Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion – dancing. Her dream is to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s hippest dance party on TV. Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) seems a natural fit for the show except for one not-so-little problem – she doesn’t fit in. Her plus-sized figure has always set her apart from the cool crowd, which she is reminded of by her loving but overly protective plus-sized mother, Edna (John Travolta). That doesn’t stop Tracy because if there is one thing that this girl knows, it’s that she was born to dance. As her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) tells her, “Go for it! You’ve got to think big to be big.”
After wowing Corny Collins (James Marsden) at her high school dance, Tracy wins a spot on his show and becomes an instant on-air sensation, much to the chagrin of the show’s reigning princess, Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and her scheming mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), who runs television station WYZT. Even worse for Amber is the fact that it’s not just the audience who loves the new girl in town; Amber’s sweetheart, Link Larkin (Zac Efron), seems to be smitten with Tracy’s charms as well. This dance party gets personal as a bitter feud erupts between the girls as they compete for the coveted “Miss Teenage Hairspray” crown.
At school, however, a short stint in detention and raised-eyebrows caused by the budding relationship between her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) and Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) opens Tracy’s eyes to a bigger issue than the latest dance craze or the coolest hairdo – racial inequality. Throwing caution to the wind, she leads a march with Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) to fight for integration and winds up with an arrest warrant instead. Tracy is on the lam now and goes underground – literally – to her best friend Penny’s basement.
Has Tracy’s luck finally run out? Will she miss the final dance-off against Amber and forfeit the title of “Miss Hairspray,” or will she sing and dance her way out of trouble again?
When big hair meets big dreams anything can happen – and does – in this high-energy comedy that proves you don’t have to fit in to win.
Based on the 1988 John Waters cult classic film and the critically-acclaimed, Tony Award-winning Broadway hit musical, Hairspray features the all-star ensemble of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle, Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad, Amanda Bynes as Penny Pingleton, James Marsden as Corny Collins and Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, as well Brittany Snow as Amber Von Tussle, Zac Efron as Link Larkin, Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, Allison Janney as Prudy Pingleton, Jerry Stiller, Paul Dooley and introducing eighteen-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad.
Hairspray is directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier) from a screenplay by Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday, Mrs. Doubtfire).
The music is by Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award-winner and five-time Oscar®-nominee Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray: The Musical,” Sleepless in Seattle, The American President, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) with lyrics by Tony and Grammy Award-winner Scott Wittman (“Hairspray: The Musical”) and Shaiman and features several brand new songs created specifically for the film adaptation. The film is based on the 1988 screenplay, Hairspray, written by John Waters, and the 2002 Musical Stage Play, “Hairspray,” Book by Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.
The film is produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the executive producers of the Academy Award® and Golden Globe Award-winning Best Picture, Chicago, as well as television’s “Annie,” “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” “Gypsy” and “Cinderella”. The executive producers are Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, Toby Emmerich, Mark Kaufman, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot (Step Up, The Pacifier) and Garrett Grant (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, The Pacifier).
The creative production team includes director of photography Bojan Bazelli, ASC (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), Oscar®-nominated production designer David Gropman (The Cider House Rules), editor Michael Tronick, A.C.E. (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), Oscar®-nominated costume designer Rita Ryack (How the Grinch Stole Christmas), Academy Award®-winning set decorator Gordon Sim, S.D.S.A. (Chicago), and three-time Academy Award®-winning sound mixer David MacMillan (Apollo 13, Speed, The Right Stuff).
New Line Cinema will release Hairspray (rated PG by the M.P.A.A. for “language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking”) in theaters nationwide on July 20th, 2007.
The story of Hairspray’s genesis begins in 1988, when filmmaker John Waters and New Line Cinema released the original Hairspray. Like his prior films, including Pink Flamingos and Polyester, Hairspray was written, directed and produced by Waters and quickly became another comedy cult classic. The film starred newcomer Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, the titular Divine (née Glen Milstead) as her loving mother, Edna, and veteran actor Jerry Stiller as her father, Wilbur. This was a story that only John Waters could have told (and cast) in his own inimitable way.
“I wrote it on my bed in my kind of slummy apartment in Baltimore,” says Waters. “I lived a lot of this movie growing up in Baltimore in the early ‘60s. I used to watch the local TV teen dance show, “The Buddy Dean Show,” and even was on it once. I, like all the other white kids, was listening to the black music back then. We had three black radio stations.”
“John really lived the coming together of those two cultures in Baltimore,” says Jerry Stiller, who now portrays Mr. Pinky, the owner of the Hefty Hideaway, a dress shop with “Quality Clothes for Quantity Gals” in the new version of the film.
“The result was a story that could have only come from his uniquely crazy personality and perspective on life,” says Stiller, whose children, Amy and Ben, urged him to take the role of Wilbur Turnblad in the 1988 film. “John has no limits or restrictions when it comes to his sense of humor, and that is his brilliance as a filmmaker. His vision of life in 1962 Baltimore may be a bit twisted, but you can’t deny the fact that it’s incredibly funny.”
