Hairspray: Making Musicals Hot Again

The skinny on musicals and more from Adam Shankman and Nikki Blonsky

by | July 20, 2007 | Comments

It’s a good time to be a fan of the movie musical. Until Chicago upset the 2003 Oscars, studios had stayed away from the bastard stepchild of film genres as a rule for decades. Once upon a time, Hollywood players smiled upon Top Hat and 42nd Street, and bankrolled fortunes on the fleet feet of Fred, Ginger, and Gene. But it wasn’t until recent years — with bankable thesps adding soft shoe and singing to their repertoires — that contemporary filmmakers could even whisper the word “musical.”

It’s apparent now that things have changed. Whereas major musicals of late have boasted significant star wattage (Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago, Beyonce Knowles in Dreamgirls, even Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the poorly received The Producers), audiences are now at the point of embracing singing in the movies that the latest such film, Hairspray, is a guaranteed hit, thanks largely to a central performance by a 19-year-old former ice cream scooper in her feature film debut. (We’ll see this weekend if viewer enthusiasm translates into box office gold.)

Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) takes front and center in Hairspray

That performer would be the petite, plus sized newcomer Nikki Blonsky, whose turn as a dancing Baltimore teen in Adam Shankman’s Hairspray is surely the most confident and impressive debut of the year. As the ever-smiling Tracy Turnblad (a role famously played by Ricki Lake in John Watersoriginal film), Blonsky leads and often outshines a cast of better known and more experienced actors.

Wrangling the star-studded cast (which includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, and John Travolta in a bizarre take as Tracy’s mother, Edna) is director Adam Shankman. Serving double duty as both director and choreographer, Shankman has certainly found his niche crafting pulsating, infectious dance scenes and telling a rather gentle version of the Waters’ original (Shankman’s Hairspray is based on the Broadway version of that 1988 cult classic).

We spoke with both star and director at a roundtable interview as they stopped in San Francisco on their press tour. At the time, the first screenings of Hairspray were beginning to indicate that audiences simply loved the pic, and Blonsky’s effervescent Tracy Turnblad; now, a look at the film’s 95 Certified Fresh Tomatometer rating confirms that New Line’s gamble on the genre has paid off.

The “nice kids” dance on the Corny Collins show

The Tomatometer also reveals that Hairspray may just be the saving grace in director Shankman’s filmography to date, and his first ever Fresh movie (after films like The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and The Pacifier). It’s not a fact that has escaped his attention, and Shankman freely admits that he’s more at home in the realm of musicals. “I took jobs like a dancer takes jobs,” he explained. “If something’s offered to you, you take it. And I felt just privileged that somebody wanted me to work, and wanted whatever it was that I did, even if it was just to get it done, and get it done cleanly.”

Read on for more, including Shankman’s own candid career retrospective, his (spot on) critiques of Chicago and Dreamgirls, Blonsky’s “It” factor, on set shenanigans with Zac Efron, his next movie (Bedtime Stories, with Adam Sandler) and remaking John Waters’ most infamous flick, Pink Flamingos.

Q: I wanted to watch The Pacifier again before meeting you today.

Adam Shankman: Oh. My…You know what, I used to really…loathe hearing, you know, anybody even say that word, but the truth of the matter is actually that’s another movie with its heart in a very right place. I understand why Disney wanted to make it. They thought I could handle something that seemed so odd and out there, and risky in a weird way — putting Vin Diesel in a movie like that. So, rather than look at it so self critically…why not say hey I pulled it off. That’s more where I am about that now.

Q: So do you feel more comfortable with the musical genre?

AS: You know, I was a choreographer for long so weirdly, this is the thing that is so backwards about my filmography, is that I actually am more suited to do the musical than I was to do all those other movies that I did. And I am happy that they all made money — and they did all make a lot of money — and they were all under the radar and they were surprise hits, and believe me no one was more surprised than myself. But I took jobs like a dancer takes jobs; if something’s offered to you, you take it. And I felt just privileged that somebody wanted me to work, and wanted whatever it was that I did, even if it was just to get it done, and get it done cleanly.

