to school while singing the sensational number, "Good morning, Baltimore". It is fresh, naïve and upbeat. She greets everyone on her way to school. There is such a joy in her voice, and it comes across as a shaft of lightning that comes lancing in.

Nikki Blonsky embodies the character of Tracy to a tee. The newcomer was selected from a large pool of aspiring young performers who turned up in their hundreds and thousands for the nationwide auditions. Blonsky, who just graduated from college, was working in an ice cream parlour before the next phase of her life.

Upon selecting this young actor, the director decided to surprise her while she was on shift by breaking the news via video link. The viral video in which she jumped in joy never fails to bring a tear to your eye. Her performance is natural, and she presents herself on set as though she has been acting for years. Her interactions with the cast are both nuanced and slick.

Courtesy of IMDB

During her detentions at school, she learns about the African-American beats and dances from black pupils who, too, were in detention. This opens a whole new world of arts and creativity that Tracy was hitherto unaware of. Blonsky executes the empathy and love she has for an African-American community who have been segregated from mainstream society without the slightest whiff of paternalism.

Tracy’s mum, Edna, according to theatrical custom, is played by a man in drag. John Travolta’s portrayal of Edna is both a revelation and delight. Even with the fat suit on, Travolta still exudes the Saturday Night Fever (1977) vibe to toe-tapping beats. For Edna’s role, Travolta sets the benchmark higher than ever. Michael Ball, who plays the role of Edna in the musical version on this side of the Atlantic, discussed in detail the challenges he faced with following such an iconic portrayal.

Meanwhile, the inimitable Christopher Walken plays Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s father and Edna’s husband. The dialogues and duets of Travolta and Walken warm the cockles of your hearts. Their on-screen love is depicted with finesse. The duet “You are timeless to me” speaks of their love for one another, despite changes in appearance after years of marriage.

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The pantomime villain Velma is portrayed with panache by Michelle Pfeiffer. She is icy, calculated and menacing. It might prove a difficult task finding a better-looking heartthrob than Zac Effron. He is not just a pretty face but a consummate artist who showcases his skills in dancing and singing, as featured in his signature number, “Ladies Choice”.

Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle is a delight. She triumphs in a performance defined not only by her unparalleled vocals, as featured in “I Know Where I've Been”, but in the empathy and nuance with which she portrays this important role. She is a matriarch for the African-American community in Baltimore, a figurehead who shines brightest when placed alongside Blonksy in a scene where the latter declares her wish to join the protest march. A moment on screen which is both delicate and heart-rending.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah confided that the inspiration for the role comes from her own mother who was a schoolteacher. A woman whose compassion was founded in teaching pupils from various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
Courtesy of IMDB

In a social media-dominated era, where body image is consistently scrutinised and commented upon, Blonsky’s Tracy rises above societal expectations. Racial Segregation might be a thing of the past, but in a society where Black and Ethnic Minority groups are still systematically discriminated against, we are clearly nowhere near achieving the goal of racial justice.

In celebrating the 15th anniversary of Hairspray, we ensure the importance of this production’s content remains paramount. Finding a moment to contemplate injustice, this musical’s seemingly lighthearted dialogue and tunes still shine like a freshly lit beacon.

Featured Image: IMDB


As Hairspray celebrates its 15th birthday, are there any other musicals you think remain equally as relevant?

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