Since it was first produced as a Broadway musical in 2002, the stage adaptation of John Waters’ “Hairspray” has been performed all over the world, with casts of many nationalities. In some cases, pivotal roles intended for black actors and actresses were played by white actors, or Asians. But no more.
The team behind Hairspray announced this week that all future productions must be cast to reflect its characters “as written,” or the show won’t go on.
According to the OnStage Blog by Chris Peterson and the Broadway World website, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, creators of the theatrical version of “Hairspray,” have said the change was made because they wanted to close a casting loophole that has allowed producers to stage the musical with non-black actors playing black characters.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, “Hairspray” is the story of a white teenager, Tracy Turnblad, who dreams of appearing on a local TV dance show, becomes a sensation and brings racial integration to the show, which didn’t always allow white kids and black kids to dance together. Much of the plot revolves around Tracy’s efforts to desegregate the fictional dance show, which was based on “The Buddy Deane Show” in Baltimore.
But the civil rights message tends to get muddled when productions don’t cast actors who support the storyline. In Japan, for example, one production used an all-Asian cast except for one black and Asian actress playing Motormouth Maybelle, who is supposed to be black. In South Korea, a production put Asian actors in blackface, until there was an uproar about it.
In the United States, some high school productions reportedly have used all-white casts, saying they didn’t have enough black students to fill the roles or that not enough auditioned. A children’s theater group near Dallas not only used all-white actors but cast a thin actress to play Tracy Turnblad, who is written as being plump, and made her wear heavy padding.
On his site, Peterson wrote a post calling on the creators to stop allowing non-black actors to perform the roles of black characters as the nation grapples with unrest over George Floyd’s death in police custody.
“Given what’s happened lately, I hope they do,” Peterson wrote. “I have a feeling that when schools and local theatres resume operations, ‘Hairspray’ will be at the top of many of their lists.”
Filmmaker John Waters, who wrote and directed the 1988 movie on which the musical was based, blasted the miscasting in his latest book, “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.” “The thought of Motormouth Maybelle played by a white girl in a curly blond wig, singing ‘I Know Where I’ve Been,’ is blasphemy,” he wrote.
Shaiman and Wittman came to the same conclusion.
“While it always seemed like common sense to us that people would choose to put on ‘Hairspray’ with the knowledge that they could perform the show as written, we were naïve,” Shaiman said in a post on Instagram. “But, to state what I would hope to be the obvious, we never encouraged an all-white production.”
In fact, he said, knowing that “Hairspray” has sometimes been performed without black actors has “gnawed at me” for years. “This casting conundrum has been an issue that all of the authors of Hairspray have wrestled with for some time.”
In the past, “while imploring theaters and schools to – if necessary – look outside of their own community to properly cast the show, we eventually allowed groups to cast the show as best they could as long as the words and the story were unaltered,” Shaiman said.
“Since a major part of ‘Hairspray’ is about fighting against the idea that someone could not be on a show because of their race, it seemed wrong that ‘Hairspray’ would deny someone the chance to be in a show… because of their race!”
From now on, he said, Music Theatre International, the company that represents and licenses “Hairspray,” will require producers “to cast the show so as to accurately reflect the characters as we wrote them. A show that specifically addresses one aspect of the black experience during the civil rights battles of the early 1960s deserves to have its characters accurately and appropriately portrayed on stage.”
Following the original movie, “Hairspray” became a 2002 Broadway production with music and lyrics by Shaiman and Wittman.
The Broadway show led to touring productions and then was followed by another movie version in 2007 and a live NBC version in 2016. Waters has called it “the gift that keeps on giving” because there have been so many iterations.
One role that hasn’t been miscast over the years is Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. Written for a male in drag, it was originally played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein and on film by Divine and John Travolta.
The running joke is that no one in the show seems to realize or care that Tracy’s parents are actually two men, one in drag. With the new order that roles in “Hairspray” must be cast “as written,” Edna Turnblad will continue to be played by a male in drag.
The original New York production of “Hairspray” won eight Tony Awards, including Best New Musical. The original West End production in London won four Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical.
An all-new version of “Hairspray” was announced last year as a national touring production, with Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as the first stop. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings it is unclear whether it can go on as scheduled.