No ozones were harmed during the making of this musical comedy. There isn’t any such placard in the lobby of the Neil Simon Theatre, but maybe there should be, just to reassure Broadway patrons who also happen to be environmental alarmists that the 1962 period detail in Hairspray doesn’t extend to the use of actual chlorofluorocarbon-filled aerosol cans. Heaven knows that if the production’s wig wranglers were using vintage Alberto VO5 backstage, the entire East Coast would be sporting second-degree sunburns by now. Each night, rows of bouffants on dummy heads are teased, ratted, and spritzed within an inch of their disembodied lives before being handed back to the cast.
Through the mist we catch sight of Harvey Fierstein, who, ironically, has rendered himself hairless for the sake of his role here. On stage, he’s all curls and curves as the matronly Edna Turnblad, filling the sensible heels of the late Divine, who originated the gender-bending role in the 1988 John Waters movie that inspired this show. Off stage, Fierstein is the Mr. Bigglesworth of the Great White Way. Adjusting his 30-pound fat suit, the famously foghorn-voiced actor recalls three questions that went through his mind when he was offered the part — only one of which had to do with whether to renege on his vow to give up drag for good when his career-defining role in Torch Song Trilogy came to an end 14 years ago. ”First was, Do I want to tie up my life for a year and a half? Then came the drag. Then it was, All right, how much am I willing to do for the drag? How much of my body am I gonna shave — eyebrows, chest, arms, legs, underarms? Slowly but surely, you come to terms that you either do it full-out or you don’t. The physicalness of it is a huge burden…but I think it’s paid off kind of nicely.”
After all, what’s a little extra heft and a lot of Nair when New York City is practically bowing at your feet?
Deafening buzz, generated by a wildly successful out-of-town tryout in Seattle, preceded Hairspray’s Aug. 15 Broadway opening, resulting in advance sales of $15 million. The day the show received its mostly glowing New York notices, it racked up another $1.5 million. In the theatrical dog days surrounding Labor Day, Hairspray was the only show besides The Lion King, The Producers, and Mamma Mia! playing to SRO crowds. And all this with the Tony Awards still nine months away. There’s no shortage of big shows opening this fall (Michael Crawford in Dance of the Vampires, Paul Newman in Our Town, Baz Luhrmann’s epic La Boheme, a flashy revival of Man of La Mancha), but Hairspray is considered the one likeliest to still be Aqua Netting the big bucks here and on the road several years from now. Enthusiasm reached such a hyperbolic pitch that Variety’s critic felt compelled to point out, in his otherwise ecstatic review, that the show ”doesn’t offer a cure for cancer” — though it has been quite sincerely touted as Manhattan’s best tonic for the post-9/11 blues.