Waters explains that his film is actually a white person’s perspective (as seen through the eyes of teenager Tracy Turnblad) of the integration movement. “I think my movie resonated with people because it was really funny but socially redeeming without being preachy. The biggest difference, no pun intended, was that on the real Buddy Dean show, there was never a fat girl. So that’s where the character of Tracy came from. To me, Tracy, the fat girl, basically represented every outsider, and her dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show represented the dreams of anyone facing discrimination of any kind.”
The dreams of Tracy Turnblad did not end with the final box office tally for Waters’ 1988 film. In 2002, New Line debuted “Hairspray: The Musical,” the smash hit Broadway adaptation of Waters’ cult classic film. Written by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, “Hairspray: The Musical” was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won eight, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score (Music and Lyrics), Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Harvey Fierstein), Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Marissa Jaret Winokur), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Dick Latessa), Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long) and Best Direction of a Musical (Jack O’Brien).
The show continues to attract audiences to Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre and to road productions all over North America thanks to its catchy music, likeable characters, underdog/outsider themes and comedy which have struck a chord with audiences of all ages. The show is also expanding internationally with a 2-week run in Japan in July 2007 and a London opening in October 2007.
For the original Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake (who, like Waters and Jerry Stiller, appears in a cameo role in the new film), John Waters’ movie is a Cinderella story not only in terms of its themes but for her personally as well.
“It was actually a little overwhelming to be on set in Toronto on the day I did my cameo,” Lake recalls. “I mean, it was 19 years ago when we made the original. It’s surreal to think that I am actually old enough to be the new Tracy’s mother! Seriously, I think the story is still relevant today…you know, the ideas of tolerance and acceptance and inclusion. And I love the idea of the underdog winning. It’s such a positive story about being true to yourself and if you can do that, then your dreams can come true. Like mine did. Being in the original opened every door for me, and I’m eternally grateful to John Waters for discovering me and plucking me from obscurity and making me a star. In a lot of ways, Nikki Blonsky is wearing the shoes that I filled so long ago, and may she have as long and as lovely a career as I have had.”
Now, in 2007, the third generation of John Waters’ story has been created. Neither a remake of the 1988 film nor a filmed version of the 2002 stage musical, the film is a “re-invention” based on the hit Broadway show.
In Fall 2004, New Line Cinema – the common thread to all three iterations – enlisted producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to help shepherd this new version to the screen, which began with their hiring of screenwriter Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire, 2003’s Freaky Friday). The duo are veterans of the musical genre, having executive produced the Academy Award®-winning Chicago (which was the first movie musical to win the Oscar® for Best Picture in 34 years) and produced television productions of “Gypsy,” “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “Annie,” and “The Music Man.”
“All three incarnations of Hairspray have the same DNA, the same bloodline,” says Neil Meron. “They’re all very much related to one another, but unique in their respective artistic sensibilities. This film utilizes the building blocks of the original movie and combines it with the energy and fun of the Broadway musical to create a singularly different translation of the story. It’s like having triplets…they’re not always identical, they don’t always look the same, but they come from the same family.”
“For all of us, it was first and foremost about honoring the source material,” says Craig Zadan. “Whether it was comedic elements from the original film or musical elements from the Broadway show, we approached this movie with a deep respect and dignity for the story that John Waters so brilliantly conceived.”
New Line Cinema and the producers found a perfect choice for director in Adam Shankman. Hairspray also marks a return to Shankman’s roots in the entertainment business. “This is truly a dream come true for me, and I feel like I’ve come home,” says Shankman, who spent the first half of his career as a successful dancer and stage and film choreographer. He then turned to directing movies like The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and Cheaper By the Dozen 2, which combined to earn more than $600 million worldwide.
“Craig and I have known Adam for many years and have watched him grow into a talented filmmaker,” says Meron. “When we first sat down with him to talk about the possibility of him directing this movie, he was very, very passionate. He told us that he understood this show more than anything he’s done in his entire career. To him, the story of Tracy Turnblad and her indomitable spirit to succeed somewhat echoes portions of his own life and his desire and determination to work hard and be successful. Given his expertise in the genres of dance, musical theatre and film, and his intrinsic relationship with the material, he truly was the guiding force behind this film.”
“The films I’ve been lucky enough to direct over the past few years didn’t utilize the skill sets of my years as a dancer,” Shankman says. “Directing Hairspray took me back to doing what I felt I was always supposed to do…and I loved it. On top of which, I was surrounded by some of the most talented people I have ever met. The cast is so rich in talent and their collective courage in stepping into a project like this was awe-inspiring.”
Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron believe the magic of Hairspray is created from the combination of Shankman’s unique skills as a director-choreographer; the stellar cast of award-winners and hot, young newcomers; and the upbeat music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who have written several new songs for the film, including the Elvis-inspired “Ladies Choice” for heartthrob Link Larkin (played by Zac Efron) and “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go),” sung by Queen Latifah, Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley, which appears over the end title credits.
For his part, Marc Shaiman credits John Waters for laying out a timeless blueprint with the original film. “What we’ve come to today is all based on John Waters’ classic story of 19 years ago,” says Shaiman. “At the heart of that story is the idea of realization of one’s dreams.”
Shankman adds, “I’m a huge fan of John’s film and the Broadway musical. And the reason they both succeeded is because the story of the big girl with the big hair and big dreams holds up no matter what medium is used to tell it. So now, by telling the story using the best of both worlds of film and theatre, a whole new generation of audiences are going to get to experience the crazy comedy of the original film and the sheer joy and exuberance of the Broadway show.”
