On Broadway, since the year 2000, only three of the 16 Tony Award winners for best musical focus on a woman as the main character—Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002); Hairspray (2003); and Fun Home (2015). Certainly a number of Broadway hit musicals include complex female characters and female-centered relationships, but for every Wicked there are two or three musicals like Spamalot or Gentleman’s Guide… shows where female characters are relegated to flat supporting roles.
Broadway is a haven for female protagonists compared to Hollywood. In the same 16-year stretch since 2000, the only best Best Picture Academy Award winner with a female protagonist as the main character was Rob Marshall’s outstanding adaptation of Chicago (2003). To find a Best Picture winner centered on a female protagonist that did not originate on Broadway, you would need to travel back to 1992 for The Silence of the Lambs.
Paramount Theater’s production of Hairspray is a celebration of musical theater at its best. Director and choreographer Amber Mak builds energy with each number, expertly showcasing the vocal ranges of her five female leads—led by the energizing Amelia Jo Parish as Tracy and by E. Faye Butler as Motormouth Maybelle (who earned a standing ovation following her belting of “I Know Where I’ve Been” in Act II). Landree Fleming (Penny Pingleton), Samantha Pauly (Amber Von Tussle), and Heather Tonsend (Velma Von Tussle) also all proved more than capable of filling the giant space at the Paramount. If one were forced to pick highlights, they would be “Momma, I’m a Big Girl Now” in the act I and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in act II—simply because both numbers showcase the full talents of this ensemble cast.
During Hairspray’s five-week run at the Paramount, FOX’s Grease Live premiered on January 31. Grease Live is a highly enjoyable adaption of the movie (with elements from the Broadway show) that far surpassed previous efforts for televised live musicals.* However, comparing Grease and Hairspray illustrates the extent that Hairspray shatters the accepted motifs of entertainment focused on teenagers.
Both musicals emphasize late ‘50’s, early ‘60’s nostalgia and include a relationship between a girl that doesn’t quite fit in and a high school heartthrob. Between the two, the original Grease created an archetype for Hollywood endings. Sandy discards her good-girl persona and dons an iconic pair of skin tight pants to gain the power she needs to make Danny Zuko fall to his knees and worship her. (Olivia Newton John famously needed to be sewn into the pants she wore for the movie.)
Hairspray, in contrast, does not force Tracey Turnblad to change for her closing number. From the start, Tracey is confident enough in her own appearance to audition for the Corny Collins show and intellectually enlightened enough to speak out again segregation. Due to Tracey’s vibrancy, Link Larkin (Henry McGinniss) quickly abandons the vain and dim-witted Amber for Tracey in the first act. By the end of the musical, the society surrounding Tracey has changed while Tracey has remained unwavering in her convictions.
Edna Turnblad is different from her daughter because she lacks Tracey’s confidence. Her story arch is defined by Edna’s struggle to see herself in the same light as her doting husband Wilbur (she is helped along significantly by the song “(You’re) Timeless to Me” with its many creative similes). In the adrenaline-inducing final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” each of the main female characters in Hairspray gets a solo to define her personal journey, and Edna’s lyrics best define the empowering message of the show:
“You can’t stop my happiness cause I like the way I am.
And you can’t stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham.
So if you don’t like the way I look, well,
I just don’t give a damn!
Cause the world keeps spinning round and round…”
Thirteen years after its premier on Broadway, Hairspray is a show that gets better with age. Repeat viewings provide opportunities for theater fans to look beyond the bright colors and flashy sets to see the positive messages that exist within the show’s camp-induced plotline.
NOTE: My favorite scene in Grease Live was Jordan Fisher’s rendition of “Those Magic Changes,” which connects my favorite song from the musical (cut from the 1978 film) with a series of comedic scenes where Danny Zuko (Aaron Tveit) fails to grasp the concept behind organized sports.