Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve adored musicals. If this is the case, you may be wondering to yourself, “well Rin, how come you haven’t written any Theatre Thursday posts?” My answer to that it is that while I love them, I tend to watch the same ones over and over again, so my amassed knowledge really isn’t all that impressive. And, when it comes to the musicals I have seen, I’m an unrepentant snob. (Don’t even talk to me about the 2007 release of Sweeney Todd.) However, as attached as I am to the musicals I’ve seen, I don’t like to completely write off re-makes until I’ve actually seen them for myself, and after Lady Saika wrote a post on the bubbly musical Hairspray, I figured it was about time that I finally sat down and watched it.
Hairspray, at least the 1988 John Waters film, has been one of my favorite films for a long while, beautiful in its kitschy glory and tongue-in-cheek look back on small town America during the 1960’s. (The plot is mostly the same as the musical’s, so I’m not going to go over it. If you want to know more, take a look at Saika’s post.) Yet I wouldn’t call the source material a musical, not really: it’s more of a dance-ical. There are songs—a whole album’s worth of songs—but there’s no singing involved, only small interludes of dancing. This already gives the musical adaptation an interesting challenge. And after watching it, I have to admit they handled it pretty well, even if some of my favorite scenes didn’t make it in. Unfortunately, I don’t have many other kind words for the musical. When comparing the two, I found that they actually removed a lot of the empowering moments from the original movie in addition to removing the agency from some of the major characters.
I think my largest issue—and I promise, there was no pun intended here—is with how the musical deals with its heroine in terms of her weight. Sure, there are a lot of intended feel good moments about how you can still be beautiful while being overweight, which is a great message, but “intended” is the key word. Almost every scene with Tracy or her mother had them eating something or talking about eating. Yes. We know. She’s fat. Thank you, we don’t need to be reminded of this by having constant scenes of her eating. There’s no coded message you need to send the audience here. What this says to me is that modern producers just can’t see a fat character, especially not a girl, doing anything that’s not eating or accompanied by food. I was especially conflicted during the song “Welcome to the Sixties”: a song based on one line after Tracy and her mom get their hair done in the original. The song carries all the hallmarks of a great song: it’s catchy, fun, and actually a bit empowering. However, once the two Turnblad ladies enter the Hefty Hideaway (whose owner wants to endorse Tracy as its spokeswoman) I was surprised to see the store filled with… thin ladies? Why? Listen, if you’re making a song about how you can still love your body and all the fat with it, I can tell you that no fat girl wants to hear that coming from the mouth of a thin person, no matter how well intentioned. It really put a damper on the entire song for me, especially when, in the original film, the Hefty Hideaway was filled with, well, fat ladies looking fabulous.
And this subtle commentary about body image doesn’t stop here. In Motormouth Maybelle’s big song, “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful”, there’s a line that goes “who wants a twig when you can have the whole tree”. I don’t know about you, but I like my supposed body acceptance flicks to accept all types of bodies, or at least not speak out against any types of bodies. Just because this film is trying so hard to say that being fat is fine, it doesn’t mean we need to have lines about how thinner people are somehow not as good. We’re not building empowerment by doing that; we’re just creating a conflict where there doesn’t need to be one. As if women need any more people telling them they need to hate each other because of some media-exacerbated difference between them. It also doesn’t help that a majority of the thin people in this movie, especially the kids from the Corny Collins Show, are ten times meaner in the musical than in the source film.
The point where this unnecessary dichotomy between thin people and fat people became ridiculous to me, and almost caused me to quit watching the musical entirely, was when Velma von Tussle tried seducing Tracy’s dad. For one thing, in the original she was happily married. For another thing, why? Just… why? Why are we making this woman who was willing to put a bomb in her hair in the original movie some sort of evil seductress trope? It’s incredibly unnecessary, especially because now that Mrs. von Tussle is basically in charge of the Corny Collins Show she has a lot more power and so many more methods of attack than seduction. In the end, it just comes off as the musical wanting to vilify women in power. Additionally, I think that by taking away Mr. von Tussle’s role in the film, it completely destroys the juxtaposition of Tracy and Amber. No more do the two of them have supportive white trash families that work hard to make sure their daughter gets the best chance, there’s now one supportive family and one woman who is obsessed with her past and is willing to do anything to make herself look good.
Speaking of, the musical made Amber a lot less sympathetic, which I’m confused about. I know musicals are capable of creating complex villains, and for how long the musical was—too long, if you ask me—there really was no excuse to make her as one-dimensional as she turned out. I no longer got the sense that Amber was just trying hard to live up to her mother’s high expectations or that she had been spoiled for so long she simply thought she deserved the title at the end just for being herself. Amber was a bitch for the sake of being a bitch, which makes Tracy’s victory at the end a little less enjoyable.
And since this isn’t going to fit anywhere else in this post and I think it’s important to mention: what the fuck was up with the scene with the try outs? In the movie, Tracy tries out for Corny Collins and gets in because of her own skill. She’s good at dancing, okay? But in the musical she doesn’t get in during the tryouts and Link has to help her basically sneak onto the show? Again, why? This was completely unnecessary and took away from the power of Tracy’s strong charisma. Even if she’s still totally in love with Link in the movie, she didn’t need him to be successful in any capacity.
I’m riffing pretty hard on the musical adaptation, I realize, but it did add something that I really liked. I’m completely in love with how the supporting cast reacts to Tracy and everyone else during their musical numbers. I love how people stare at Tracy because she’s singing in the middle of a bathroom or almost knocking them over with one of her flourishes. I just love the idea that Tracy is so full of life and joy that she’s actually singing in the middle of school rather than singing in some magical musical space where breaking out into song is normal. It’s kind of like Enchanted, which I also loved. I also love that the musical kept the very real sense that despite wanting to help with integration, Tracy and her white friends really had no idea about the struggle of her African American friends at all.
However, the musical, which I thought was at least somewhat self-aware, totally jumped ship when it brought on the subplot of the march. In the musical, Tracy brings up the idea of setting up a march to force the television channel into integration. In the film, it’s actually Seaweed, Maybelle’s son, who begins protesting the channel alongside Penny. And even then, the large protest in the older film is completely run by the African American cast, even if there are some white people supporting them in the crowd. Tracy is more than willing to be a figurehead in the film, but it doesn’t get to that point because the race struggle isn’t about her. Something the musical forgets. In this forgetting, the Tracy in the musical becomes some sort of white savior figure who helps the African Americans fight for their rights (which they couldn’t have done without her). Tracy doesn’t even get arrested for her, at the time, controversial views in the musical, and suffers no repercussions for her actions. And the African Americans who do get arrested? Well, Tracy’s dad bails them out of jail right away, because that’s totally feasible for an “upper-lower class” family. It’s incredibly uncomfortable and actually pretty insulting to the actual struggles. I’m not saying the movie did any better, it didn’t, but at least it didn’t do this.
No matter which version you prefer, or which version of Hairspray you’ve seen, neither of them are perfect when concerning the issues of race, feminism, or even body acceptance. And I think for the most part that’s because the source material wasn’t trying to tackle these issues. Well, maybe body acceptance. While I’m glad that I finally saw the musical adaptation and while there were some things I liked—the relationship between Tracy’s parents was very well done—the problems outweighed the good things, and ultimately I can’t really bring myself to like the musical or find the will to recommend it to anyone. However, if you have seen either the original or the musical, I would highly recommend watching the other, just to see how it compares.