A NEW TWIST ON TRADITION
This new version of Hairspray is not without at least two traditions of the franchise’s legacy: the role of Tracy Turnblad has always been played by an unknown talent; and the role of Edna Turnblad has always been played by a male actor. First it was Ricki Lake and Divine, then Marissa Winokur and Harvey Fierstein and now, Nikki Blonsky is Tracy and John Travolta is Edna.
“Come to Mama.” With arms wide open, those were the first words actor John Travolta said to his latest leading lady, Nikki Blonsky, upon meeting her for the first time back in August 2006. Seeing them together, everyone involved in the production knew they were on to something special.
“Their connection was immediate,” recalls producer Neil Meron. “That first meeting exemplifies the relationship they had from the get-go. It was a bit overwhelming because it was like these two people were destined to be together in some way. We all just took a step back because we knew we were witnessing the beginning of what might be one of the greatest ‘mother-daughter’ acts of all time.”
“The day I met John Travolta is a day I’ll never forget,” says Blonsky, the high school senior who was working part-time at a Long Island ice cream store before landing a starring role opposite one of the most famous movie stars in history. “When we hugged, I felt like I was hugging my real mom. He made me feel so comfortable and loved and protected…which is just what moms are supposed to do.”
“A star has definitely been born,” says Travolta of Blonsky’s performance. “I don’t think I’ll ever have to eat my words about that. Once you see Nikki perform it will be quite evident that she has a presence, talent and charisma not unlike a young Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler. She is as unique in her abilities as those two women are in theirs.”
The chemistry between Travolta and Blonsky may have been instantaneous, but the casting of Edna and Tracy Turnblad was not accomplished quite as quickly. In fact, it took more than a year for producers Zadan and Meron to convince Travolta to star in the film.
“John is the greatest movie musical star of this generation, but he was reticent for a long time because he was concerned about a return to the genre that made him a star,” says Meron. “He kept telling Craig and me that if he was to make another musical he wanted it to be a project that was not going to be ordinary in any way. Well, we just kept saying to him that John Travolta portraying Edna Turnblad would be anything but ordinary.”
Zadan adds, “Understandably, John was hesitant for many reasons, but we kept telling him that this was his role, that it would be unlike any role he has ever done in his career. John has always kept surprising his audience, and we told him this would be his biggest surprise ever, literally and figuratively speaking.”
This was not the first time Meron and Zadan had approached Travolta about starring in a musical. They initially hoped that would accept the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago, but he turned it down and the part ultimately went to Richard Gere.
“Honestly, Chicago was the first musical film project that tempted me to return to the genre, and now I have regrets that I didn’t do it,” says Travolta. “So, Craig and Neil told me that I was not getting away this time. They gave me all the details of how they were going to approach the material and all the reasons why I should play this part. For quite a while, though, it was hard for me to grasp the concept of being a leading man for 30 years, and now I am being sought out to play a fat woman from Baltimore. But after many, many months of indecision, they successfully convinced me to shake my booty again, but this time as Edna.”
Helping transform Travolta into Edna was the special makeup design expertise of Tony Gardner and his incredibly talented team of makeup artists and prosthetic craftsmen. Essentially, for four to five hours on each of his work days, Travolta was encased from forehead-to-toe in a full body fat suit (weighing over 30 pounds) and five separate gel-filled silicone prosthetic appliances (chin & lower lip, upper lip, two cheek pieces and one wrap-around neck and cleavage piece). In total, three full body suits (plus a half-body silicone suit weighing 75 pounds) were built, and 11 pairs of legs, nine pairs of arms and over 40 sets of facial appliances were manufactured to use in the transformation.
In regards to the daily makeup process, Travolta had a love/hate relationship with Edna.
“I can say being Edna was fun, but becoming Edna was not fun,” says Travolta. “I loved the effect the look had on people when they would see me on set as Edna, but I did not love the process involving the prosthetics and the fat suit. It was very uncomfortable and very hot. It was like wearing seven layers of very uncomfortable clothing, and I remember thinking I would never want to be a woman if that was the case.
“However, I was thrilled the first time I saw myself as Edna and I bought it,” he says. “Out of nowhere really she just appeared, and it was a lot of fun walking on to the set and having people greet me as Edna…people kind of forgot that I was inside there somewhere, so that was funny to me. Instead of playing the old joke of being a man in a woman’s fat suit, I decided to play a new joke and create and become a blue collar woman from Baltimore.”
As daunting of a task as it was for the producers to convince Travolta to play Edna, it was, by all accounts, an equally formidable challenge for Adam Shankman to find the girl who would become his Tracy.
“I was always committed to finding an unknown to play Tracy, and Neil and Craig and the studio backed that notion 100%,” says Shankman. “It was critical to the film and the role itself that whoever was to play Tracy couldn’t bring any baggage to the character. Not only did I want to cast an unknown, I insisted that the actress be the same age as the character. That was imperative in my vision for the role. Audiences need to see this chubby teenager for the first time and immediately fall in love with her.”
