Michael McKeon trades eyebrows for craft. The actor takes on the role of Edna Turnblad in Broadway's ''Hairspray,'' which calls for plucked eyebrows, makeup, and dresses

By Chris Willman
Updated May 21, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

On Broadway, there are highbrow shows, there are lowbrow shows, and then there’s ”Hairspray,” a no-brow show. At least it’s a given that whichever actor steps in as the female lead will have to shave his eyebrows, in order to sport the painted-on Joan Crawford look favored by hausfrau heroine Edna Turnblad. But Michael McKean, who’s taking over the gender-defying role from Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, is having a hard time letting go of his forehead fuzz on this, the occasion of his first wig and makeup test.

”Here’s the razor,” says the show’s hair man, one of several stylists converging with blades in hand, ”for getting rid of…”

”What?” McKean panics.

”Your brow.”

”Noooo!” the actor wails. ”That was a deal breaker. You can give ’em a crew cut — they’re very light — but I really don’t want to lose ’em all.” One of the drag experts resignedly begins to draw a faux arched brow above McKean’s own…a line almost as fine as the one between stupid and clever, first explained by McKean’s David St. Hubbins character in ”This Is Spinal Tap” 20 years ago. At least his affinity for Edna’s immense bouffant is immediate, given McKean has more experience wigging out than your average cross-dresser or original ”Star Trek” cast member — from ”Tap”s metal shag to last year’s toup-topped folkie in ”A Mighty Wind.”

But there’s something about his natural hairline that gets the 56-year-old Angeleno cast as a sleazeball, like ”The X-Files”’ recurring Morris Fletcher. ”I think that [trend] really started with [the HBO series] ‘Dream On,”’ McKean says. ”That character was very personable and well dressed, but he’d stab you in the front. A lot of casting people saw it.” A few dozen small slimebucket roles later and ”I had to stop taking those parts, it became so familiar, ” he says. ”I’d read ‘Oh, he’s the principal’ or whatever, then flip to see what bodily fluid he gets covered with in the end.”

Right now, the fluid is mascara, being lavishly applied to his lashes. ”Hairspray” director Jack O’Brien wanders into the Manhattan brownstone where this transformation is occurring and blurts out, ”Oh my God! That’s very shocking. It’s very Divine!”

”Thank you,” says McKean. ”I was thinking Sian Phillips in ‘I, Claudius.’ A little Kathy Griffin, too,” he adds, grinning a big, crookedly garish, cherry red grin. ”Well, Kathy Griffin’s mom.”

McKean has always seemed a little more cheerful than compatriots-in-satire Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. He has extra reason to be happy lately. After his 22-year first marriage ended in divorce in 1993, ”I fulfilled every young man’s dream and married Annette O’Toole.” These two fulfilled every Hollywood power couple’s dream and got a joint Oscar nod this year, for cowriting ”A Mighty Wind”’s ”A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” — news of which arrived just after ”Hairspray”’s producers called out of the blue, asking McKean to audition.

Hairspray (Stage - 2002)

  • Stage
  • Jack O'Brien