London (specifically the theatrical graveyard that is the Shaftesbury Theatre) gets the 2003 Tony Award winning Broadway musical version of John Water’s 1988 cult film Hairspray, in October (starring Michael Ball in drag no less. Beware the mad women, reportedly fans, who will be in attendance nightly). But the world has got the film version of the musical of the film (if you see what I mean) this week, so I previewed what is in store for lucky theatregoers come October (or now if you’re in New York City), whilst bearing in mind that a film is a very different animal to a stage show, even using the same songs and material.
It really is strange, certainly in no way as subversive as the original Water’s film, it has the whiff of antiseptic about it, despite being mostly faithful to original central story. The film looks at several subjects, including racial segregation, plucky individualism and the isolation of fat women, through the travails of Tracy Turnblad, a ‘pleasantly plump’ schoolgirl in early 1960’s Baltimore. As a larger person myself, I can accurately tell you that Ms Turnblad is not pleasantly plump but very fat, and however many song she sings about accepting herself and living life unhindered, I will not believe that being of such a size is a happy position (but neither is it a situation deserving of cruelty or ridicule). Fooling yourself into being happy with yourself on the surface is not wise, it will only end in tears (plus insecurity to some extent or another is intrinsic and necessary in us all, surely?)
That aside, and American film morals are a big thing to put aside, the plot moves nicely on. Tracy want to be on her local TV station’s groovy dance show, but being big she can’t get accepted. The black students at her school are, predictably, great dancers, but they only get their chance to shine on the monthly Negro Day (TV being horribly segregating, more or less overlooking black people). Of course Tracy and her black friends overcome adversity and get back on the horrible people who have spurned them, get justice and integration on the TV show, and get nice boyfriends and girlfriends to boot (strictly heterosexual mind). This sounds glib, and it is, but it is also a musical so absolutely allowed.
This is a fun movie, with some nice dancing and catchy tunes, but it won’t be one of the musicals I remember fondly in my old age (mainly due the clunky moralising, a paean to kooky but safe individualism).
The casting is interesting, Tracy played by Nikki Blonsky is a chipper and perfect choice for the role, but her mother Edna is play by John Travolta (the role is always played by a man). Travolta is of course a leading Scientologist, not particularly known for its promotion of kooky individualism or homosexuality, he plays Edna with aw shucks down home guts. Christopher Walken plays Tracy’s dad; is it me or is he getting more like an alien as the years go by? Michelle Pfeiffer, (a rather slim looking) Queen Latifah, the hilarious Allison Janney and teen heartthrob (who also whiffs of antiseptic) Zac Efron all put in appearances too.
When the credits rolled and I walked out of the cinema, I was actually smiling weakly (from the film’s happy ending and not the thought of it ending I think), so it can’t have been that bad. But neither was it insightful, emotionally engaging or in any way challenging. What Michael Ball et al bring to this show onstage god only knows. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
P.S: John Waters makes a brief cameo appearance as a flasher.
P.S.S: The adorable little Justin from Ugly Betty got his Tracy impression just right.
I saw Hairspray at the delightfully named Cineworld Haymarket, formerly the Carlton Theatre (built in 1927). What a building, the airy lobby in a classical style is a delight, but the main screen feels like going to the cinema in a real old fashioned picture palace (albeit with comfortable seating). The vaulted ceiling is claret with gold highlights, and there are art deco lamps/chandeliers on either side. It is rare to have an original cinema auditorium surviving in once piece (many having been converted to multi screen uses), but actually even this screen has been divide up, I assume that where screen 1 now is the dress circle used to be, so we still get the same with and décor as the original, just not the height. It is certainly more glamorous screen than my trusty local cinema, Vue Shepherd’s Bush (which of course is half the price with double the choice of Cineworld Haymarket). Other cinema’s I enjoy for more than their films include (prolific theatre architect) Sprauge’s Coronet (with dress circle) and the Gate, both in Notting Hill, the now posh Electric on Portobello Rd (another early picture palace) where I saw films as a kid when it as fleapit. Notting Hill Coronet (ex ABC I think, now a club and occasionally used for art films/shorts), Screen on the Green, the Rio in Dalston, Brixton’s Ritzy and the Chelsea are all pretty good too (where would local London cinema be with out the likes of them?).