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Getting a hold on ‘Hairspray’

New Line firms up cast, dates

“Hairspray” is starting to gel.

New Line Cinema has made pay-or-play deals with John Travolta and Queen Latifah to star in the Adam Shankman-directed musical, which will begin production in Baltimore and Toronto in September. Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are producing.

Deals were completed late Wednesday evening for Travolta to play downtrodden housewife Edna Turnblad and for Latifah to play Motormouth Maybelle, a civil rights activist and dance show host in the 1962-set musical.

Pic is set for a summer 2007 release.

Now that those deals are set, focus turns to the lead…not an easy task.

A nationwide search is on to find a fresh face for Tracy Turnblad, the chubby teen played by Ricki Lake in John Waters’ original film and by Marissa Jaret Winokur in the Tony-winning stage musical.

One of the flaws in the current Las Vegas production is the lack of an actress capable of filling the shoes of Winokur. Daily Variety’s review noted that the current Tracy Turnblad, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, “never cements the bond between mother and daughter” and that “her kinetic movement is forced at times.” Winokur, on the other hand, was “the power” that gave the show its energy.

Open calls have already been held in New York, Atlanta and Chicago, with other cities planned, including Baltimore.

Travolta’s deal ended a tug of war for his fall slot between New Line and Fox/New Regency, which had been trying to secure him to play J.R. Ewing in “Dallas.” Travolta is still eager to play that role, but the film will have to be pushed back if that is to happen.

“This is our dream cast for the film, and bringing Travolta back into a musical after 30 years is so gratifying,” said New Line co-chairman/co-CEO Michael Lynne. “They were our genuine first choices for the film. It is a challenge, trying to reinvent a stage show that was a reinvention of a film. The right casting is a big part of that.”

Shankman, who is also choreographing, will begin rehearsals in the summer. Leslie Dixon penned the script and Marc Shaiman wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman.

Shaiman and Wittman, who won Tony Awards for score for the Broadway musical, will write several additional songs for the movie, and the singing and dancing for Travolta’s character will be greatly expanded beyond what was done onstage. Since opening in 2002, “Hairspray” has grossed more than $156 million.

Latifah reunites with her “Bringing Down the House” helmer Shankman, as well as Zadan and Meron, who exec produced “Chicago.” Once again, she’s got a role that will display her vocal prowess, the producers said.

“She’s one of the few actresses who can play a dynamic character like this and sing a big show-stopping ballad,” Zadan said. “And Neil and I have been talking to John for more than a year, before he came to the conclusion that ‘Hairspray’ met his criteria for his return in an unexpected event vehicle.”

Overseeing the project are production prexy Toby Emmerich and execs Mark Kaufman, Michael Disco and Daryl Freimark at New Line and Travis Knox at Zadan/Meron. WMA repped both Latifah and Travolta, whose lawyers Mike Ossi and Howard Butler sealed the deal.

“Hairspray” could give New Line a formidable summer 2007 lineup. Company is also developing “Rush Hour 3,” “Journey 3D” (an updated version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth”) and mega-shark tale “Meg” for that frame.