The history of Broadway musicals on film is often unhappy. (John Huston’s “Annie,” anyone?) Even when the creative teams responsible have been involved in their adaptation — the Rodgers and Hammerstein pics, for example — the result is often a wan reminder of what occurred onstage.
But hopes for “Hairspray,” which opens July 20, are high, in part because the musical’s creators — life and work partners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — exerted an unusual amount of creative control in the making of the movie. In addition to acting as executive producers, the pair chose their longtime friend Adam Shankman as director.
Naturally, there are differences between the stage and screen versions of “Hairspray.” For starters, a cross-dressing John Travolta stars as Edna Turnblad, a role immortalized onstage by Harvey Fierstein. The film also happens to be an hour shorter than the Broadway version.
Shaiman and Wittman began work on the film by cutting what they considered inessential numbers, including “The Big Dollhouse,” the show’s second-act opener. “It was obvious we just didn’t need that,” says Shaiman on a sunny June morning as he and Wittman take a break in their Laurel Canyon studio, a few paces from the L.A. house they share.
A tougher excision concerned “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” a song that Wittman describes as “very popular at bat mitzvahs,” to which Shaiman can’t help but add, “and the occasional bar mitzvah!” More seriously, he says, “We get what’s happening in that song in 10 seconds.”
To assuage fans, the duo added “Mama” to the New Line Records soundtrack, but with a twist: Shaiman and Wittman got the three women most associated with the part of Tracy, the show’s protagonist, to sing it together. Thus along with newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who appears opposite Travolta, the track features Marissa Jaret Winokur, the original Tracy on Broadway, and Ricki Lake, who starred in the 1988 John Waters film that inspired the musical.
Other changes fell to director Shankman, among them toning down the show’s more farcical aspects. “You can have that kind of fun onstage,” says Shaiman, referring to scenes he likens to Marx brothers routines. “But in a movie, even one like ‘Hairspray,’ you have to be more literal.”
Of course, putting “Hairspray” on the bigscreen wasn’t just about cutting. The movie has new songs, too. “It was sort of fun to go back to moments in the show that maybe we would have written a song for,” says Wittman.
Four new songs ultimately made it to production, including “Ladies’ Choice,” a ’60s Elvis-like number for hunk Link Larkin, played by Zac Efron of “High School Musical” fame. The pair also wrote a ballad for Tracy called “I Can Wait.” “Unfortunately for Tracy,” says Shaiman, “the song will have to wait. As soon as we saw the film, it was clear that we didn’t need this ballad.”
A different fate awaited “The New Girl in Town.” Having been cut from Broadway, the song was resurrected for the movie. “It had montage written all over it,” says Shaiman. “So when they wanted something about Tracy becoming a Baltimore sensation, we were like, ‘Oh, have we got a song for you!'”
And what would a movie version of a Broadway musical be without an end-credits song? In this case, it’s “Come So Far (Got So Far to Go).” “We call it the Oscar-consideration song,” says Shaiman, “and it’s a law. But we took it very seriously.”
Another thing Shaiman and Wittman took seriously was staying true to Waters’ vision. “His goal was to make a comedy about racism,” says Wittman. “It’s inherent in Tracy’s character. She sees everyone in terms of ‘Why can’t we all just get along?'”
Yet high-minded ideals aren’t Tracy’s sole appeal for Shaiman and Wittman. “She’s a classic musical-comedy heroine in the tradition of Dolly and Mame,” concludes Wittman. “They just sort of barrel through life and sweep the world along with them.”