Inside… Hairspray

While it may be regarded as one of the most popular musicals of recent years, there was a time that Hairspray was a little known indie film by an outcast director. Here’s how it became a phenomenon…

Original Movie

Hairspray can be traced back to the unconventional mind of John Waters, when he released his most commercial successful feature during his transition to the mainstream in 1988. Even with the PG rating, the director kept many of the outrageous, campy attributes he is known for such as the avant-guard drag performer Divine appearing as a supporting character, and the eccentric script.


A decade later in 1998, theatre producer Margo Lion (also from Baltimore, Maryland) caught the movie on television, and was inspired to adapt it into a stage show. She discussed the idea with Waters who gave his blessing, and soon acquired the rights to the story from New Line Cinema.

Stage Show

In putting together her team for the show, Lion first contacted composer, and lyricist Marc Shaiman to create the music and lyrics. While he expressed interest in the project he agreed to join as long as his professional, and life partner Scott Wittman could assist; Lion agreed and the pair submitted three trial songs including Good Morning Baltimore before being given the green light to produce the rest.

hairspray (1)

Esteemed director Rob Marshall was approached to perform double duty as director and choreographer on the project, and became attached for a short period. During his time shaping the musical, he lay some of the groundwork including seeking out Marissa Jaret Winokur to play lead Tracey Turnblad, after seeing her work on American Beauty. After being hired to work on the movie adaptation of Chicago, Marshall handed over to director Jack O’Brien, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell who took helm of the project.

Keen to keep a male in the role of Edna Turnblad, Harvey Fierstein signed onto the project following an impressive 30-minute vocal audition that made him the teams only choice for the role. Following auditions, the musical had amassed a talented cast, some of which were successful names, and others who found fame subsequently such as Glee’s Matthew Morrison originating Link Larkin.

The casting process was not as simple as expected however, as the leading actress Winokur was diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after beginning her run onstage. Certain she would lose her role if the production team discovered she kept the news hiddden from all except her immediate family, and underwent a hysterectamy so that she could return to her role.


The plot of the musical stayed fairly loyal to its source material, with only minor alterations to the overall story. In 1960s Baltimore, plump teenager Tracy Turnblad dreams of being a dancer on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program. When she scores a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight, and meets a colorful array of characters. She then proceeds to launch a campaign to integrate the show.

The tremendous heart of the show captured audiences and critics alike, hearalding praise on the colourful musical endlessly. Nominated for twelve Tony Awards, the show won eight; Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction, Best Book, Best Costume Design, Best Leading Actress, Best Leading Actor, and Best Featured Actor. The show also scored wins from the Drama Desk Awards, and Theatre World Awards.


Following a successful tryout at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, Hairspray opened on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre on August 15, 2002 and ran for an impressives ix years until closing on January 4, 2009 after 2,642 performances.

The show travelled the globe with countless international revivals, and touring editions. Hairspray has played in countries such as China, Australia, Germany, Canada, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Switzerland, and Brazil. In the UK, the musical was nominated for eleven Laurence Olivier Award’s and won four.

Movie Version

Following the dizzying success of the stage show, production on a film version began in 2004 when Leslie Dixon reworked the original Waters’ movie, and the Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan penned book of the musical to tone down the camp theatricality and create a streamlined feature length movie script. Adam Shankman signed on as director, and choreographer and the original music team reworked the shows songs, and created four new original numbers for the film. Filming took place in Ontario, Canada between September 2006 and December of that year featuring a recognisable cast of actors; John Travolta, Zac Efron, Michelle Pfieffer, Amanda Bynes, Christopher Walken, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, and Queen Latifa.


Hairspray has the widest debut of any modern movie musical, opening in in 3,121 theaters in North America on July 20, 2007 amassing a cool $27,476,745 in its opening weekend at number 3. It is among the top ten highest grossing movie musicals of all time and received critical and commercial praise upon its release. Earning Critics Choice, MTV Movie, and Hollywood Film Festival Awards, and nominated at the Golden Globes, and SAG Awards, there was much fanfare around the movie.

Due to the intense financial success, New Line Cinema approached Waters to commision a sequel to the film. Waters reunited with director/choreographer Shankman for the project, and songwriters Shaiman and Wittman were back to compose the film’s musical numbers. The story would have seen Tracy enter the late 1960s during the British Invasion, featuring as much as the original cast that they could get back. Despite being originally intended for a mid-July 2010 release by Warner Bros, Shankman confirmed that Hairspray 2: White Lipstick was no longer in development in 2010.

Television Version

On December 7, 2016 NBC aired a live version of the stage musical as the networks fourth entry in its series of made-for-TV musical telecasts. Adapted by Fierstein the show emulated the stage production over the movie though two numbers written for the 2007 film, “Ladies’ Choice” and “Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)” were included.

Hairspray Live! - Season 2016

Viewed by an audience of 9.05 million, and gaining critical acclaim the made-for-tv version consistsed of a wealth of stars including Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Kristen Chenowerth, Dove Cameron, Martin Short, Garrett Clayton,  Derek Hough, Sean Hayes, Rosie O’Donnell, Billy Eichner and Ephraim Sykes. Fierstein returned to portray Edna Turnblad once more.

Now Hairspray stands as one of the most popular, and recognisable musicals of our time. Almost everyone is aware of at least one version of the show that has seen countless revivals and reimaginings. Despite which rendition you may prefer all share a common theme of acceptance, both of others and yourself. They’re fun, colourful, and larger than life with great characters, a rich premise, and songs that dare you not to singalong.

Musical Numbers

Act I
  • “Good Morning Baltimore” – Tracy and Ensemble
  • “The Nicest Kids in Town” – Corny and Council Members
  • “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” – Edna, Tracy, Prudy, Penny, Velma, Amber, and Female Ensemble
  • “I Can Hear the Bells” – Tracy and Council Members
  • “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” – Velma and Council Members with Tracy, Penny, and Little Inez
  • “The Madison” – Council Members
  • “The Nicest Kids in Town (Reprise)”† – Corny, Council Members
  • “It Takes Two” – Link, Tracy, and Council Guys
  • “Velma’s Revenge” – Velma
  • “Welcome to the 60’s” – Tracy, Edna, The Dynamites, Mr. Pinky, and Ensemble
  • “Run and Tell That!” – Seaweed, Little Inez, and Motormouth Kids
  • “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” – Motormouth, Little Inez, Tracy, Edna, Wilbur, and Company
Act II
  • “The Big Dollhouse” – Matron, Edna, Velma, Tracy, Amber, Penny, Motormouth, Little Inez, and Female Ensemble
  • “Good Morning Baltimore (Reprise)” – Tracy
  • “You’re Timeless to Me” – Edna and Wilbur
  • “You’re Timeless to Me (Reprise)” – Edna and Wilbur
  • “Without Love” – Tracy, Link, Penny, Seaweed, and Ensemble
  • “I Know Where I’ve Been” – Motormouth and Ensemble
  • “(It’s) Hairspray” – Corny and Council Members
  • “Cooties” – Amber and Council Members
  • “You Can’t Stop the Beat” – Tracy, Link, Penny, Seaweed, Edna, Wilbur, Motormouth, Velma, Amber and Ensemble

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