Us Against Who?

Enormous masks of Tragedy and Comedy enter haughtily. From beneath them, two comedians say, "This is a story of ancient Greece. . . . If it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for us!" They exit tap-dancing as the action begins. That's one way to open a musical. Here's another: Two chorus girls enter haughtily in Greek-style tunics. Their version of the punchline runs, "It was good enough for Shakespeare—it's good enough for you." They stroll off as the overture starts.

It doesn't really matter which of those two musicals you would rather see. The difference is in your relation to them, your part in the evening's transaction. The clowns who say "us," immediately, are on your side; the chorus girls who say "you," immediately, become employees facing you across a counter. This exchange of performance goods for cash is going to be strictly business, and no conspiracy to have fun together will be allowed to sneak across the tiny gap created by the former Selwyn's cozy orchestra pit.

Things are different at the former Alvin Theatre, where, as it happens, The Boys From Syracuse opened its original run in 1938. The Neil Simon is a much larger theater than the ex-Selwyn, and Hairspray, set at the dawn of the amplified-music era, a much more heavily technologized work than Rodgers and Hart's bit of Shakespearean foolery. But at Hairspray everyone involved seems to be doing something they love, and they wouldn't mind if you loved it too; the whole thing is a conspiracy to have fun. If they try to force the issue at one or two points, or fail to match their own best stuff at one or two others, you don't mind it so much, because the overall spirit is so good. You are rarely bullied, and often tickled. As a result, you leave feeling much better than you would if, as at the Roundabout, you went expecting to be tickled and instead were asked, inexplicably, to spend two hours sucking on the sour lemon of modern life and its problems. Why does the Roundabout do this? I don't know. But somebody might have pointed out that the tone and the substance of their material are a hopeless mismatch: In the hands of director Scott Ellis and his team, every bubbly Rodgers and Hart plus becomes a sardonic minus.

Droll House: Marissa Jaret Winokur and ensemble in Hairspray
photo: Paul Kolnik
Droll House: Marissa Jaret Winokur and ensemble in Hairspray

Details

Hairspray
Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Neil Simon Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street
212-307-4100

The Boys From Syracuse
Book by Nicky Silver, based on George Abbott's original, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
212-719-1300

Interestingly, the bitter problems of modern life are at the core of Hairspray's story, based on the John Waters film, universal knowledge of which relieves me of the obligation to retell the plot. Fat people in an America that idolizes the anorectic look, young black people on the cusp of the civil rights movement, shabby people struggling to get by—these are Hairspray's substance, and you can link their sorrows to every misery the modern world has to offer. Or you can do what Waters and his adapters have done, which is to link those sorrows to the transfiguring power of a fairy tale. The travails take place in a pastel-colored dream; the obstacles crumble away by endearing, doofus magic. The good guys win; the bad guys are punished or reformed. What did Miss Prism say? "That is what fiction means." Do we quibble and grumble because life outside the theater isn't like that? Of course not; we, too, want to become as little children again. And it's snotty for children to interrupt when a skilled storyteller is handing on a good yarn.

Hairspray's storytellers are uneven in their skill. They're a little too busy relishing their details—the grottiness of the low life, the bad-wig tackiness of the life that thinks itself high—to be specific about how events get from here to there. How does it happen that the handsomest boy on the teen TV show falls for rotund Tracy? And how, precisely, does he find his way into the solitary-confinement wing of a women's prison to help her break out? No doubt there are explanations for these puzzles, storyboarded somewhere in the planning stages, and discarded en route when the glitter of the details and the pluck of the characters proved to be more enjoyable; the fairy tale is an elastic form. Anyway, explanations aren't always mandatory. Apply Feingold's Theorem: The more an audience wants to see something, the less justification it requires. Which is what makes art such a terrible responsibility. Sneaking in the nutrients, giving the junk food everyone craves a little gourmet flair, requires finesse.

