Even mere descriptions of John Waters' 1970s trash-comedy classics – among them "Multiple Maniacs" and "Pink Flamingos" – packed the power to shock the faint of heart.
So imagine the surprise in 1988 when his first filth-free effort, the heartwarming and deceivingly gentle "Hairspray," emerged, in some respects, as his most subversive film of all. It's also proven Waters’ most enduring work, spawning a 2002 Broadway musical and a song-filled movie version five years later.
Waters' story of an oversized underdog dancing against racial intolerance twists its way onto NBC Dec. 7 with a live performance of the musical. The show returns at a time when we all could use a little "Hairspray."
The tale, set in 1962 racially torn Baltimore, offers an unlikely lead player: Tracy Turnblad, a plump, buoyant and bullied white teen. The beehive-sporting high schooler, who loves rocks-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues, finds initial bliss dancing on a local “American Bandstand”-like TV program, “The Corny Collins Show.” But the program is segregated, with black teens relegated to a monthly “Negro Day.”
Tracy and her pals’ big battle against small minds turns the seemingly innocuous reality TV show of its time into a spectacle pitting the forces of unity against the dividers.
The offbeat humor and sweetness wrapping the serious theme helped Waters break free of the cult-film label. The musical version, with upbeat, period-evoking songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, quickly gained a considerable following of its own.
“Hairspray” follows older Broadway fare repurposed for TV in recent years – including NBC’s takes on “The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan,” and “The Wiz” over the previous three Decembers, as well as Fox’s fun rendering of “Grease,” which aired in January.
“Hairspray Live!” boasts a cast featuring Harvey Fierstein, the gravelly voiced multi-talent who starred in the Tony-winning Broadway show. He again steps into the housedress of Waters’ drag muse Divine, who originated the role of Tracy’s agoraphobic mother Edna. Other big-name troupers set for the TV performance include Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande, Martin Short, Derek Hough, Kristin Chenoweth and Rosie O’Donnell.
In keeping with past versions, the producers tapped an unknown – actress Maddie Baillio – to play Tracy. Sometime you need a fresh face to take a new look at an old, seemingly endless problem, and remind us that, at least in the movies and on stage, the happiest shock of all is when one person makes a difference.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.