“Is it always this much fun?” David Rockwell asks, and the answer is no: few things are as much fun as Hairspray. The new Broadway musical, based on the 1988 John Waters movie about full-bodied women, integration, pop music, and the architecture of teased hair in 1962 Baltimore, opened in August to reviews and box office the likes of which haven't been seen since The Producers. Everything about the show, which has a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and an infectious, early 60s — infused score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, seems to bounce and hum into place perfectly.
That includes not only the ceaselessly inventive staging by director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and the performances of the exuberant ensemble, led by Marissa Jaret Winokur as ample-figured teen Tracy Turnblad, and Harvey Fierstein, as Tracy's even more ample-figured (and much taller) mother, Edna, but also, of course the work of the design team: Rockwell, in the design architect's sophomore Broadway scenery outing (after The Rocky Horror Show, in 1999); lighting designer Kenneth Posner; sound designer Steve Kennedy; costume designer William Ivey Long; and last but certainly not least in a show called Hairspray, wig and hair designer Paul Huntley.
“In the ‘Welcome to the 60s’ number, at the end of previews in Seattle,” says Rockwell, referring to Hairspray's tryout run before moving to New York's Neil Simon Theatre, “the color scheme for the set and the lighting and the costumes were so seamless. When it locked into place, it was stunning to see the overlap and the result of the collaboration.” Close collaboration of the sort not really possible in the architectural world is one of the things that draws Rockwell to the theatre. Still, it has to start somewhere, or as O'Brien said to the designer, “It all works together, but it works from the point of view of the set.” Therefore, he continues, “William looked at our color scheme, and came back with costumes that worked for that, and Ken and I talked about things as detailed as gobo patterns, just to make sure there was a relationship between everything.”
Another crucial early participant was John Waters himself, who took Rockwell on a tour of Baltimore, with particular attention paid to the Pigstown neighborhood, where long rows of townhouses are fronted by Formstone: a material trowled on and scored to resemble concrete block. Rockwell was determined (as was Waters, who was an informal consultant on the show) to get the emblematic Formstone look into the design, so there it is on rowhouse set pieces during several scenes. “After meeting John, I went back and looked at most of his movies,” says the designer. “I was struck by his embracing of the ordinary and the eccentric, which through his portrayal became almost baroque. That became another thing that informed our design.” Although he did voluminous research into the specifics of 1962 Baltimore, and wanted to honor it, he adds that “realistic Baltimore onstage would look a lot like Death of a Salesman. We wanted to do it in such a way that achieved the baroque vision that you get when you think of John Waters.”
From Rockwell's early discussions with O'Brien and Mitchell, something else was clear: “From the moment the music started, it was an explosion that didn't want to be interrupted by heavy transitions or scenery changes,” says the designer. The very first thing the audience sees on entering the theatre is Hairspray's singular show curtain, fabricated by I. Weiss from ¼" (red silicon tubing (21,000' worth) hand-stitched to a blue Austrian velour backing. But it's not until the curtain opens that that first, already classic musical moment comes: viewed as if from above, Tracy awakens in a vertically positioned bed at certain stage, and wails out the Brenda Lee-style “Oh, oh, oh” opening strains of “Good Morning, Baltimore.”
Though the show can seem almost light on scenery, Rockwell points out that “by the end of the first act, you've seen the bed, the prologue drop behind her with people appearing in Tracy's dream, all of Baltimore, The Corny Collins Show studio, the Turnblad house, which comes back in two or three different versions, Motormouth Maybelle's record shop,” and more. Working with ShowMotion Inc., which built, paint, electrified, and automated (using the Autocue Computerized Motion Control System) all of the show's scenery, Rockwell devised method after method for keeping the sets moving.
The opening number of Hairspray
The TV studio for The Corny Collins Show, where the unsvelte and blue-collar Tracy mixes it up with skinny rich girls and boys, is primarily represented by overhead microphones that “iris” in and out, for example. “That means the studio can come in lightning-quick,” says the designer. Set pieces track and fly around as the cast members keep moving, remaining the focus of attention. A passerel around the orchestra pit periodically brings the performers down front, aiding the traffic flow and sometimes serving as the exterior to a just-arriving interior set. “The show has 18 different locations that never really settle in one place,” says Rockwell.
Another big practical design issue derived from the fact that Hairspray is partly about racially integrating The Corny Collins Show, and by extension, Baltimore. “But it doesn't get integrated until the end,” the designer says. “So how do you have half of the cast participating vocally, but not being part of the scene?” The answer was elements like the prologue drop, and towers that track forward during the “Without Love” number, holding performers that serve as “a kind of Baltimore version of a Greek chorus.”
