In January 2020, three Tracy Turnblads gathered at the BFI for a special screening of John Waters cult 1980s dance musical movie Hairspray. On the panel were Leanne Jones, the UK’s first stage Tracy when the full-blown song and dance version of Hairspray arrived in London in 2007, Lizzie Bea eagerly anticipating her own stage debut in April 2020 in the first major revival and the very first Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake. It was a very special event, one that cemented the enduring appeal of a feel good show dedicated to body positivity and racial integration in which a 60s schoolgirl dances her way to social revolution. A dance film that became a stage musical that became a musical film, Hairspray’s enduring legacy, echoed by three decades of Tracys, is a message for our reviving theatres – ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’
It is fourth time lucky for Jack O’Brien’s much delayed revival at the London Coliseum originally scheduled for April 2020, soon after debutante Bea’s promotional appearance at the BFI. But April became September, which became April 2021 and eventually June, where after a full week of performances to a reduced capacity audience of 1000, the show officially opens to the press later this week. And it is an absolute treat. The production may have been battered by the elements in the last 14 months, but this Hairspray is holding firm.
And there are few better shows to welcome fully-staged musicals back to life. It may be set in a cartoonish version of the past, filled with larger-than-life characters bouncing between chirpy ditties, but Hairspray’s story echoes the duet sung by Tracy’s parents; it is ‘timeless to me’. Its underlying social messaging about body image, teenage bullying and feeling like an outsider is ever-relevant, while the characters’ campaign to end segregation on a television dance show through protest and even imprisonment, is as pertinent as ever. And after a long and tiring period of uncertainty, its determination that a changed future is coming is the sliver of hope that audiences want to believe in.
The London Coliseum is an enormous auditorium that in recent years has housed starry summer revivals of Sunset Boulevard and Chess, so O’Brien’s production feels quite at home in a venue that did much to support the continuation and development of musical theatre during the pandemic. Several digital concerts were filmed here and streamed online, while a revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the premiere of new musical After You were presented against the ornate backdrop of the theatre. The dates may have changed many times, but this production of Hairspray remained at the forefront of the Coliseum’s reopening plans.
O’Brien and set designer David Rockwell have employed a little ingenuity in limiting the vastness of this stage and utilising their small cast of six principals, a handful of secondary roles and around 20 ensemble members to fill out the dance numbers. Often used for ballet, the relative intimacy of Tracy’s Baltimore home could easily have been lost on the Coliseum stage, but Rockwell creates a sizeable frame that contains the action within a smaller central television-shaped box that valuably reduces the width of the playing space by about a third to create an illusion of fullness that works very effectively. It gives the show a useful balance between the big, energetic numbers that fill the stage with bright colours, people and activity, and the smaller relationship-based songs that showcase the growing emotional connections between individuals which add heart to the political and entertaining elements of the musical.
Rockwell leans into the 60s aesthetic to create a deceptive flatness in the set that mimics animation from the era with houses in particular given tapered dimensions to create the illusion of height and scale. It is deliberately unreal to reflect the different kinds of bubble that the characters live in, where self-realisation is their path to enlightenment. Small islands are wheeled onstage to change location, moving between the streets of Tracy’s beloved city which whiz by in Good Morning Baltimore or the furnished illustrative platform containing a television set and ironing board to represent the Turnblad’s home, there is a simplicity to the set design and construction that creates fluidity.
Larger venues such as Corny Collins’s television studio and Maybelle’s record shop as core dance locations use far more of the floorspace with podiums containing their presenters’ DJ booths, hanging signs and freestanding doors doing just enough to create the illusion of place as Tracy and her friends go beyond the boundaries of their usual locations. Rockwell compensates for the minimal staging of the love songs with additional activity including silhouetted jailbird dancers seen through the backdrop for the prison in a nod to Chicago as Tracy and Link perform Without Love, later joined by Penny and Seaweed.
But Hairspray is a show that is ultimately about spectacle and O’Brien delivers some of the major set pieces with flair. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs mirror the aesthetic that Rockwell has created in the set, drawing on the clash between traditional 50s shapes and the swirling patterns and extravagant trimming of the show’s 1962 setting. The transformation of Edna from drab housewife and laundress in shapeless dress and lank hair to glamorous ‘momager’ is a key moment, one which Long and Huntley manage with panache during Welcome to the 60s, and while Tracy’s own sartorial development is more subtle, her new found celebrity and romantic awakening are reflected in the clothing and wig choices.
