There has always been something subversive about “Hairspray.” After all, the original 1988 film came from the transgressive mind of John Waters, the filmmaker who has been called the “Baron of Bad Taste,” among other things.While “Hairspray” is the tamest of Water’s films, it even had a PG rating, it still pushed boundaries. A seemingly light retro comedy set in 1962 Baltimore, the story revolves around a “pleasantly plump” teenager named Tracy Turnblad who wants to become the star dancer on a local TV pop-music show.
But Waters story deals with issues of body image, segregation and integration, interracial teenage romance and, in the film version as Tracy’s mom, Edna, Waters cast Divine, the famous drag queen in one of his last roles.Harvey Fierstein played Edna on Broadway when “Hairspray” was turned into a musical in 2002. The gravelly voiced actor and playwright will reprise his Tony Award-winning performance for “Hairspray Live!,” which airs Wednesday on NBC.While “Hairspray” takes place in the Civil Rights era, it has remained timely in its various reincarnations, including the 2007 film version of the musical and a live performance a couple years ago at the Hollywood Bowl that also featured Fierstein.
“You start thinking, ‘Have we really come that far?’ Then we get this wake-up call last week and it’s like, ‘We’ve got to start education over again.” Sitting outside on the Universal back lot — with a set of storefronts made to look like a Baltimore street nearby — a week after the presidential election, the actor and other cast members talk about why “Hairspray” never seems to go out of date.Fierstein says that when he started working on the musical around 2000 he noticed that a number of Civil Rights initiatives like school busing were being phased out.
Wednesday.Where: NBC. What: Live adaptation of hit musical with an all-star cast and newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad.When: 8 p.m.
When he adapted “The Wiz Live!” for NBC, the production was designed to fit on a Broadway stage. I think we’re witnessing that here again today.”Turning Broadway musicals into live network television is a fairly recent phenomenon. Martin Short, who plays Edna’s husband, Wilbur, adds: “When I first saw the show, I thought it was so much about two groups — one that was on the right side of history and one that was on the wrong side of history. So far they are drawing big audiences, but Fierstein notes there is a learning curve involved.