For the white character — centered scenes, the creators came up with a design vocabulary playing off hanging panels in Necco wafer colors; on the black side of town, where Motormouth Maybelle's record shop serves as a gathering place, the palette heats up considerably, using colors inspired by a tie-dyed piece of velvet made by The Rockwell Group team (which also includes associate set designers Richard Jaris and Barry Richards). “But always, the show has a very literal thing in front of a very abstract thing,” says Rockwell. “It's a way to treat the stage space. You see the Turnblad house with the three funny ducks on the wall, against those Necco wafer panels. When you see Motormouth's, you see the beads and the records against the Lite-Brite wall.”
Ah, the Lite-Brite wall: this massive collection of frame-mounted LEDs, which brings a whole new landscape of color and pattern to the show when it appears, constitutes the show's third major vocabulary — in essence, the integrated vocabulary. “Once we reveal that, it becomes the new back wall of the theatre, and defines the space,” says Rockwell, who, along with the rest of the creative team, had great fun figuring out the wall's various looks on a model with Lite-Brite pegs. “It represents the ultimate 60s, the optimistic 60s.”
The 60s of Tracy Turnblad's dreams, in other words. Hairspray, after all, is told from Tracy's point of view. “It's Cinderella in reverse,” Rockwell says. “This little fat girl believes she's the hottest thing in the world, and she slowly gets the world to see it her way. That's why we see her from the air in bed in the first scene. Visually, we wanted to indicate that those rules were her rules.”
“When I was asked to do it, I thought, oh dear, I'm renowned for my wigs that are very natural,” says Paul Huntley about Hairspray. “But I adored the movie, and John Waters was very sweet — he found a magazine of hairstyles that were done in Baltimore at that time, and that was our basis for quite a number of them.” Huntley also points out that in the days before designing wigs and hair for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mamma Mia!, The Producers, and just about every other Broadway show you can think of, including Cats and Amadeus, he was wigmaker for late singer Dusty Springfield, the queen of the beehives. “She was a great inspiration,” he says.
But working with William Ivey Long, the designer also realized that “we didn't want to start in the most exaggerated way to begin with, because there would be nowhere to go. Also, we wanted it to be sweet, we didn't want it to be like a drag show.” Harvey Fierstein, the only consistently cross-dressing performer (a few male ensemble members do masquerade as mothers during the mother-daughter day sequence), evolves through three progressively bigger looks. At the beginning, his Edna Turnblad has what Huntley calls “the frowze look: she's been ironing, and it's all steamy and hot, and the front is all pinned to keep it out of her face. It's an homage to Divine at the ironing board in the movie.”
For Edna's transformation during the “Welcome to the 60s” number, the designer created a wig that was “very much what women did then: teased-up front, cluster of curls piled up at the back, and shaded and frosted.” For the finale, when Edna emerges in triumph from a giant hairspray can, “it had to be over the top a little bit,” says Huntley. “Edna finally found that she could bleach her roots.”
Marissa Jaret Winokur's Tracy Turnblad has a much more stable style throughout: the bangs, tease, and flip that Huntley says he saw on every single girl in a 1962 Baltimore high school yearbook. “We thought maybe we should do a big hairdo or something special on her at the end, then we all realized that was silly,” says Huntley. “The fact that she's the same sweet creature made it all much more poignant.” At one point, Tracy does don a “skunk” hairpiece, but she's back to her normal look by the end.
“Maintenance is unbelievable,” says the designer. “I have a team of five hairdressers on the show, and they're constantly dressing them. When you tease things and spray them very heavily (with Aerolacq, the show's hairspray brand), once they've gotten knocked about a bit, they have to be totally combed out again and reset.” Especially if your name happens to be Von Tussle: the evil blonde mother-daughter team of Velma (Linda Hart) and Amber (Laura Bell Bundy), that is. Waters' words of wisdom to Huntley about these two: “Just think very bad Versailles.” Amber, whom the designer describes as “Sandra Dee on speed,” wears an outlandish poodle-like teased lump on top of her head. “Because the actress has such a sweet face, you wanted to put that one little stamp on her that would be, ‘Oooh, that girl,’” he says. During the “Hairspray” number near the end, the little stamp gives way to constructions of towering Marie Antoinette dimensions on both Amber and Velma.