“However,” adds Shankman, “Tracy clearly has a distinctive look. We all knew it was going to be a momentous challenge to find an adorable, loveable 17-year-old, overweight girl who could sing, dance and act and hold her own up against the likes of John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer. But we did…boy did we ever!”
The filmmakers undertook an exhaustive worldwide search with open casting calls in Canada, Britain, Australia and the United States and set up an Internet web site for taped audition submissions as well. Over 1,000 girls were seen by the filmmakers before Nikki Blonsky rose to the top of the list.
“Once I saw Nikki’s audition, I immediately put her on my list,” recalls Shankman. “She was the right age, certainly looked the part, she could sing very well and she made me laugh. She had incredible confidence and a lovable sexuality about her that is very Tracy. As the casting process continued I saw lots of other girls and lots of other audition tapes. But I kept going back to Nikki’s. I’d watch a few others and then I’d watch hers again and then see a few others and then watch hers again. Eventually, I realized I just could not get over the fact that this little chubby teenager from working- class Long Island had the same passionate dreams of performing as the little chubby teenager from working-class Baltimore. The parallels between their lives were so apparent it gave a sense of inevitability to the decision to cast her. Finally, we all just recognized the fact that Nikki was Tracy. All she really had to do was show up, put on the wigs and it was done.”
More call backs and meetings with the filmmakers followed, and finally a screen test in Los Angeles that sealed the deal for everyone. Several months later, Blonsky arrived on set to begin rehearsals. Her first impression had indeed become a lasting one.
“Nikki was a machine,” says Shankman, laughing. “She was a sponge. She was tireless and there was no amount of direction you could waste on her. With no dance training and only her high school musical theatre experience, Nikki just immersed herself in the work. It was scary how quickly she learned the dances, how to hit her marks and figure out camera left from camera right. In fact, she was so good that all the other dancers and actors had to step up their game to keep up with her.”
“The only time we were able to have the entire cast together was for one table read and sing-through in August,” says composer/lyricist and co-executive producer Marc Shaiman. “The energy and excitement in that room was palpable and contagious. It was outrageously thrilling and exciting to see this incredible and diverse amount of triple-threat talent in one room. In the midst of it all, we witnessed Nikki emerging as Tracy. It was an incredibly moving experience and something we will never forget.”
“Being a part of that incredible read-through actually brought tears to my eyes,” says lyricist and co-executive producer Scott Wittman. “Watching Nikki alongside all those incredible actors that day made me her biggest fan.”
“I owe such an incredible amount of gratitude to Adam,” says Nikki Blonsky. “I believe he was my guardian angel watching over me all the time as I was living my dream. He brought me to tears on many occasions. To hear that I was doing a good job from him was just the most gratifying thing I had ever experienced. He made me the happiest girl in the world, and he will always have a place in my heart…always.”
CASTING THE ULTIMATE ENSEMBLE
John Travolta, the movie star veteran, and Nikki Blonsky, the new “discovery,” are just the beginnings of what would become a truly all-star Hairspray cast. Singing and dancing their way through the film are an unprecedented collection of talent that ranges from Hollywood’s biggest names to its hottest young stars.
For the characters of music-loving mom Motormouth Maybelle and the scheming Velma Von Tussle, the filmmakers went straight to their first choices, Queen Latifah and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both actors are big stars, beautiful women and, thanks to some hair-raising wigs, blonde.
“Being blonde brought out a whole other side of me,” says Latifah, smiling. “It was a side I didn’t even know I had. I mean, I’ve had my hair lightened but never been platinum like that before…it was cool…I felt like a superhero with all that hair. I felt powerful.”
Latifah accepted the role without ever having seen a script, based on her previous collaborations with director/choreographer Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House) and Hairspray producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who executive produced Chicago, for which Latifah received Oscar®, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal as Mama Morton. “I just relied on their collective expertise, and I was very comfortable that they were going to deliver all the things they promised…and they did,” she says.
For Latifah, the part of Motormouth Maybelle hit close to home in many respects, perhaps culminating in her moving and spirited performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
“Well, Maybelle and I both love music and understand the impact it can have in people’s lives,” she says. “Music can be the energy of change, and change can happen and will happen, but sometimes you got to help move it along. So, the protest march in the movie was very special to me. Not only because I get to sing a great song that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote, but also because I felt the spirit of my own mother coming through. She was a high school teacher who was very inspiring to her students and her own children. She would always encourage and empower them and let them know that the world was theirs if they wanted it. I think Maybelle is that same type of woman. She sees her kids and their friends as a powerful force for the future and understands that there is always more life to live, but you have to be willing and able to go find it. That’s what these kids in the movie do…and they do it all through the music.”
Music and change are clearly not what drive the character of television station manager and not-so-merry widow Velma Von Tussle, as played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who received one of her three Academy Award® nominations for her last singing role, Suzie Diamond, in The Fabulous Baker Boys.
“Velma is a woman on the edge,” says director/co-choreographer Adam Shankman. “For the ex-beauty queen, life is still all about winning and winning at all cost. That’s how she runs the TV station, and that’s how she runs her life and her daughter Amber’s life. This is a woman who is so very beautiful on the outside and so hideously ugly on the inside.”
