MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

To pay off, 'Hairspray' gamble will require more than Travolta, Latifah and hype

April 10, 2006
LAS VEGAS – In Monday’s New York Times, David Carr interviews John Waters and the co-CEOs of New Line on plans for the 2007 re-adaptation of “Hairspray.” The article does everything, except answer the question it begs: why bother?
For those keeping score at home, the Queen Latifah/John Travolta version will be based on the multiple-Tony Award-winning musical, which added more than a dozen bouncy new songs and a typically uplifting Broadway view of American life to Waters’ wickedly funny essay on race, rock, roll and ratted hair in Baltimore, circa 1962. A strategically pruned, 90-minute version of the Broadway musical – starring original cast members Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa, as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad — recently opened at the Luxor Hotel & Casino here, to positive reviews and appreciative audiences.
It only took one John Waters to write and direct the film, which incorporated such vintage R&B hits as “The Madison Time,” “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and “Nothing Takes the Place of You” into its historical context. The Broadway version required the services of Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who wrote the book, and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It was directed by Jack O’Brien. Shaiman and Wittman already are working on new songs for the movie.
Carr put the projected budget at $50 million, but, for this to be realized, the stars would have to work on scale. Thus, even apart from the vastly premature New York Times plug, the hype machine already is in full gear.
The 2007 adaptation of the 2002 Broadway re-imagining of Waters’ 1988 movie has already generated headlines by launching a nationwide search for hybrid actors/singers/dancers to play Tracy Turnblad, Seaweed, Little Inez and Link Larkin. More buzz was generated with the signing of Latifah to play Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown in the original) and Travolta as the successor to the great Divine, Fierstein, Michael McKean, Bruce Vilanch and John Pinette as Edna. (Waters originally saw pioneer transsexual Christine Jorgensen in the role, so obesity clearly isn’t a prerequisite for the assignment).
Billy Crystal reportedly is in line for the role of Wilbur, Edna’s husband (originally played by Jerry Stiller, in a portrayal that may have inspired Frank Costanza). Expect many more stunt-casting announcements to be made in the months to come. One doubts, however, that producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (“Chicago”) will cast modern incarnations of such then-Z-list talents as Pia Zadora, Sonny Bono, Deborah Harry, Ricki Lake, Lelie Ann Powers, Mink Stole, Rick Ocasek, Colleen Fitzpatrick and Alan J. Wendl in key supporting roles. If a Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Beyonce, Eva Longoria or Christina Aguilera doesn’t make the final cut, I’ll eat my hat.
And, therein, lies the rub. As Carr mentions, recent screen adaptations of the stage versions “Rent” and “The Producers” hardly scorched the box offices of U.S. mega-plexes. Neither, did “Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita.”
“Chicago” did well, but it took two months and a few Oscars to get it over the $100 million mark. Throw in the costs for prints, marketing and fuel for John Travolta’s jet, and you’ve raised the break-even bar to a precariously high level. DVD and soundtrack sales could help, but those aren’t guaranteed, either.
Now that I’ve arbitrarily raised the budget for “Hairspray” to $100-million-plus, it’s worth asking where the potential audience resides.
The book written for the Broadway, Las Vegas and touring versions focused far more on the outsider status of the larger-than-life Turnblads, than the integration struggle that inspired Waters. That edge was dulled, necessarily, at the expense of all the wonderful singing and dancing required to sell tickets to the tourists along the Great White Way. Eliminating Waters’ casting quirks and directorial nuances reduces the chances of “Hairspray” attracting his traditional fan base, modest though it may be.
Knowing full well that what works on stage doesn’t necessarily work on screen, theater aficionados found little inspiration for re-watching screen versions of “The Producers” and “Rent.” This, of course, leaves pre-teens, teens and Travolta fans to carry the rest of the load. A few novenas may be in order.
“‘Hairspray’ was a niche movie that resonated beyond the niche,” Michael Lynne, co-chief executive of New Line, told Carr. “It will be reinvented, but what remains is the essence, John Waters’s special sensibility and humor about the social condition, the freedom to puncture certain shibboleths and make people a little uncomfortable.”
Robert K. Shaye, the other co-chief executive of New Line, added, “We didn’t give that up in the play, and we aren’t going to give that up in this movie.”
Oh, really? Maybe not by Hollywood standards, but the productions remain, in fact, too very different things. A re-viewing of Waters’ version – recently seen on cable rotation – attests to the durability of its “subversive” message.
But, good luck, anyway. If it is to succeed, “Hairspray” will have to appeal to the fat girl in all of us, not the hipster or ironist. Stranger things have happened.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the Broadwayization of the Strip continues to generate mixed results, as well. “Mamma Mia” remains a solid crowd-pleaser, even if “Avenue Q” never found the audience it deserved at Wynn’s Las Vegas, and will soon close its doors to make way for “Spamalot.” (“We Will Rock You,” the Queen musical, also underperformed.) “Cats” has arrived at the Aladdin Theater for a two-month run, and the Venetian is spending $35 million to re-mount “Phantom of the Opera” in a 90-minute version to be staged in a new $40-million venue. This, in addition to the half-dozen Cirque du Soleil and Cirque-inspired extravaganzas any impresario would kill to mount on Broadway.
Wouldn’t it be great if every American city — not named New York, anyway – could boast of such an embarrassment of riches?

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2 Responses to “To pay off, 'Hairspray' gamble will require more than Travolta, Latifah and hype”

  1. wongjongat says:

    First of all, I thought that The Producers was the most entertaining American film I saw last year. To me it bore many of the elements of a classic MGM musical comedy from its technicolor days. Just needed to get that off my chest.
    As for Hairspray, I had high hopes for it when I first heard it was being considered for a filmic re-makeover. I love Waters late 80s/early 90s work (still waiting for Cry Baby: The Musical). Indeed, musical elements are inherent in many of his films, thus making them good fits for musical adaptations.
    However, when I heard who was directing it (“Bringin’ Down the House”? Puh-leeze!), then heard John Travolta would be playing Edna Turnblad, I thought, “Well, there goes the film.” Queen Latifah I can see–she’s already proven herself as a musical talent, and Motormouth Maybelle would not be much a stretch for her, in any case. But Travolta? Sure, he was entertaining in Grease, but no one can really say that his vocal talents are all that sound (is it just me, or does he sound really strained on “You’re the One that I Want”?). And I think it’s stretching it muchly to buy into Travolta in drag. I think this film is heading for disaster before its first frame has even been shot. If they really hope to save the film even remotely, they’ll cast Marissa Jaret Winokur, the Tony-winning, original Tracey Turnblad on Broadway, in that role. Otherwise, the film will have lost any sense of itself.

  2. seattlemoviegoer says:

    Many have praised the producer duo of Neil Meron and Craig Zadan for having revitalized the musical with the TV adaptation of Annie and the oscars for Chicago, but did anyone see their remake of THE MUSIC MAN on ABC? What a mess. And Broderick was miscast…as he was (and I’m pretty lonely with this opinion) in PRODUCERS movie. He doesn’t seem comfortable with broad comedy. Now they are screwing with HAIRSPRAY, which sounded fantastic when it was in the hands of Jack O’Brien (one of the most talented directors around today). Then he was replaced with the guy who did THE PACIFIER. Ugh. And Travolta? He hasn’t made me laugh for 30 years. Steve Martin or Robin Williams or Jason Alexander could make Edna Turnblad sing and crack everyone up. Travolta will be an oddity, at best.

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