Other styles are simpler: Mary Bond Davis' Motormouth Maybelle is coiffed in a blond curly do that is meant to be an obvious wig, says Huntley: “Nobody at that time would have been able to bleach her hair that color.” Tracy's friend Penny Pingleton (Kerry Butler) starts out with a conventional flip-up, but after she discovers her attraction to “chocolate love,” she reappears in a much freer style inspired by Jane Fonda as Barbarella. “To be honest, it's not strictly period, but it was a wonderful way to transform her character,” the designer says.
As for the men, Tracy's heartthrob Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison) was meant to be vaguely Fabianesque. “He has extremely curly hair,” says Huntley of the actor, “so every night it's blown and gelled into that slightly Elvis Presley-ish do.” The only actor in the show who wears much in the way of wigs is Joel Vig, who plays four characters who are having different versions of bad-hair days.
The wigs themselves are made with some synthetic elements, but mostly from human hair — Russian hair, to be exact. “Russia is the big country for hair at the moment,” says Huntley, who buys his hair from English merchants who are several steps removed from the initial point of purchase. So much for the Cold War: Tracy would undoubtedly be pleased.
Ask costume designer William Ivey Long about the matter of tone in Hairspray, and he's off and rolling. “When you said tone, I thought immediately of two things,” he replies. “I thought of Baltimore in 1962, which is the big picture. How do you visually express a cultural moment onstage? When John Waters put 1962 Baltimore on film, he used real locations that had not changed, and vintage clothes. I explained to John, ‘I'm going to have to pop this up, because I have to use the entire architecture of the human body at all times; I'm not able to do a closeup.’”
In the opening stage picture, with silhouettes of ensemble members backing up front-and-center character Tracy Turnblad, director Jack O'Brien wanted Long to instantly signal which silhouettes belonged to black performers and which to white. He took his cue from Jerry Mitchell's choreography: “For the white kids it's from the waist up, and for the black kids it's from the waist down. So the white girls have big full skirts, with jacket and tie for the men, and the black kids have sleek, body-hugging, cool clothes — you can really move in them.” Later, of course, one notes other differences. “The white kids are in pastels — grayed-out secondary colors that match the Necco wafer colors on David Rockwell's backgrounds — and in plaid and Madras. When we go to Motormouth's with the cool black kids, it's primary and acid colors, with geometric circles and squares and dots that reflect the 45s and long-playing records in the shop.”
Long also had to show socioeconomic differences, since Tracy and her family are working class, and nemeses Velma and Amber Von Tussle are rich. “They take dressing up very seriously, they dress up to go to the grocery store, as if going to a ball at Versailles,” says the designer of the Von Tussles. “And the mother-daughter looks all coordinate. The mother's always in a Lurex brocade, and the daughter's in a lighter version, in a softer fabric. You just know at home they have plastic on the furniture — probably embossed, maybe in Lurex.”
So much for the big Baltimore picture; what's the smaller one? “Harvey as Tracy's mother,” says Long, hooting at the idea of applying the word small in any fashion to Fierstein's formidable Edna Turnblad. “Edna was our biggest challenge. It was crucial that he really be perceived, after the first 10 seconds of shock, as a woman. So I'm afraid Harvey and I had some serious girl talk about waxing.” Fierstein was hoping to hide his hairy legs behind thick hose, but Long nixed that idea. “When you have big tall people onstage, like the showgirls in Crazy for You, you have to be careful. You have to show at all times that they're women, with the sheerest of hose.”
The waxing issue cleared up, Long moved on to Edna's padded shape, which adds considerable girth to Fierstein's figure. “We did three tries: one too big, one too small, and then we got to where we are now,” says the designer. Edna, of course, has the biggest character arc, from “frumpy to divine,” but Long particularly didn't want to overdo the frump. “I put lots of fabrics in front of Harvey, and do you know we rejected all the big, cuckoo fabrics, in favor of little Liberty of London prints for his housedresses? Because they were more real.” The same less-is-more principle applied to Edna's face, which Long says involved much trial and error. “It's basically Harvey's face with a base: not much shading, very little contouring, a middle-toned brown eyelash, not very full.”
