By Laura London Waringer
When director and provocateur John Waters first conceived of his now-cult classic 1988 film Hairspray, he had no idea it would live on in three subsequent versions: the Tony Award-winning 2002 Broadway musical, the 2007 film adaptation of the stage show, and a 2016 live broadcast television production of the musical. Hairspray has been translated to every entertainment medium, and there are many reasons its story is so beloved and worthy of its many iterations. The story’s core messages of self-love, acceptance, and social activism continue to resonate across generations.
Set in 1962, Hairspray reflects a time in American history that lived on the precipice of the greatest wave of social change in the 20th century. The post-war prosperity of the 1950s propelled millions of Americans into the middle class. By the mid-1960s most working-class families could afford a car and a home fully equipped with modern appliances that included the television, which brought the outside world and its influences into every living room. The idealism and sterile conformity of the 1950s gave way to a generation gap, with the children of this Greatest Generation, later dubbed Baby Boomers, coming of age and rebelling against their parents’ traditional values. This led to the true birth of teenage culture, where American youth pioneered ways of expressing their identities through their choices in music, fashion, and yes, even hairstyles.
Hairspray’s outsider ingenue Tracy Turnblad is a relatable teenager navigating a society that judges her based on her size and shape who refuses to accept limitations based on labels. With her plucky can-do attitude and natural dance ability, Tracy is able to break the mold and fulfill her dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, but only then does she realize the breadth of injustice and inequality faced by her African-American friends, who are barred from the show by the laws of systemic racism. Black music provided the soundtrack and inspired the dance trends for Corny Collins’ “nicest kids in town,” but black faces were nowhere to be seen on screen. Their world’s social order, just like TV, is confined to a black and white binary. Determined to fight for a technicolor utopia, Tracy finds herself in the center of the Civil Rights Movement, marching through the streets of Baltimore to integrate the program. She and her friends encounter adversity including police brutality and bigotry but persevere until they create a space where everyone who wants to dance is given the opportunity of freedom and representation.
Though commonly considered a feel-good period piece, Hairspray has much to teach our current moment about the power of active allyship, positive self-image, open-mindedness and respect for people of all identities. With its plus-sized heroine, emphasis on racial equality, and a leading female character (Edna) conceived to be performed by a cross-dressed male, Hairspray highlights the ways in which our popular culture tends to exclude or marginalize those who exist outside of the white cisgender mainstream. The show is enjoyable and infectiously cheerful but serves as a reminder that “dancing together” remains an ongoing project; one that requires action, awareness, and a bit of Tracy’s relentless optimism. Hairspray leaves us tapping our toes and its final words challenge us to be the change we wish to see in the world: Let’s dance!
Laura London Waringer is a third year Theatre Studies doctoral student, originally hailing from New York City. She earned her MFA in musical theatre from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. An accomplished actress, writer, and producer, she also holds a dual BFA in drama and journalism from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Her research interests include race and gender representations in musical theatre, musical interpretations of historic events and the evolution of American musical theatre training. She has presented her work at the Comparative Drama, ATHE and Song, Stage and Screen conferences. Laura is a contributing scholar for the books Hamilton: History, Hip-Hop and Politics: Essays on the Afterbirth of a Nation, Musicals at the Margins and Queen Mothers: Articulating the Spirit of Black Women Teacher-Leaders, all due for publication in 2018.