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Bruce Vilanch on his turn in ‘Hairspray’

Only one Edna introduced 'Timeless to Me' to Baltimore

OK, so it’s no secret that John Travolta and I have fought over many of the same parts. After extensive lobbying sessions with Robert Stigwood, I let John have “Saturday Night Fever.” I knew there’d be better roles ahead and, after all, if one kid from Jersey won’t do another kid from Jersey a favor, who will? Ain’t that right, David Chase?

When “Grease” came along, there was Stigwood again, this time with Allan Carr, and I let go of my Vulcan death grip on that role to John. Again.

When John dropped out of “American Gigolo,” I was ready to go, but Paramount insisted I lose a hundred pounds by the next week, so in stepped Richard Gere. You know the rest.

All those talking baby movies, the Tarantino thing, what can I say? But when I signed to play Edna Turnblad on the first national tour of “Hairspray,” and subsequently in the Broadway production, I silently chuckled to myself: This was one part Johnny never would get his mitts on. Imagine my shock and awe when I went to the Grove last week and there he was on the screen. At first I thought it was Kirstie Alley before she cashed the Jenny Craig check, but no, it was John all right. The rest of the movie passed in a blur. At least he doesn’t like Shakespeare, I thought. Even Keanu Reeves has done Hamlet. Yeah, in Canada, but still. Maybe my dreams of Falstaff are safe.

But I’ve said too much. You really want to know about “Hairspray.” It was the time of my life. John can’t have had as much fun. First of all, he had to wear a fat suit that made him eligible to be flown down Central Park West in the next Macy’s Parade. I only had to wear my own god-given fat suit, plus a 35-lb. girdle that included the kind of chest equipment Pamela Anderson only sees in a funhouse mirror. Of course, there were the panty hose. Few know that panty hose were invented by a Nazi scientist: On the last day of World War II, in the bunker, when they were going over the list of crimes they had been meaning to commit but had somehow overlooked.

Second, they filmed “Hairspray,” the musical, in Toronto because Baltimore has gotten too expensive. That should amuse John Waters, who has made 37 pictures in Baltimore for slightly less than $37.98.

The national tour got to open in Baltimore, however, to an audience of people who not only understood every Baltimore reference but gave each one a prolonged ovation. The show ended the following morning, and then only because Hurricane Irene blew through town, moving the inner harbor to the dressing rooms of the Morris A. Mechanic Theater.

Quiet gentiles

We bailed out and headed for Hartford, where the audience was composed of people in the insurance business, always big laughers, especially when a prop falls apart and there may be a workmen’s comp claim to handle.

We hit Rochester during Thanksgiving week, and this was the first time that the phrase “Shabbat shalom,” uttered in the course of the vaudeville duet “Timeless to Me,” which I get to do in the second act with my stage husband, played to the kind of deathly stillness that might accompany a fart during a coronation. It was at that point that I started counting the Jews in the audience, to see if there were as many of them there as there were onstage at that moment (that being two, myself and my husband).

We didn’t top that number until Boston, when the audience rose like Maccabees and began shouting their temple affiliations.

In Providence, all power went out onstage just before that number began and I chatted with the audience in darkness, remaining dead front and center on the stage so I wouldn’t fall into the orchestra pit and because where the hell else are you supposed to stand onstage? I’m no fool. Then the lights came on and we attempted to get back into the show, which took a few false starts. I asked the audience, “Can you imagine if this was ‘Death of a Salesman’?” And they didn’t want to imagine that at all.

Broken ribs

In Denver, our leading lady broke a rib during the opening number, which surprised everyone, because Denver is where you are supposed to collapse from oxygen deprivation. The air is rather thin. They keep tanks in the wings.

After two weeks in Denver, we went to Phoenix, which is below sea level, and everyone’s lungs were so strong the show ran 10 minutes longer because of all the notes we were holding. When the leading lady couldn’t continue, by the way, I told the audience that in addition to replacing her for the rest of the performance, I was going to be replaced by Faye Dunaway, who was in the wings, bulking up.

They booed. That was when I realized they liked me, they really liked me. Don’t worry, Faye. There’ll be a revival. But if the gods are in tune, Edna always will be played by a man. It’s part of the compact “Hairspray” makes with its audience. They know Edna is a man and they accept that. The way they accept the black-white teenage love story, and the idea that the fat girl can win the gorgeous guy — the whole show is about acceptance, acceptance of who you are and who the other guy is. That’s what makes “Hairspray” the all-American show it is. And I’ll smack you upside the head with my big fake boobs if you say otherwise.

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