“As a huge fan of Michelle’s, and especially her work in Batman Returns and The Fabulous Baker Boys, I knew she could handle the physical, comedic and singing elements of Velma,” says Shankman. “There was no question, though, that she had a very daunting task in playing the villain, who is essentially just a big racist. Michelle, however, took over the role with an unmatched style, energy and commitment. She never tried to run away from how horrible Velma is…she bit into it, locked her jaw and held on tight.”
“I think calling her the villain would be a very fair assessment, if not a glaring understatement,” says Pfeiffer, laughing. “I was a bit reluctant at first to play her. I didn’t really know how to approach such a hateful character. Every scene I tried to humanize her and sometimes it just wasn’t possible. So, I must give thanks to Adam. He was very collaborative and yet always gave me a sense that he was in control and keeping the bigger picture in mind. He was always very generous with rehearsal time and making sure I was comfortable with the staging, but whenever I would get too ‘actor-y’ and question ‘my motivation,’ Adam would just say ‘Honey! It’s Vaudeville!’ That would always put me back in the place I needed to be to be Velma.”
Pfeiffer admits the singing and dancing (and baton twirling!) was much more demanding than any of her work in Grease 2 or The Fabulous Baker Boys. “The songs themselves are very challenging,” she says. “It was difficult for me to find any room for interpretation because the melodies are so fast you can barely catch your breath. Once I got through that ‘Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into’ phase, it really was so much fun to be singing again. And the ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’ number really pushed my limits as to how many different things I had to concentrate on at one time. But Brittany (Brittany Snow, who plays Velma’s daughter, Amber) and all the wonderful young dancers really helped to keep my spirits up. Their enthusiasm and tireless energy was infectious and I loved working with every single one of them.”
“I think people are really going to be taken by how funny Michelle is in this movie,” says Shankman. “If they’ve forgotten that she can sing and dance, too, they’re in for quite a ride.”
Another casting coup was the addition of Christopher Walken, an actor primarily known for his award-winning performances in dramatic (and oft times villainous) film roles. In reality, Walken is a kid from Queens who has been singing and dancing ever since he was a little boy. As a young man, he was a chorus boy in many musicals and touring stage companies, including a two-year stint in the classic “West Side Story.”
“I did a lot of musicals until I was about 30,” says Walken. “Then I got a job in a play strictly as an actor and from that job I got a job in a movie, and that’s how I ended up with a film career. It was all kind of by accident.”
It was no accident, however, when Walken’s name was first brought up by John Travolta, who explained that Wilbur is not only a role for a great actor, but also for a great actor who can really sing and dance. Fortunately, the filmmakers were all aware of Walken’s musical background, which includes his memorable role in Pennies from Heaven and, more recently, his dance appearance in the Spike Jonze-directed music video, “Weapon of Choice.”
“John’s suggestion to get Chris was brilliant,” says producer Craig Zadan. “He was that triple-threat performer we needed to play Wilbur, and because he is such an incredible dancer, Adam Shankman was able to expand on the musical number ‘Timeless to Me.’ In the Broadway show it is just a song sung between Wilbur and Edna, but Adam created an extraordinarily special song-and-dance performed by two real song-and-dance men, and it is truly one of the highlights of the movie.”
“Chris Walken is like a human novelty shop,” says Shankman. “He is quirky, original and always full of surprises. He brought an enormous amount of off-center wonder to the character. He and John were so committed to their ‘relationship’ that you honestly believe they truly love each other as husband and wife. So in choreographing ‘Timeless to Me,’ I knew I had two of the greatest movie musical talents who could handle the steps and the fantasy concept and help me illustrate the greater scope of Wilbur and Edna’s love. It is a love that goes beyond their house and backyard into a world where great romance is found. It’s a crazy concept but their work together makes it one of the sweetest moments in the film.”
Another surprise the filmmakers had up their sleeve was the revelation that actor James Marsden, who portrayed Cyclops in the three blockbuster X-Men films, can sing. Marsden makes his feature film musical debut as Corny Collins, the host of Baltimore’s American Bandstand-style show that gives a whole new meaning to black-and-white television.
Hairspray is not, however, the first time Marsden has sung professionally. For 12 episodes during the 2001-2002 season, he played Glenn Foy on the hit TV show “Ally McBeal” (produced by, coincidentally, Michelle Pfeiffer’s husband, David E. Kelley). Years later, Marsden was hired to be the voice of the commercial jingle for Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume, Lovely (with music produced and arranged by, coincidentally, Hairspray composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman).
“Marc and Scott (Wittman) have been friends of mine for a couple of years now, and Neil Meron and I are friends, too,” says Marsden. “They all knew that I had been looking for some sort of musical project for the last few years. They used to tell me, ‘Throw the superhero guys aside and sing something!’ So, when we found out that this movie was a go, they said there was a great role for me, and it all just kind of came together and the rest is just Corny.”
Corny, indeed. Marsden decided the character’s name was “a free pass to be over the top,” but credits director Shankman for keeping it from becoming “a total cheese fest.”
“Adam’s vision is so cinematic. He wanted all these seemingly crazy characters to feel very real, to have a real emotional center,” says Marsden. “It’s that emotional core of the characters that makes the music and the message ring through so beautifully and with so much humor and heart.”
