Musical theatre – what some believe to be America’s great gift to the theatre – is as Ronald Harwood puts it, a meeting of realism and razzmatazz. Traditionally musicals have taken social issues and reworked them into a confection of story, song and dance. The musical Hairspray follows in this tradition. With book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Mark Shaiman with lyrics by Scott Whittman and Mark Shaiman, Hairspray is as sweet and light as a root-beer float, and positively dripping in nostalgia for a time that was, perhaps, not as carefree and breezy as the play might suggest.
We’re in 1962 Baltimore, MA. JFK’s the President – for another year or so, anyway – and the Civil Rights movement is gathering momentum. There are pockets of ignorant, outmoded white resistance to what will be a bright, new, integrated tomorrow in the USA. Kids who don’t fit – here black or ‘pleasantly plump’/fat – are figures of fun, bullied by various grotesque authority figures, and excluded by their peers. They long for acceptance, and dream of being part of the great American success story. But never fear, this is musical land and, by the play’s end, all’s right with the world.
No wonder Hairspray has been such a hit on screen (1988; 2007) and stage, (8 Tony Awards on Broadway) and why it’s currently the pinup musical for pro-am companies all over the country. It’s bright and colourful, the music is sweetly nostalgic, the sentiment uplifting and hopeful. It’s no Showboat or South Pacific or Rent any of the other great musicals that took burning social issues and thrust them in the audience’s face, but then, Hairspray doesn’t set out to. What we get is a larger than life – the words ‘fabulous’ and ‘fantastic’ spring to mind – technicolor rendition of a time we wish there might have been. Continue reading Review: Hairspray – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Playhouse QPAC