Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Beehives on Broadway

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Beehives on Broadway

Article excerpt

This August, a musical based on "Hairspray," the John Waters movie that celebrates rigid updos and disintegrating racial segregation in early-sixties Baltimore, is coming to Broadway, and the other week a dozen or so group-sales people--responsible for ordering the big blocks of tickets that buoy a show's audience figures--came to a loft apartment in the West Twenties for a special preview. The apartment belongs to Marc Shaiman, the show's composer, and Scott Wittman, Shaiman's longtime boyfriend and collaborator, who co-wrote the lyrics with Shaiman.

While the assembled sales reps mingled in the living room, admiring the decor (a portrait by Steve DeFrank of Ken, Barbie's companion, made from Lite-Brite bulbs; fake mink throws on the armchairs), Wittman explained how he and Shaiman had built upon the movie's plot for their musical. "Our show is zany, but not as madcap as the movie," he said, then added, by way of parsing the crucial zany-madcap distinction, "Ours has more of a Cinderella plot. Tracy Turnblad"--the show's happily hefty star--"loses the guy and then gets him again. It's what's inside that matters. It's a sweet little message."

The mini-show took place in the couple's soundproofed studio at the back of the apartment, which is hung with posters from films for which Shaiman composed the scores: "When Harry Met Sally," "The First Wives Club," the "South Park" movie. The presentation was a kind of "Hairspray Uncoiffed." Shaiman, who is shortish and bearded and bashful in his demeanor, rolled his desk chair from computer control deck to piano and back, pressing a few buttons here and a few keys there, but mostly just hovering and bouncing up and down. Wittman, who is tall and silver-haired and wore a candy-striped Paul Smith shirt with the print of its contrasting inner cuff artfully exposed, perched on a nearby stool.

Shaiman started off with a recording of Marissa Jaret Winokur, the actress playing Tracy, belting out her first number, "Good Morning Baltimore," a Phil Spectorish hymn to John Waters's inspirational home town. "Tracy is our Dolly, our Mame, full of life and full of love, and she will be the one to touch everyone around her," Shaiman said as he set the scene. "We see her going off to school, and she has a little bird on her finger, like Mary Poppins. And when she sprays her hair the bird dies." Then Shaiman played a recording of "I Can Hear the Bells," which Tracy sings after Link, her future beau, first brushes up against her, and which involves countless synonyms for "touched," including "nudged," "knocked," and "pushed. …

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