“Jimmy was never on my radar as someone to play Corny Collins,” admits Shankman. “But once I saw 30 seconds of tape of him singing on ‘Ally McBeal’ I said to our casting director ‘That’s my guy…that’s my young Dick Clark…that’s my Corny.’”
In addition to the musical number “Hairspray,” which he says reminds him of an old Busby Berkeley-type production, Marsden also performs “Nicest Kids in Town,” a song which introduces the film audience to the televised segregation of the early 1960s and re-introduces the Baltimore audience to the Corny Collins Council Members every day after school.
During production, however, the “real” nicest kids in town were the young triple threat performers that were handpicked by the filmmakers to play high school heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), Velma’s daughter Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and Motormouth Maybelle’s two kids, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Little Inez (Taylor Parks). Just within the last year, Efron, Bynes, Snow, Kelley and Parks have all experienced a surge in their individual careers, culminating with their casting in Hairspray.
Efron, who became a household name last year thanks to his performance as Troy Bolton in the phenomenon “High School Musical,” recalls the day he was transformed into his character.
“It all seemed to happen so quickly,” says Efron, whose real life status as a teen heartthrob has certainly surpassed that of his alter ego, Link. “I walked into the hair trailer looking like, well, me, and by the time I walked out they had dyed my hair jet black, cut it short, then greased it back into a DA. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I swear I had some sort of identity crisis the rest of the day. I couldn’t look in the mirror because I was a bit afraid of who or what would be looking back at me. It was shocking, but finally I got used to it and told myself that if I’m going to rock like Link, I’d better rock it well and the new haircut was just the beginning.”
Efron says that the two-month singing/dance rehearsal process took more than a little getting used to as well. “For ‘High School Musical,’ we only rehearsed for about a week and a half and shot the entire movie in six weeks. That’s actually less time than we spent just rehearsing ‘Hairspray.’ So, yeah, it was different and exhausting and unlike anything I had ever experienced but Adam and the assistant choreographers made us understand how important the rehearsals were because once we started filming there would not be any time to do anything but shoot the movie. It was a great lesson…tough, but a great lesson.”
For Amanda Bynes, who started in the business at the age of 10 and was, by age 12, the youngest performer to host her own variety sketch show, the opportunity to be in a movie musical was one she would never pass up.
“Oh, I wanted to play this part so badly,” says Bynes. “Penny is just such a great character. She really gets to make a big personal change in the story and as an actor that’s so much fun when your character goes from frumpy to va-va-voom like Penny does. I love musicals and grew up doing any kind of musical or comedy that I could possibly be a part of because making people laugh and being goofy is, to me, the greatest joy in the world.”
Bynes recalls the day she was “bookended” in a scene with veterans John Travolta and Christopher Walken: “I definitely felt freaked out,” she says. “I was so excited and I called my parents and told them I wish they were there to see it. John and Chris were both so nice, but for someone like me who loves movies, they are huge movie stars. So getting to do Hairspray was probably one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received.”
Penny’s mother, Prudy Pingleton, is played by Emmy Award-winning actor Allison Janney, in a role that makes Archie Bunker look like a Sunday school teacher. Janney was invited to join the cast by her friends Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and relished the opportunity to play such a conservative character.
“Prudy Pingleton – as her name suggests – is a bit prudish,” says Janney. “She’s not very happy with the direction that society’s heading and is very protective of her daughter, so I get to do some pretty crazy things to make sure Penny is in the house at all times. But the role is so much fun, because there’s certainly a little bit of camp involved. I had no problem jumping right in to Prudy’s skin. And wearing those clothes and the wig and the glasses – not to mention carrying a Bible all the time! I enjoy playing characters that are a bit repressed, so I loved this role.”
While Prudy is the one major character in the film that doesn’t get to sing or dance, Janney enjoyed the opportunity to utilize some physical comedy in the role and appreciated the freedom director Adam Shankman gave her to ad-lib. “Let’s just say there are a couple of lines that I think will be very memorable,” adds Janney with a laugh.
Brittany Snow continues to bounce back and forth between dramatic roles in shows like “Nip/Tuck” and “Law and Order: SVU” as well as big screen comedies like John Tucker Must Die and Hairspray. As Amber Von Tussle, Snow has created a unique and memorable version of the legendary character.
“I had a blast playing Amber,” says Snow. “Besides the amazing hair, makeup and costumes, the character of Amber is just so outrageous in her behavior that as an actor you can just go crazy with her. I mean, on the outside she’s all pearls, poise and perfection…just like her mom…and she thinks everyone else is a moron. But that’s the funny part…she’s a moron. Honestly, she doesn’t have a clue about the real world…just like her mom. Amber is an apple that certainly hasn’t fallen far from her mother’s tree.”
Snow says she has always had an affinity for the 1960’s era, which was also the setting of the TV show “American Dreams” on which she starred for three seasons. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve just had a fascination with the sixties,” she says. “I remember for my eighth birthday party, it was a 60s-themed pool party. Bridget Bardot has always been an icon to me and all the fashions and fads back then were so new and original and colorful. People made a real effort to look good and dress well, especially in the early to mid-sixties, so a lot of the fun of getting to play Amber was like getting to play dress-up all day for three months straight.”
