How actors brought the famed femme to life

In the beginning, Divine played the role of Edna Turnblad. And the first day on the set of “Hairspray,” I didn’t recognize him. I thought it was another neighborhood woman watching the shoot. We were filming in East Baltimore, and all the housewives were talking to him. Divine looked normal, not weird. It was a moment of truth. It was so anti-the-Divine-character that we started with. Divine said, “Nobody can call me a drag queen, because what drag queen would allow themselves to look like this?”

If there’s a template, that’s it for everybody who has played the role of Edna. And they’ve all taken that to heart. Edna Turnblad isn’t a drag-queen part. It has become a tradition for men to play her, as with Peter Pan, where it is always played by a woman. Why, I don’t know. It gives it an edge. It’s all about outsiders. Divine played Edna realistically. The movie (1988) I made was actually realistic.

Harvey Fierstein made the role his own. God only knows, his voice is his own. And he sings! You have to sing it out. Everything has to be bigger onstage. Harvey, though, always played it as a real woman.

Bruce Vilanch was the most ample of the men who played Edna Turnblad. He worked for the part. Broadway is strange: A show has to open and appeal to the most critical Broadway aficionados, but it has to end up playing to Middle America — two different ends of the same circle, and it has to appeal to both. Bruce, with his TV history, really helped us make that smooth transition from one to the other. Broadway insiders knew and loved Harvey. He won the Tony. That is the pinnacle. Bruce made it a little bit broader, and brought in some people we never had before in the audience.

Michael McKean, he’s the only one I felt sorry for, that he had to shave his legs. Harvey and Divine had done that before. But Michael never did. I met his wife. I loved that. Michael is a really fine actor, and he brought great dignity to Edna. All the actors have brought dignity to Edna. But Michael made it more of a kitchen-sink drama, which ‘Hairspray’ is.

Blake Hammond played the Male Authority Figure (Prison Guard/High School Principal) on the road, and then he played Edna on Broadway. I love it when someone claws their way up from the man’s part to play the female lead. That is beyond any kind of behind-the-scenes backstage Broadway story I’ve ever seen.

John Pinette is the only one who is a real standup comedian in life. He played it big big big and he was really funny.

I haven’t seen Paul Vogt, the current Edna on Broadway. But I look forward to it. He plays Edna to Jerry Mathers’ Wilbur Turnblad. The ultimate perversity is that Jerry Mathers, whom I grew up with as the Beaver, is now singing a love song to a man in something I wrote. The only thing I can compare it to is when David Nelson of “Ozzie and Harriet” was in “Cry-Baby.” How did that ever happen? It is a thrill. Jerry looks right for the part, too. It is not stunt-casting. He looks like Wilbur, a very normal guy in America.

John Travolta plays Edna as someone who had been young and very hot, but now is stay-at-home and embarrassed to go out of the house. He had been the Russ Meyer girl when he was young. And Russ Meyer girls do get larger in life. It’s like muscle men who don’t work out. They turn into bears.

As told to Robert Hofler

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