Long refers to Edna's big makeover moment during “Welcome to the 60s” as “Pucci heaven.” The cloaked, vibrant blue dress with swirls of red and purple pattern has a La Cage aux Folles reference: “I remembered these wonderful Theoni Aldredge cloaks that looked like they were cocoons, so I got this bow, and wrapped it around Harvey's neck — he just pulls it, and the cloak drops down and is still part of the dress.” Edna's newfound style is then expressed in a Jackie Kennedy silhouette suit “with about 15 things — patterns, ruffles, buttons, flounces, venting — added,” and for the finale, “the biggest, reddest dress since Hello, Dolly!” These costumes and all the rest for the show (about 350 in all) were built by an army of shops: Euro Co, Jennifer Love, Scafati, Schneeman Studios, Tricorne, Timberlake Studios, with custom shoes made by LaDuca.
a sketch of Edna's transformational gown
The designer's process with the full-figured Marissa Jaret Winokur, who plays Tracy, was special. “I took her shopping for interview clothes, and in the process of that week, I found out what, she, Marissa, likes. And she, Marissa, loves very tight-fitting clothes. This played totally into Jerry Mitchell's desire to show her body, because he loves what a fabulous dancer she is. So from learning how she wore contemporary clothes, she and I developed the little blouse-and-skirt ensembles she wears throughout.” The obvious exception being, of course, Tracy's horizontal-striped prison outfit, made of stretch denim. “It gets screams of laughter every time, because you can't believe we went there,” says Long. “But Marissa said in The New York Times that it's her favorite costume.”
Phil Spector, whose spirit hovers over all that happens in Hairspray, had his Wall of Sound. Ken Posner has his Wall of Light. Or, more correctly, lights, LEDs in fact, untold numbers of them in translucent circular housings that cover the back wall of the set. The wall of light makes its first, partial, appearance about halfway during the first act, during the number “Welcome to the 60s.” It's a most appropriate moment — just as Tracy Turnblad ushers her mother into the new decade, so the stage is defined by a look that screams Pop Art. The wall of light makes frequent appearances thereafter, becoming as kinetic a presence as any of choreographer Jerry Mitchell's be-boppin' dancers. Posner puts the wall through its paces, performing colorful chases, wipes, and pulses, even making chevrons that move up and down. At the end of the second-act quartet “Without Love,” the wall forms a picture of two intertwined hearts. At moments, when the dances are going full throttle, the effect of all the moving bodies in front of the flashing wall is almost surreal. This is lighting that only adds to the show's non-stop pulse of energy.
The wall, says Posner, was inspired by a piece of art in Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's apartment. “The idea was to create multiple points of light,” the designer says. Easier said than done; Posner went through numerous technologies, ruling out along the way conventional equipment (because of power, wiring, and maintenance issues), neon (too expensive and unreliable), and fiber optics (not workable). LEDs were clearly the answer, he feels, and the solution proved to be Color Kinetics C75 units.
The concept of the light wall became more complex as rehearsals morphed into the early performances in Seattle. “We started with eight colors, then evolved into many colors,” says Posner. Make that many, many colors: The wall has 1,800 channels of control. “It has its own Wholehog II,” adds the designer. Nevertheless, the LED technology is enormously energy-efficient. “You could plug it into your kitchen outlet,” says Posner, only half-jokingly.
As one might expect, Posner, programmer Paul J. Sonnleitner, and assistant lighting designer Paul Miller spent countless hours preprogramming the cues for the light wall, and after performances began, new effects were added regularly. For example, the twin-hearts image at the end of “Without Love”: “I used it as a button at the end of a rehearsal one night, at 11pm,” says Posner. “Everyone loved it.” And the gag stayed in the show. By the opening in New York, he adds, “We maxed out the Wholehog.”
Nevertheless, Posner uses this effect with his typical delicacy. It is only partly revealed at first, then appears more often, but doesn't really go wild until the finale, “You Can't Stop the Beat,” when the entire cast is rocking out. Otherwise, tact is the key word. “You have to be careful not to block out the actors,” the designer says. (One moment, in which a black girl group, The Dynamites, appears in front of the wall, looks like Posner's homage to the number “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls, as designed by the great Tharon Musser.)
Of course, the light wall works in synch with Shaiman's score, pulsating to the beat of his Spector-meets-Motown score. Posner's career in musicals has taken him through several genres, from swing (in the revue Swing!) to country (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), to the harsh, driving score by Andrew Lippa for The Wild Party. Here, he really connects with the music; that's partly because each number requires several shifts of focus, location, and tone; the lighting constantly re-orients the stage, driving the viewer's eye to exactly the right place, while maintaining a distinct beat. “The music drives the lighting,” says the designer who admits that before this show he “was not really familiar with music of the period.”