In contrast to Efron’s inital distress, Elijah Kelley was thrilled to have a totally new hair cut for his role as Seaweed. “Oh man, I loved my hair,” says Kelley. “The finger waves were the bomb. I did a lot of research into the look of the guys back then and their hair was smooth, their clothes were smooth and their moves were smooth. And Seaweed is definitely smooth…he’s the real romancer in the movie.”
For Kelley’s performance in his signature number, “Run and Tell That,” it was all about the moves. “That’s just such a great song that I got to sing,” says Kelley. “You know the song takes the audience on a little ride to show the black kids’ world…it moves from the detention room onto the school bus and then to Maybelle’s record store. So my research looking back at The Temptations and James Brown came in handy because Adam choreographed it so authentically. It’s such a great high-energy number…people are going to love it!”
Portraying Maybelle’s daughter and Seaweed’s sister, Little Inez, is 13-year-old Taylor Parks. Parks research for her role wasn’t all about the clothes and the music. She spent days on the Internet learning about integration, segregation and the civil rights movement.
Parks says, “I read about the Little Rock Nine and the Emmett Till story and Rosa Parks (no relation), of course. I always kept those struggles in the back of my mind while I was learning the dances and the songs. I think it helped me to express not only the fun of the music back then, but also the spirit of the people who helped make such big changes. I think that’s why Hairspray is so much fun…because there is a happy ending in the movie and a happy ending in real life.”
THE LOOK OF HAIRSPRAY
Creating the visual universe for the iconic 1960s-era Hairspray images was a monumental task that fell to the team of production designer David Gropman, costume designer Rita Ryack and hair designer Judi Cooper-Sealy. For all of them, their inspiration was the genius of John Waters, and a whole lot of homework.
“The absolute first thing I did was watch the original Hairspray,” says Gropman. “You have to start there. It’s the source material, the genesis of the story, and it shows you when and where the story takes place. So even before I started my intensive research at the New York Picture Collection or took my first trip to Baltimore, I watched John’s movie. It’s a wonderful film and beautifully designed and there’s no question I threw in a couple of design details, a couple of moments here and there as a wink and a nod to the first film – my way of paying tribute to the original.”
Gropman and his team of art directors, set designers, decorators, dressers, prop masters and construction crew were responsible for the physical look of every soundstage set and practical location in the movie, from the restrictive interior of the “Run and Tell That” school bus to the expansive, triangular, three city-block Baltimore streetscape which serves as the backdrop to “Good Morning Baltimore” and “Welcome to the Sixties,” two of the movie’s biggest production numbers.
“Undoubtedly, the streetscape was the single largest undertaking for the art department,” says Gropman. “We converted over 60 existing modern-day storefronts, changed all the signage to circa 1962, filled the roads with period automobiles and closed down a three-street intersection of one of Toronto’s busiest commuter neighborhoods for almost two weeks.”
Like so many of the filmmakers and other designers, Gropman began his career designing sets for the theatre, but Hairspray is his first feature film musical. “It was much more like working on a stage play or musical than I had anticipated, with the long rehearsal process and being able to actually see most of the finished, choreographed musical numbers even prior to the start of set construction. Seeing how Adam was choreographing and staging the numbers gave me an inordinate amount of useful information that I could take back to my designs and implement so that they would function properly within Adam’s vision for each particular scene, song or dance.”
Gropman points out that director Shankman made it clear from the beginning that he did not want the film’s look to resemble a Broadway show in any fashion. “Adam didn’t want the look to be theatrical or exaggerated in any way,” says Gropman. “He wanted a very real-looking world of Baltimore in 1962 and I think we gave him what he wanted. Whether it was the color palette of Tracy’s bedroom or the stonework on the outside of her house, everything was circa ’62. Tracy’s school is a real school that opened in 1962, the Turnblad backyard is a detailed, full-scale set from the chain link fences to the laundry on the line, and the WYZT television studio is replete with early-sixties cameras, microphones, studio lights and audience bleachers. It was all great fun because I found myself combining all the disciplines that I have studied and known and practiced for years.”
As with all film collaborations, Gropman, as the production designer, worked very closely in concert with Oscar®-nominated costume designer, Rita Ryack. In fact, the two had previously worked together on The Human Stain. Ryack, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama with a Masters in Design, spent many years in the New York theatre circles and found herself fortunate to have designed several Broadway musicals, including “My One and Only,” for which she received a 1983 Tony Award nomination for Best Costume Design.
“I fought like a cat to get this job for several reasons,” says Ryack. “I have been obsessed with musical theatre since I was 4-years-old. I absolutely adore the genius that is Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and John Waters’ original film. It validated me as a person and as an artist. I felt affirmed by his work. He can take a kind of anarchy and put it up on the screen in living color and be fearless about it. That, to me, is true inspiration, and I so wanted to be a part of his legacy.
“You know, I lived that period, too, I’m sorry to say,” says Ryack, laughing, “but it still resonates with me. Integration was starting to happen when I was just becoming aware of the music and politics of the time and I was struggling with how I, as a misfit, was going to fit into the world. Sort of like Tracy Turnblad.”