So that’s how I approached it until Hairspray, and then Hairspray came along and that wasn’t a job to me, that was something I felt like I really had to do. And I needed it. And so I put myself out there, in the beginning I got rejected the first time around, for Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell, who did the play. And then about a year after there was a scheduling conflict and New Line really wanted to proceed and the guys couldn’t do it because they both had shows — one was Legally Blonde, and…well anyways, they’re both nominated for Tonys. So they’re out there right now. And Jack has a drama. But whatever. So they had to bow out and I had to fight off about 26, 27 other directors to make sure that I got it, and I think that they ultimately ended up giving it to me because of my profound passion for it, and my intimate knowledge of the music, because I’m so close to Mark [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] — who did not help me get the job, they did not feel comfortable, that was the studio thing — and that I had the background in choreography, and I guess I said what they wanted to hear.

Q: Why are you so passionate about it?

AS: I think I feel like Tracy. I think I feel like an outsider who never understood the word “can’t,” but that kind of hovered over my head because of certain things like being gay, I was Jewish in a heavily non-Jewish neighborhood. I was strangely handicapped even though I’m like this white kid born into an upper middle class family, which I shouldn’t be a minority…but I came to realize in our own really weird ways, what we are bonded by is that we’re all somehow minorities, which is why I don’t understand why fear in our country and prejudice exist. This is my second walk down the path of anti-racism. I did Bringing Down the House. But I just keep making fun of racists, that’s the only way I know how to do it.

Tracy makes friends; we see a dance number coming soon…

Besides, what other musical has this kind of music that has so much power, so much energy, so much positivity, and is so goofy, but is about something so real, something so relevant and frankly totally ripped from our headlines right now between Don Imus, and Michael Richards, and Isaiah Washington. We are still living in a climate of prejudice. And I find it to be so strange, and unconscionable, in a country that is the melting pot, that the idea that I could have the opportunity to make a movie that portrayed racists as idiots was something that I felt really strongly to do…and doing it through song and dance! It was made for me! A bespoke movie! So bizarre.

But that was also part of finding Nikki, is that I said from the beginning I need a real teenager playing this part because I will not have any dishonesty about Tracy. She has to be the cleanest, most pure, real version of who Tracy is, and that is the tradition — that Edna’s always a man, and Tracy’s always a newcomer, and I was not gonna shy away from that. But what made so much sense to me was for whoever played Tracy to be totally unencumbered by judgment or having a preconceived notion of who she was. She had to be the shiny new face of courage and honesty, and I ended up finding this heavenly creature [turns to Blonsky] who is literally, exactly what Tracy is, who went through some of the same struggles that Tracy went through, is from the same kind of background as Tracy in a weird way. Would you call your background working class?

Nikki Blonsky: Oh, absolutely. My parents both worked two jobs.

AS: Working class, really pretty, the size and proud of it! She sees no sexual or color lines. There’s literally no judgment and the level of confidence that I saw in her audition was mind blowing! So when everybody else joined the cast, they became a little bit intimidated, oddly, by her, because she had no pretense. No baggage. And no nothing. And everybody else kind of had to — although, by the way, everybody kind of ended up becoming who they were, you know, their characters, in a truly charming way. John [Travolta] became very maternal with her. Michelle [Pfeiffer] really wanted to make sure everything was ok, she was white-knuckling it through some of those numbers some times. Amanda [Bynes] is a total goofball, and Queen Latifah is a one woman NAACP. Christopher Walken, a walking joke shop! Zac Efron, a teen idol. Imagine! But the only two people who are literally nothing like their characters are Brittany [Snow] and Allison [Janney].

NB: Yeah.

AS: Those are miraculous performances because they have absolutely zero in common with the people that they play. Corny — Jimmy [Marsden] is the corniest person on the planet, and he was like, “How far can I go?” I said, “Your name is Corny, how far is there to go?” And I did have to pull furniture out of their mouths sometimes, they were so larger than life performances, but the material can handle it.

