Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Hairspray explores beginning of an era

John Waters masterpiece is a clearly queer stage icon

GET USED TO IT. In Hairspray, it's 1962 — the '50s are out and change is in the air.

Baltimore’s Tracy Turnblad is an unlikely star. The big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart has one passion — to dance. Against the advice of concerned friends and a protective mother, she auditions at the Sock Hop, wowing the judges and winning a coveted spot on the local TV dance party, The Corny Collins Show.

Overnight Tracy is transformed from chubby outsider to irrepressible teen celebrity. But can the newly popular trendsetter vanquish the show’s reigning princess, win the love of her heartthrob, and bring racial integration to the television show without denting her ‘do?

Dan Ferretti, who plays Tracy’s fun-loving father, Wilber, laughs at the question. “Well, without spoiling too much… there are some heavier themes but, it’s a musical. So yes, there’s definitely a happy ending.”

Hairspray is a touring Broadway musical and an unusual treat for Ottawa’s gay audience. Re-premiering on the big screen this summer, Hairspray was originally written for the 1988 indie-cult film by John Waters.

The original movie was based on the true story of the Buddy Dean Show, a teen dance party television show that aired in Baltimore but was cancelled because it refused to integrate black and white dancers. Waters had been a teenage guest on the show and even won the twist contest, but always longed to be a ‘Deaner’ — the regular dancers who became Baltimore celebrities.

There is quite a bit of that original John Waters’ longing in Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad, who like Waters, has big, big dreams. Ferretti enjoys the role of Wilber, her goofy, loving father who runs a novelty shop called the Har-De-Har Hut. “Wilber’s a big dreamer, which is why Tracy is a dreamer. He encourages her to live big.

Tracy’s always told by her peers that she is fat and could never do it. But she has these very loving, supportive parents. The family — Tracy, Wilber and Edna — are really progressive for their community. They’re the heart of the musical.”

Ferretti, who is from Chicago, has been an actor for over 20 years, but has a special fondness for this role. “I find that I am identifying with Wilber. He’s a prankster and a punster; he’s the one to make the joke that people call ‘the groaner.’ I find myself doing that from time to time. Especially now in the role with people in the cast. I’ll make a joke as Dan and people will groan and say, ‘Oh my god, that’s so Wilber!'”

The role of Tracy’s concerned mother, Edna, has always been a colourful one. Originally written by Waters for his childhood friend, the hefty one-of-a-kind drag queen Divine, the role has since always been played by a male.

In early days Waters described his biggest star as a “conscious cross between his favorite ’50s film star, Jayne Mansfield, and Claribel, the seltzer-bottle wielding clown on Howdy Doody.” Naturally, Divine created an unforgettable character in the larger-than-life Edna.

Ferretti appreciates this aspect of the casting. “Divine turned Edna into a real iconic character. Comedic affect has something to do with it. But the way the character is played, something that we try to instill every day and night in performance, is that these are people — they’re real, so we’re honest and true to that person. It’s not a man playing a woman. It’s a woman. I think its part of the whole message to take people for who they are and not what they look like. There’s no question that when I’m on stage with Jerry, I’m on stage with Edna.”

The story is pure Cinderella. Make that Cinderellas, because Hairspray centres around two moths turning into butterflies. Because in the course of making her dream come true, Tracy also unfolds the wings of her plus-sized, frumpy, ironing-board tethered mom who unleashes her inner diva. The result is pure exuberance with fabulously kitschy costumes, buoyant, bouffant hairdos, killer dance moves and a sing-along musical score.

Ferretti thrives in immersing himself in a show that is light-hearted but carries such a great message. “The thing is it makes you feel good about yourself — no matter who you are and what you think. I’ve never been involved in a show that has given so much joy to an audience and in return has given me so much joy. I know that sounds a little bit corny. I mean honestly, any long run of a show, I think people can get tired of.

“But I have yet to get tired of this.”