Like Gropman, Ryack and her staff spent hundreds of man-hours researching the styles and clothing of the period, whether it was flipping through old copies of magazines like Look, Life and Ebony, watching old movies and archived news and television footage or trudging through all the cinema reference facilities and costume houses in Los Angeles.
Hair and wig designer Judi Cooper-Sealy also depended heavily on research materials, including combing through early-60s high school yearbook pictures. “Well, it is first and foremost a comedy about big things, so we could go a little bigger with the hair to get the laugh,” says Cooper-Sealy. “But honestly, we never went so over the top that the hairstyles became completely unbelievable. Girls and women back then did have very big hair and were very experimental when it came to styling it.”
Cooper-Sealy says just keeping track of all the wigs and hairdos was perhaps her biggest challenge. “At times, we had 300 extras or 150 background dancers or all of our principal actors and dancers working at the same time,” she says. “Nobody in this movie got away without wearing a wig or having their own hair done every day they worked. Whether it was Jerry Stiller’s Liberace-type wig, Maybelle’s big, blond and beautiful beehive, the Dynamites’ triplets look or Penny’s pigtails, every person who appears on screen spent quite a bit of time in the ‘hair chair.’”
THE HAIRSPRAY FAMILY
While the importance of chasing a dream and working for social change are recurring themes in Hairspray, the film is ultimately about family. Whether it’s the Turnblads, the Stubbs, the Von Tussles or the Pingletons, the film repeatedly stresses the importance of family in a person’s life.
That sense of family extended to the film’s production as well, with long friendships between producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan and between composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman (when Zadan directed the Broadway production of “Up In One” in 1979, starring singer/songwriter Peter Allen, his musical director was a then 19 year-old Marc Shaiman). Shaiman, Wittman and director-choreographer Adam Shankman have also been friends for over 20 years. However, perhaps the best example would be the familial relationship between Shankman and associate choreographer/2nd unit director Anne “Mama” Fletcher. The two friends met in 1990 when both were appearing as dancers on that year’s Academy Awards broadcast and have been friends and collaborators ever since.
“After we met on the Oscars, Mama became my assistant,” says Shankman. “When I then turned to directing, she sort of took over where I was leaving off with my choreography jobs. Next thing you know, she‘s directing her own movie, Step Up, which I produced. So it’s been really cool for us as friends to watch each other graduate to the next level of our careers.”
“Adam and I have worked together and known each other for so long that we have our own language that nobody really understands,” says Fletcher, laughing. “For Hairspray, we just fell right back into what we do so well together and we both realized early on how lucky we are to have had this opportunity.”
Fletcher goes on to say that this film is “the soul” of Adam Shankman. “If anyone was to ask me, ‘What is Adam’s stamp as a choreographer?,’ this would be it,” she says. “Hairspray is essentially everything that Adam is as a person and an artist. If I had to pick one genre, one idea, one song, one musical, one word to describe his style, I would say Hairspray.”
Fletcher goes on to describe the four-ring circus that was the rehearsal process for this film. She says that she has never seen Shankman choreograph as fast or as effortlessly as he did for Hairspray.
“He was a choreography machine,” says Fletcher. “He just pumped it out from his entire being. It was amazing to watch as we started rehearsals. It began with Adam and me, and then our other two associate choreographers Joey Pizzi and Jamal Sims and our assistant choreographer Zach Woodlee came into the studio with us. They started learning the steps and sequences so that by the time we started bringing the dancers and the principal cast to Toronto, we all had our designated duties. Adam oversaw everything and would bounce back and forth between all the rehearsal rooms and recording sessions. While I would be working with Michelle Pfeiffer in one room, Jamal would be next door with the Detention Kids, Joey would be working with John and Christopher on their duet, and Zach might be down the hall working with Nikki. It was a scheduling nightmare, but it was so cool for all of us because we were just moving all day every day and we did that for about six weeks before we started shooting.”
“It was a pretty crazy time that I’ll never forget,” adds Shankman. “It was creative and fun and that’s when I am the happiest.”
Shankman and Fletcher agree that if there is one number in Hairspray that characterizes the collective experience of everyone involved, it would have to be the film’s finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
“Okay, that has to be the longest song in musical history, but it’s probably some of the best choreography Adam has ever done,” says Fletcher. “I’m just so proud of him for that number because it just grew and grew. There are so many elements involved, the entire principal cast performs in that number and so many plot points had to be resolved in the middle of this crazy television pageant, but Adam kept it all logical and believable and incredibly entertaining.”
“Yes, I’d say that ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ is probably my favorite number in the movie,” says Shankman. “Less because of what I did, and more about what the music made me do. The music and lyrics are so strong and powerful and filled with joy and emotion and it ties everything up so beautifully. Velma gets her due, Penny becomes a ‘checkerboard chick,’ Tracy and Link finally kiss, Edna finally breaks free and discovers her inner Tina Turner and the Corny Collins show is officially integrated. It’s also such a great example of the real collaboration and commitment from every department, every dancer and every actor who worked on this movie, and I am grateful to them all.
“As much I love the beginning of the movie with Tracy riding in on the garbage truck singing ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’” says Shankman, “I absolutely adore the finale for its truth and humor. It is really a celebration of the power of one teenager’s dreams. And who doesn’t love a happy ending?”