Q: When you were casting John Travolta, were you thinking at all about the fact that by casting him in this you were fulfilling the Grease/50s pop culture, 70s pop culture triumvarite there?

AS: He was being talked to before I was involved. What I was excited about, with the idea of him doing it, was exactly what you just said. And then including Michelle in all of that, with the Grease 2, was crazy! But I think what also makes this the same — it’s that “rock ‘n roll” musical, we are similar in that way, with unabashed zeal, unapologetic break into song. You know, we just went for it headlong, in a way that was celebratory, as opposed to like, “Oh, if we go inside of Renee’s pupil we can understand why Roxie hears everything in music.” We just didn’t make any jokes about it — or it’s not jokes, we didn’t feel like we needed to trick the audience, or even in – and I’m really not criticizing these things, these were…great things…but even in Dreamgirls, it seemed like they tried to lead us down the path of all the musical numbers are going to be performance numbers and then they switched it on “We Are Family,” which is why there’s a bump in the road in that movie, where audiences actually started to laugh. Which is not what you want during “We Are Family.” It’s a slippery slope, I’ll tell you that much.

Q: Can you talk about the struggle keeping the original or the Broadway version? And was there any improv on the set?

AS: A little.

NB: John and I used to, a lot. We’d always improv before our scenes, to kind of get into character, and some of the stuff actually got put on…

AS: Yeah. Believe me, there’s plenty in there. This was a movie that was definitely improved in some ways by both ADR and by improvisation, like completing jokes through ADR that were set up on set. Strange, funny things that happened. Everybody just kind of brought their A game.

I was not concerned about competing with John [Waters]’ movie or the play because John Waters made me feel like this was my own baby. Like, he was like a proud grandfather and he would support me no matter what. He’s just such a generous man! And I didn’t want to go away from the material — I love the fact that, after we had lunch in Baltimore, and he drove me through the neighborhood to a Highland town where he shot the movie, and where the characters actually lived, and the salons where all the hair-hoppers went, and he showed me it all, and it hasn’t changed! None! None changed, since that period, since he made the movie, not changed at all. [Turns to Blonsky] And that’s why we have to go, when we’re in Baltimore. Because it’s like, it’s not scary because it’s a proud…area…but it’s that goofy formstone walls, with the painted screens with the cows on them, and…you start to understand John a little better, when you realize that’s where he comes from, you know? And one of the things that he always used to say was the women in this world, were poor but they were super proud, and that’s why they were always washing their stoops…so Edna’s become a shut-in, and not only is trying to control things in her own household, now she’s taking in everybody else’s dirty laundry and cleaning that! So I felt like we were approaching it in a really unique way. I really broke it apart, and I really made it my own, and I’m also a real diehard about how long a comedy should be — I don’t give a s*** if it’s a musical or not, it’s still a comedy and I was not about to drag the audience through some horrible, self-serving masturbatory odyssey where, you know, I don’t know…there were choices that I could have made which would have been torturous. But I hope I didn’t make them.

Tracy and her dream guy, Link (every teenage girl’s dream guy, Zac Efron

Q: There’s a duet with Link and Tracy in a photo…

AS: That idea came to me because I could not figure out, I knew from the play that the jail thing wasn’t gonna work, because Link would have been busted going into the jail, there would have been police there, he couldn’t really have gotten her out of the jail cell with hairspray and making a fake blowtorch out of a lighter, things that are really charming and funny in the play would have been insane. So rather than have her in jail, we put her in some place where she could potentially get out of, which was in the basement of the Pingletons. But Link can’t know that she’s there so…Mark and Scott loved the idea of cutting Tracy’s verse off the top of that song, but I loved those harmonies. So I said, “I know – the picture will sing!” It was literally that [level of] lunacy.

Rotten Tomatoes: And Zac Efron’s really cute…

AS: Well, Zac Efron is really really cute and I had him do horrible things! Because I have takes of him making out with that picture like crazy; he was like “You’ve gotta be kidding me!” and I was like, “I want teen angst, like the Shangri-Las experience, ‘Leader of the Pack’ — people died because their love didn’t happen. So I have takes of him just mauling with that picture, and one with his hand going down his pants…I mean, it was crazy! It was fun.

