Updated: Aug 29, 2019
This past weekend I had the great pleasure of seeing five plays in three days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. In addition to three really excellent new plays, and a lackluster production of All’s Well That Ends Well, it was a wonderful treat to also have a chance to revisit an old friend: HAIRSPRAY – The Musical.
It was exactly 20 years ago this summer that HAIRSPRAY had its world premiere at The 5th Avenue Theatre, and shortly thereafter opened on Broadway where it quickly established itself as a monster hit, and a modern classic. Seeing it again at OSF reminded me of how brilliantly written and perfectly crafted this show is. Like the greatest of musicals, HAIRSPRAY plays wonderfully in nearly any production, from high school to Broadway. I don’t mean to imply that OSF production was not good. The principal cast was fantastic, and on a par with the best Broadway and touring cast members. Katy Geraghty and Daniel T. Parker were superb as Tracy and Edna, and David Kelley and Jonathan Luke Stevens were wonderful as Wilber and Link.
However, no doubt due to the limitations of a true repertory theater company, the size of the cast and band was greatly reduced and that compromised some of the musical and choreographic impact of the show. It was especially unfortunate that there were not enough African-American performers to provide the balance the story and staging needs and deserves.
However, even with these limited resources the show was still tremendously funny, involving, dynamic, and ultimately moving. And it received pretty much the same reaction from the audience as the show did on the most exciting night that I have ever spent in a theater: the first preview of HAIRSPRAY in Seattle!
At that first ever performance the audience, who of course had no idea what expect, screamed with joy at the end of the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore”, and then screamed in a similar way after every song that followed. This reached a climax with the staggering ovation for “I Know Where I’ve Been”. I remember thinking that there was no way to top that reaction, and I worried that the rest of the show would be an anti-climax. Then, remarkably, the audience went even crazier for the finale, “You Can’t Stop The Beat”.
The second preview at The 5th received a similar reaction, and then some! That night we had nearly 1000 members and friends of the Seattle Men’s Chorus in attendance and they loved the show so much that following the final curtain call, they and the rest of the crowd refused to leave the theater until Harvey Firestein came back for one more bow. They stood, cheered and kept applauding for a full 8 minutes (it seemed like forever). Then Harvey, who had made it all the way to his dressing room, finally returned to the stage dressed in a robe and wig cap. If you thought that similar scene in FOSSE/VERDON was hard to believe, I am here to tell you that it can and has happened – and no one who was there that night will forget it!
It was only fitting that ten years later The 5th Avenue Theatre and Seattle Men’s Chorus joined forces to produce a 10th Anniversary Concert production of HAIRSPRAY featuring 300 members of the chorus now onstage, and a terrific all-star Seattle cast including Jinx Monsoon as Velma. This was the first and, to my knowledge, only time that Velma has been played as a drag role, and it really worked. In a strange way it made Velma a more important character, and really ramped up the rivalry between her and Edna. Jinx was by far the best Velma I have ever seen.
I could not be more proud to be associated with this brilliant show. HAIRSPRAY epitomizes the high level of artistry that Broadway Musicals can achieve, and the power and influence they can have on our culture.
In the great tradition of the Broadway Musical, HAIRSPRAY tells a story of marginalized people rising up from oppression to challenge the status quo, and changing the world in the process. That it can accomplish all that through the employment of hilarious jokes, characters, and situations; tuneful, captivating music and lyrics; and a spectacularly entertaining dance driven narrative is what makes this show so brilliant and impactful.
Happy birthday HAIRSPRAY -- It was thrilling to be there on the days you first came into the world!