Thursday, 28 January 2016

Why is ‘Hairspray- the Musical’ such an act of genius?

For those who’ve never encountered it, ‘Hairspray-the Musical’ is one of the best theatrical experiences you can ever have, offering witty lyrics, great tunes and superb song-and-dance numbers. But it also lifts the heart. Why?

Conceived originally as a family comedy film (Hairspray, dir. John Waters, 1988), the story was turned into a hit Broadway musical in 2002, and now regularly tours the world in different incarnations. We saw it at Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Theatre Royal, where you’ll be lucky to find a spare ticket, judging from last night’s full house. (The 2007 Hollywood musical is still well worth catching on late night TV, DVD or download.) Significantly, most of the all-age audience were female, which is a pity- there’s lots in the show for everybody.

Set in Baltimore, 1962, the plot revolves around a young teenager’s ambition to appear on the local TV teen dance show. She falls foul of prejudices about her size (small and round) and later, her attitudes to racial integration. As events unfold, her struggle for recognition spreads into a campaign to overcome the surrounding racial prejudice that appears so crazy and pointless. So it’s a song-and-dance-show about civil rights? Yes, but if that sounds a little awkward, it’s a theme common in musicals (West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Billy Elliot) but it hits the buttons wonderfully by getting the historical details and musical genres of the 1960s exactly right, and neatly crystallising painful issues that still haven’t gone away.

The tone of the show constantly changes, from the awkward teenage innocence of ‘I can hear the bells’:
‘'Cause when he nudged me, Love put me in a fix
Yes, it hit me…Just like a ton of bricks…’

There’s the gentle romance and wit of enduring married love in ‘You’re timeless to me‘:
‘Some folks can't stand it, Say time is a bandit
But I take the opposite view
Cause when I need a lift, Time brings a gift,
Another day with you…’

And then there’s the spine-tingling powerful Gospel-infused ‘I know where I’ve been’.
‘There's a dream, In the future 
There's a struggle, That we have yet to win 
And there's pride, In my heart 
'Cause I know , Where I'm going 

And I know where I've been…

The whole thing’s a gem. The climatic finale ‘You can’t stop the beat‘ wraps the whole thing together into a magnificent rollercoaster of soul-infused singing and dancing that lifts the audience to their feet.
'Cause the world keeps spinnin' round and round
And my heart's keepin’ time to the speed of sound
I was lost ‘til I heard the drums, then I found my way
'Cause you cant stop the beat!’

Why does it work? Because it’s a story about overcoming the fear of prejudice with the positive power of Joy, a much under-rated virtue. Hairspray- the Musical. See it when you get the chance. It’s worth every penny… even if you’re a man!

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