In 1988, John Waters’ edgy film “Hairspray” looked back at the 1960s civil rights movement. In an ironic twist, Waters equated prejudice against people over skin color to bigotry against people over size, much as Randy Newman’s satirical song “Short People” had done a decade before.
The plot follows Tracy Turnblad, a plump, working-class teenager who wants to dance on a popular Baltimore TV show, and bring her African-American friends with her. “I want every day to be ‘Negro Day,’ ” she says.
In the ’80s, the juxtaposition of fat hatred and racism was hilarious. During the Reagan era, chubbiness was merely unfashionable, but racial tensions were still so high that it wasn’t safe for blacks to stray into white neighborhoods. It was still funny in 2002, when playrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman turned the Waters film into a bouncy Broadway musical, now in a marvelous revival with an all-star cast at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.
But it’s starting to be not so funny anymore.
Oh, it’s a wonderful, deservedly popular show, with witty dialogue, great tunes and an inspiring story. Marriott director Marc Robin’s staging and choreography rocks. The cast — particularly Ross Lehman in the Divine role as Tracy’s mother and E. Faye Butler as Motormouth Maybelle — do a bang-up job.
“Hairspray” ran in New York for more than 2,600 performances before closing early this year, just before the inauguration of our skinny black president, Barack Obama. While racism is still with us, equality for African Americans has definitely come a long way forward. Meanwhile, the status of ample Americans has declined to the point where fat folks are being blamed for everything from the ills of the health-care system to global warming.
Although overweight and obese people supposedly constitute over 66 percent of Americans, the fat have no political cohesiveness or clout. Instead, most blame themselves, meekly accepting the strictures of slender society and increasing girthist apartheid. I wondered how many of the buoyant audience enjoying Marriott’s wide, comfortable seats on opening night got the point.
“If you don’t like the way I look,” sings Motormouth Maybelle, “well, I just don’t give a damn.”
In 2009, the message of “Hairspray,” “You’ve got to think big to be big,” has a whole new meaning.