CMU School of Drama

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

At Princeton, A New Layer for “Hairspray”

Arts Integrity Initiative: Despite its origin in a 1988 film from John Waters, the underground master of camp, shock and transgression, the story of Tracy Turnblad, as told in multiple iterations, has become wholly mainstream. Thanks in large part to the 2002 stage musical version, Tracy’s story of leading an effort to integrate a local TV music program in Baltimore has had America singing and dancing along for years now. Beyond its more conventional musical numbers, it offers up a craven TV producer who laments her salad days as “Miss Baltimore Crabs” and teens miming the crushing bugs as part of a dance craze. Indeed, the mildly subversive tone of the musical, while significantly less spiky than the original film, is set by Tracy’s buoyant paean to her home city, which includes shout outs to the rats on the street and the local flasher.


Alexa James-Cardenas said...

For me Hairspray has been one of those gray-area musicals, because it is a musical with catching songs and interesting plot, but with a very serious undertone. However, that serious undertone is often put on a spectrum of how important it is to the production and depending on its company (i.e. the productions with all white casts, which it happens all the time). And you see this with other musicals/plays that black people/people of color are specifically represented (i.e. The Wiz) (My old school did both: have an all-white cast of Hairspray, and had the Wiz with only like two black people in it). I feel the reason that makes the version at Princeton powerful is because, like the creators, it takes a status quo and changes it into a whole level of thought provocation. For a second, there when I read that Tracy wasn’t white but biracial, I was a little confused and off put. But as I kept reading, I thought “yeah, why couldn’t she be”, that, even if they didn’t add the other elements, would have been a new understanding of the story’s message. And it is kind of a relief, because there were many times in my life where I wanted to be a character, but because that character was traditionally white, whelp I was out of the picture (or at least, it discouraged me from auditioning for that character). So seeing a story like this, a little change of standard, is refreshing.

Sasha Schwartz said...

I think Hairspray is one of those shows that tends to be forgotten about in terms of its messages of racial inclusivity in order to focus more on the popular up-beat music and dance numbers (the case of the Texas High School doing it with an all-white cast being one of many instances of this). It’s definitely an interesting idea to cast Tracy as bi-racial in a world that is (no pun intended) often seen as black/ white. While I think that, unfortunately, the “original” story of Hairspray still reigns true in a world in which black people are murdered everyday without consequence, it’s definitely a cool idea to diversify the world even further and see how to make Tracy’s character a little less white- saviorist, which I definitely believe is a facet to the original show, because even though she suffers prejudice from her weight, this is incomparable to the discrimination faced by others based on the color of theirs skin. The idea of self- white washing is definitely a pertinent idea within the biracial community. While I am biracial white/ asian, I will never be close to knowing what it’s like to be black/ white, however I do know what it’s like to be not seen as “enough” of one thing or the other, or not feeling completely like a part of either community. Being biracial could mean physically looking almost completely like one side or the other, or it could mean looking like something else entirely (I am almost always mistaken for Hispanic instead of for White or Asian). I think this production was definitely saying something by putting a biracial Tracy in “white-face” as opposed to casting a white actor, in a socially conscious and politically aware fashion. I’d be interested to see how this production was received by those familiar with the traditional story of Hairspray.