In the wake of their “Chicago” triumph, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan felt passionately about producing only one other tuner: “Hairspray.” Having seen the stage version in preview on Broadway, they contacted New Line Cinema, which promptly put them through an “audition process” that involved many other producers.
“They had us come in many times and basically asked us a lot of questions on how we’d do the movie and how we’d cast Edna Turnblad,” says Zadan. “They were surprised by our John Travolta answer. But because it is a musical, we thought, ‘How exciting to bring back John Travolta,’ ” whose last tuner was “Grease” nearly 30 years before.
It took another 14 months to convince Travolta to go the drag route for the $75 million film, which New Line financed.
Travolta was the icing. But as for the cake, the producers took a risk. “What are the odds of finding someone who is 18 years old, can carry a movie, and sing and dance?” says Zadan. “When you go through that search, you don’t know you’ll find anyone. We found only one person. That is terrifying.”
Unknown Nikki Blonsky was placed at the center of “Hairspray,” much as Bill Condon had done with Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls,” but with a proviso. “Since the movie musical is a fragile genre, there has to be something extra on top,” says Meron. “So we surrounded Nikki with movie stars.”
Today, “Hairspray” stands out in an awards season crammed with dark-themed movies. At first glance, Meron and Zadan obviously lucked out there, but they had done their research. “We learned that during war time, that’s when many of the big musicals got made in Hollywood,” says Zadan.
And they’re proud of it — so proud, in fact, that they insisted the actors actually sing in the movie trailers!
“We were not embarrassed about ‘Hairspray’ being a musical,” says Meron. “That’s how it was sold. In the recent past, musicals have tried to hide the fact they’re musicals. With ‘Hairspray,’ there was no masquerade.”
NUTS & BOLTS
Biggest hurdle: “Assembling all the principals, director and the script,” says Meron. “There are more moving parts (for a musical) that need to be assembled, and each one is key. You can’t go to second choices.”
Lessons learned: “They are lessons relearned,” says Zadan. “You don’t film the stage show. I go back to our credo, which is reinvention versus re-creation. ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Chicago’ were reinventing the stage show for film. Musicals that did not succeed were re-creations of the stage show.”