Posner drew on a variety of sources for his automated gear. First off came the Martin Mac 2000 Performance. “It has wonderful shuttering,” he says, adding, “It's a huge step forward,” for this particular light. In addition, he chose the Vari*Lite VL 2402 for washes, and High End Systems Studio Colors® as wash units for the upstage scenery. Despite all this mighty gear, his use of color is relatively restrained. “It's right for the period,' he says. “High saturation is more appropriate for 10 years later. I'm trying to be true to the John Waters world.” (He does layer on color for “Welcome to the 60s,” when Edna and Tracy fit themselves out as plus-size models in riotously colored costumes.)
Edna at home
In many ways, the designer shows his true self in the second-act duet, “Timeless to Me,” in which Edna and loving hubby Wilbur (Dick Latessa) reaffirm their commitment to one another. It's the most old-fashioned form of showstopper, performed in front of a curtain, with a built-in reprise. Posner's lighting is of major assistance, also, in keeping the audience focused on these two great clowns, their facial expressions and reactions to each other. It's an important reminder that, for all the brilliance of the light walls, Posner's roots are in dramatic theatre, and he puts the actors first at all times.
In addition to the automated units listed above, the rig for Hairspray included approximately 400 ETC Source Fours units in different degrees, 40 Thomas SN birdies, eight Lighting & Electronics Mini-10s and 15 L&E Mini-Strips, 120 Wybron Coloram II scores, two Robert Juliat Ivanhoe followspots, two Lycian 3kW xenon followspots, two MDB Atmosphere haze machines, and five ETC 96 × 2.4kW Sensor dimmer racks. In addition to the Wholehog II for the light wall, there's an additional Hog for the automated units and an ETC Obsession II for the conventionals. Equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase New Jersey. Other personnel include associate lighting designer Philip Rosenberg, supervising production electrician Michael Lo Bue, head electrician Brent Oakley, and assistant electrician Jessica Morton.
Posner, who couldn't be more delighted with his Hairspray experience, admits that this is the big Broadway musical he always dreamed of designing. “People crave a show like this,” he says, and given the lines outside the Neil Simon Theatre, who's going to argue with him?
The world will be relieved to know that it is possible to mike Harvey Fierstein's bullfrog of a voice. “We actually were concerned about him, not only about his voice, which is a little bit difficult, but just the nature of the voice — he sounds like he's always on the verge of losing it,” says associate sound designer John Shivers. “But he's so consistent, we didn't have much trouble with him. It's the same as you'd mike anybody else.”
Indeed, Hairspray was essentially another day at the office for Shivers and sound designer Steve Kennedy, who've worked as a team ever since Tommy in 1993, and whose last Broadway show was The Producers. Although Hairspray is a period piece, Shivers says they didn't try any gimmicks such as using equipment from the era (“You could get a true 60s sound, but then it wouldn't sound any good,” he notes). Because it is a pop/rock-oriented show, like Aida or The Lion King (the duo worked on the Broadway production of the former and the tour of the latter), he notes that they tend to place the drummer in an isolation booth. “The drums in general are the loudest common denominator, so everybody has to play up to that level,” Shivers explains. “If you can get the drums under control then everybody can lay back. The guitar amps don't have to be quite as loud, the keyboards don't need as much monitoring. We get more control of what comes out of the orchestra pit, and we can put more into the system, which is going to give us a cleaner sound.”
The sound system includes the pair's usual tools: a Cadac J-Type console, Crest 8001 and 7001 amps, everybody's new favorite Sennheiser SK-5012 transmitters, XTA DP-226 and DP-200 processors, Akai S6000XL samplers, and a range of mics including Countryman DT-85 Dis, AKG 414s, Shure B52s, Crown PZM-6Ds, and DPA 4065s. For speakers, they've moved from the EAW 695Es to the 695z (“It's a slightly smaller cabinet, with a much better low end response,” says Shivers), and are also using more Meyer UPA-1P and 2P self-powered speakers.
Even though Paul Huntley's wigs often defy gravity and other laws of nature on Hairspray, Shivers says they weren't a problem when it came to mic placement. “If everybody wore a wig and nobody wore a hat, we'd have no problem getting good sound out of a show,” he notes. “It's the guys who are losing their hair who give us a little bit of a problem, because then we have to do a side mount, which is not a particularly good place to put a microphone in my opinion, because it gets very mid-rangey and you lose intelligibility. The fact that they have more hair is not an issue; the more hair the better. Wigs are a good thing for us.”