Costume becomes a shorthand for characterisation in much of the show, just as it was in Waters’s original movie, and in this slimmed-down staging, costume is a visual tool to create status, personality, confidence and emotional depth. From Velma’s fitted fish-tale suit in vivid yellow, matched to Amber’s girl next door dresses in a similar hue, to Link’s drainpipe trousers and slicked hair, the PE kits in the sport scene, Wilbur’s dogtooth-patterned jacket and Maybelle’s luxurious fabrics, Long’s costumes sit neatly within the history of these characters in performance while reflecting the social tension between tradition and change, as well as the various sides of Baltimore life that reflect distinctions made in the show based on class, race and physical shape.
Choreography and Performance
By including Waters film in their movie musicals season, the BFI made the case for Hairspray to be viewed as a dance musical and its stage choreography is an important point of connection with the original non-singing film which uses the group routines and moves of the 1960s as its base. This revival retains Jerry Mitchell’s original stage choreography which does the same, drawing the distinction between the ‘cleaner’ moves performed by the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’ on the Corny Collins show dancing the ‘bird’ and the ‘mashed-potato’, and those evolving from Tracy’s response to music as she explores the more sensual rhythms of blues and soul with Seaweed and Maybelle which infuse the mainstream as the story unfolds.
With major musicals and new work largely limited to concert versions for many months, the opportunity to experience a full West End dance musical performance have been limited, so Hairspray is one of the first shows to stage big full company numbers on this scale for some time and it has a galvanising effect on the audience. The controlled complexity of the Hop scene in which the dancers are separated by race is particularly well achieved. Moving the shape of the dance around the stage to create character perspectives without mixing the segregated blocks looks effortless but is intricately done, while the ferocious spirit and pace of the finale number You Can’t Stop the Beat is a zesty riot of fluid movement, coordination and complex synchronisation as the cast deftly move around one another to bring the conclusion of different sub-narratives to the front of the stage before blending into the pack once more.
These larger-scale numbers never detract from the individual skill of the dance performers including Ashley Samuels as the fluid-hipped Seaweed whose nimble rendition of Run and Tell That is a dance highlight, along with showcase appearances in the detention scene, the Hop and Maybelle’s record shop. The Ensemble give the show its choreographic breadth and depth, performing as members of the Council for the formal TV show numbers while filling-out the world of Baltimore from street scenes to integration protesters, prisoners and the audience for the Miss Teenage Hairspray finale pageant where the full cast create a rousing song and dance spectacle to end the show.
Making her West End debut, Bea captures all of Tracy’s charm and carries the audience with her through the story, no easy feat in a show with experienced performers in front of an expectant crowd. A character that the audience instantly adores, Bea’s Tracy has very little self-doubt and is resolved to achieve everything she wants – whether that’s joining the Corny Collins Council, dating Link or ending segregation. Bea is comic when she needs to be, brings out Tracy’s naive and romantic sides at times and conveys her character’s infectious enthusiasm for music, new experiences and social change. Bea hits her stride early, landing her first big number – Good Morning Baltimore – while her performance of I Can Hear the Bells is a fantastic proclamation of Tracy’s ambitious delusion, earning her place on the panel of Tracys alongside Leanne Jones and Ricki Lake.
Michael Ball established the role of Edna in the UK in 2007 and his return is a triumph. His second trip down memory lane in recent years following a period in Les Miserables: The Staged Concert, Ball is clearly having so much fun as Tracy’s sweetly underrated mother who follows her daughter’s lead and transforms into a confident and sexy modern woman. Ball’s finest moment is the duet You’re Timeless to Me with Les Dennis (replacing Paul Merton as Wilbur) which turns into a comic masterpiece. The pair have a wonderful stage chemistry and, performed in front of the curtain like a Music Hall act, they fill their big number with cheeky jokes, a bit of improvisation and pure joy at being able to perform for a live audience once again – this number is a showstopper and, as the actors heroically avoid corpsing, it has the audience in fits of laughter.
Hairspray has an accomplished supporting cast including a slickly villainous turn from Rita Simons in fine voice as Velma and, making his own West End debut, Jonny Amies proves a great partner for Bea as heartthrob Link. Ahead of Press Night, Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle and Georgia Anderson’s Amber could slightly reduce the throttle in their acted scenes which for Anderson particularly doesn’t give her character anywhere to go but Wallace’s vocal on I Know Where I’ve Been is extraordinary, a goosebump moment that fills the room with sound as only live musical theatre can.
14 months and four attempts later, Hairspray is finally back in the West End – the energy, sentiment and exhilaration of the show is completely irresistible. So many tentative steps have been taken towards the revival of live theatre focusing largely on monologue and two-person pieces, so it is almost overwhelmingly wonderful to see a full song and dance performance that showcases the very best creative talent in set design, costume, choreography and performance. Concluding with a rapturous standing ovation in which a thousand socially distant people made the noise of three times as many, whatever the hardships and struggles that theatre has endured, Hairspray sends a message of hope because you really can’t stop the beat.