The makers of Hairspray often display that finesse. O'Donnell and Meehan's lines do it more often than their scenes; Marc Shaiman's music, making tender love to every early-'60s rock trope, does it more often than his and Scott Wittman's lyrics. David Rockwell's sets—can such large constructions be called impish?—are virtually a school of finesse in themselves, and William Ivey Long's costumes show it off in every gathered ruffle. And Jerry Mitchell's choreography, like Shaiman's score, knows how a half-twist on the familiar moves can make them look new, turning a love song into a game of living statues or a Supremes-style trio into a Greek chorus.

Then there's the cast. To play a fat girl as a mere sight gag (even a sympathetic sight gag) is regrettably easy, and thousands of actresses of substance have been trapped in that humiliating position; Bernard Shaw was defending Gladys Homfrey from it back in 1894. Marissa Jaret Winokur, already a star in the glossy media, needs no defender, only the praise she deserves. The role is a godsend to women of her girth, but it wouldn't be seen as one if she didn't have the charm, the clarity, and the sense of joy to animate it. Fat people are often amazingly nimble dancers. Watching Winokur sing and dance, I frequently thought of the late Roy Brocksmith, best remembered here as the Streetsinger hoisted out of the pit at the start of Richard Foreman's Threepenny Opera production. Brocksmith's audition song was "You Took Advantage of Me," during which he used to shimmy like a bowl of pink Jell-O gone berserk. Winokur has both his free-form flamboyance and his emotional grit; I should like to see her play Jean Valjean, and don't intend to revisit Les Miz until she does.

While we're at that gender crossing, let's speak of Harvey Fierstein. Under the joke of a low-class mom being a man in drag lies the serious thought that, to battle this tough world, even a woman needs to be manly. Fierstein's sensible choice, presumably with director Jack O'Brien's guidance, is to ignore the biological discrepancy and play the feelings. Hugely padded, with guided-missile bazooms, he's so much bigger in every direction than limber Dick Latessa, who plays his husband, that their colloquies suggest the offstage scene between Jack and the Giantess from Into the Woods. But Fierstein's unfazed; the grotesquery only magnifies his demureness, off which Latessa plays with sparkish delight. Only Fierstein's voice stubbornly refuses to budge from its distinctive monochrome Brooklyn croak.

He doesn't need to sing, though. The cast's loaded with leather-lunged, and occasionally golden-toned, personalities: Matthew Morrison as Winokur's TV heartthrob, Kerry Butler as her meeker cousin, Corey Reynolds as Butler's amiable beau, Linda Hart as the conniving producer, Clarke Thorell as the oily and untrustworthy TV host. The parade of talents is so lengthy that Jackie Hoffman, as a trio of minor malevolences, barely has space to snatch three laughs—almost every moment the leads haven't nailed down has already been swiped by Mary Bond Davis, an artist of such appealing force that her presence emerges even while draped in a huge shag wig, glitter-frame specs, and a character whose first name is Motormouth.

Does Hairspray "mean" anything as a social statement? Only this, that liberating agendas are easy to smuggle into the minds of people having a good time. This does no harm; if later on the agenda should crash on the sharp rocks of economic reality, its image stays in the mind. And change comes in due course. As the revival of The Boys From Syracuse demonstrates, even the eternal verities of farce won't convince people who've been deprived of a good time. The roster of acting talents lined up here is nearly as glittery as that in Hairspray, but the results are mostly pallid. Everybody gets in everybody else's way, and they all get in Rodgers and Hart's way; even the vocal arrangements are busy spoiling the melodies before we've heard them through once. Somehow I suspect that such things didn't happen to the show when George Abbott, George Balanchine, Jo Mielziner, Irene Sharaff, and Hans Spialek were involved. I don't insist on an exact reproduction of their work; I just want today's artists to know as much about what they're doing, and to offer the results to us with the same devotion, and take the same pleasure in our response. That was good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for the makers of Hairspray, and if the Roundabout ever comes to realize that we too have a share in the experience, what they do will also be good enough for us.

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