Q: Nikki, you’re on screen just about the entire film…

NB: I didn’t hate it! I loved it, I had the greatest time.

AS: If there had been 28 hours a day for her to shoot, she would have done it. I mean, she exhausted all of us because she was just so…happy to be there!

NB: I mean, you took me out of this…normal environment, at Coldstone…I know what it’s like to work, you know, a part time job, get paid literally…nothing, and then have taxes taken out of $6.25 an hour. That don’t leave you with a whole lot! So I know what it was like to be scrubbing toilets and chipping dried ice cream off of a counter. One year ago. So I knew what that was like so when I came into this I was just like, “Oh my God this is everything I’ve ever wanted to do, I just have to prove to them that they made the right choice, and I’m gonna give them everything that they want, and more!” Because I was just determined to give them what they asked for.

Tracy and mom Edna (John Travolta)

RT: I bet your Coldstone customers heard the best singing when they tipped…

NB: I used to come up with my own variations on the songs because their little jingles were just killing me.

AS: Now I’m gonna be sadly honest, I’ve never been in a Coldstone.

NB: So then your first time will have to be with me!

AS: Only if you get behind the counter…

NB: I’ll even make it for you.

AS: Wow. Your publicist won’t let you do that unless there’s cameras present.

RT: You both seem like really big musical theater fans.

AS: Oh yeah. Total geeks.

NB: That was the first thing he ever took me to.

AS: What?

NB: …was Fame Becomes Me. You remember? The week I got the part he called me — “Fly to Toronto! I’m taking you to a musical!” I was like, this is my kinda guy!

RT: Do you think you’ll continue in films, or do you have plans to do theater?

NB: I definitely think, I pray to continue in films, I’ve gotten the film bug and I love it —

AS: She has a great relationship with the camera. That’s not something that she can learn, or buy, or anything like that; that’s the “It” factor.

I think we started out, and right away I had the camera this close to her and she didn’t even blink. I’m telling you, half that board [points to the Hairspray poster credits] — and I’m not gonna tell you who – you start moving that camera close and they start moving away, or if it drops, they’re suddenly dropping. You know what I mean? She just was like, “What do you want me to do?” So I think she should do more movies.

NB: I want to do more movies. That’s what I want to do. Maybe some day, if I have the hunger to go to Broadway and maybe originate a role, that’d be cool —

AS: I’ll say!

NB: — But, you know, I want to right now stick in more films. Films would be amazing.

Q: Adam, what’s next for you?

AS: An Adam Sandler movie, Bedtime Stories. At Disney, it’s a really giant holiday Adam Sandler movie for next Christmas. Him and kids; a lot of CG, lot of fantasy world. It’s like Liar, Liar and Princess Bride mashed up. He plays this guy who has no relationship with his niece and nephew, and his sister loses her job at a school and he has to take care of her kids while she goes and looks for a job elsewhere. He’s at a crisis point in his career, and he starts taking care of the kids and he’s telling stories and as he’s telling stories about this magical, kind of fairytale world — which we go into, and all of our characters from the real world go into the fantasy world, with him as the big shiny knight – the things that happen in the stories start happening in his actual life, in a really weird way. So he’s like living in terror of what’s happening. And it’s what the kids contribute to the story that’s making it all happen. So it’s very magical and about family, about finding family. For whatever reason all of my work ends up coming back to family. Maybe it’s the Jew thing.

NB: No, it’s the good heart, and the love for life, that’s what it is.

AS: Charlie Brown!

RT: So no remake of Pink Flamingos for you?

AS: Oh boy! I’m not sure — no, I would leave that to others! I think that there are…darker sorts to take that on. Why would you ever remake a John Waters movie just to remake a John Waters movie? What a terrible idea! It has to have some compelling things — it’s the music that made us want to do this.

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