Hairspray: Making Musicals Hot Again

The skinny on musicals and more from Adam Shankman and Nikki Blonsky

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It's a good time to be a fan of the movie musical. Until Chicago upset the 2003 Oscars, studios had stayed away from the bastard stepchild of film genres as a rule for decades. Once upon a time, Hollywood players smiled upon Top Hat and 42nd Street, and bankrolled fortunes on the fleet feet of Fred, Ginger, and Gene. But it wasn't until recent years -- with bankable thesps adding soft shoe and singing to their repertoires -- that contemporary filmmakers could even whisper the word "musical."

It's apparent now that things have changed. Whereas major musicals of late have boasted significant star wattage (Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago, Beyonce Knowles in Dreamgirls, even Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the poorly received The Producers), audiences are now at the point of embracing singing in the movies that the latest such film, Hairspray, is a guaranteed hit, thanks largely to a central performance by a 19-year-old former ice cream scooper in her feature film debut. (We'll see this weekend if viewer enthusiasm translates into box office gold.)

Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) takes front and center in Hairspray

That performer would be the petite, plus sized newcomer Nikki Blonsky, whose turn as a dancing Baltimore teen in Adam Shankman's Hairspray is surely the most confident and impressive debut of the year. As the ever-smiling Tracy Turnblad (a role famously played by Ricki Lake in John Waters' original film), Blonsky leads and often outshines a cast of better known and more experienced actors.

Wrangling the star-studded cast (which includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, and John Travolta in a bizarre take as Tracy's mother, Edna) is director Adam Shankman. Serving double duty as both director and choreographer, Shankman has certainly found his niche crafting pulsating, infectious dance scenes and telling a rather gentle version of the Waters' original (Shankman's Hairspray is based on the Broadway version of that 1988 cult classic).

We spoke with both star and director at a roundtable interview as they stopped in San Francisco on their press tour. At the time, the first screenings of Hairspray were beginning to indicate that audiences simply loved the pic, and Blonsky's effervescent Tracy Turnblad; now, a look at the film's 95 Certified Fresh Tomatometer rating confirms that New Line's gamble on the genre has paid off.

The "nice kids" dance on the Corny Collins show

The Tomatometer also reveals that Hairspray may just be the saving grace in director Shankman's filmography to date, and his first ever Fresh movie (after films like The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and The Pacifier). It's not a fact that has escaped his attention, and Shankman freely admits that he's more at home in the realm of musicals. "I took jobs like a dancer takes jobs," he explained. "If something's offered to you, you take it. And I felt just privileged that somebody wanted me to work, and wanted whatever it was that I did, even if it was just to get it done, and get it done cleanly."

Read on for more, including Shankman's own candid career retrospective, his (spot on) critiques of Chicago and Dreamgirls, Blonsky's "It" factor, on set shenanigans with Zac Efron, his next movie (Bedtime Stories, with Adam Sandler) and remaking John Waters' most infamous flick, Pink Flamingos.

Q: I wanted to watch The Pacifier again before meeting you today.

Adam Shankman: Oh. My...You know what, I used to really?loathe hearing, you know, anybody even say that word, but the truth of the matter is actually that's another movie with its heart in a very right place. I understand why Disney wanted to make it. They thought I could handle something that seemed so odd and out there, and risky in a weird way -- putting Vin Diesel in a movie like that. So, rather than look at it so self critically...why not say hey I pulled it off. That's more where I am about that now.

Q: So do you feel more comfortable with the musical genre?

AS: You know, I was a choreographer for long so weirdly, this is the thing that is so backwards about my filmography, is that I actually am more suited to do the musical than I was to do all those other movies that I did. And I am happy that they all made money -- and they did all make a lot of money -- and they were all under the radar and they were surprise hits, and believe me no one was more surprised than myself. But I took jobs like a dancer takes jobs; if something's offered to you, you take it. And I felt just privileged that somebody wanted me to work, and wanted whatever it was that I did, even if it was just to get it done, and get it done cleanly.

So that's how I approached it until Hairspray, and then Hairspray came along and that wasn't a job to me, that was something I felt like I really had to do. And I needed it. And so I put myself out there, in the beginning I got rejected the first time around, for Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell, who did the play. And then about a year after there was a scheduling conflict and New Line really wanted to proceed and the guys couldn't do it because they both had shows -- one was Legally Blonde, and...well anyways, they're both nominated for Tonys. So they're out there right now. And Jack has a drama. But whatever. So they had to bow out and I had to fight off about 26, 27 other directors to make sure that I got it, and I think that they ultimately ended up giving it to me because of my profound passion for it, and my intimate knowledge of the music, because I'm so close to Mark [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] -- who did not help me get the job, they did not feel comfortable, that was the studio thing -- and that I had the background in choreography, and I guess I said what they wanted to hear.

Q: Why are you so passionate about it?

AS: I think I feel like Tracy. I think I feel like an outsider who never understood the word "can't," but that kind of hovered over my head because of certain things like being gay, I was Jewish in a heavily non-Jewish neighborhood. I was strangely handicapped even though I'm like this white kid born into an upper middle class family, which I shouldn't be a minority?but I came to realize in our own really weird ways, what we are bonded by is that we're all somehow minorities, which is why I don't understand why fear in our country and prejudice exist. This is my second walk down the path of anti-racism. I did Bringing Down the House. But I just keep making fun of racists, that's the only way I know how to do it.

Tracy makes friends; we see a dance number coming soon...

Besides, what other musical has this kind of music that has so much power, so much energy, so much positivity, and is so goofy, but is about something so real, something so relevant and frankly totally ripped from our headlines right now between Don Imus, and Michael Richards, and Isaiah Washington. We are still living in a climate of prejudice. And I find it to be so strange, and unconscionable, in a country that is the melting pot, that the idea that I could have the opportunity to make a movie that portrayed racists as idiots was something that I felt really strongly to do...and doing it through song and dance! It was made for me! A bespoke movie! So bizarre.

But that was also part of finding Nikki, is that I said from the beginning I need a real teenager playing this part because I will not have any dishonesty about Tracy. She has to be the cleanest, most pure, real version of who Tracy is, and that is the tradition -- that Edna's always a man, and Tracy's always a newcomer, and I was not gonna shy away from that. But what made so much sense to me was for whoever played Tracy to be totally unencumbered by judgment or having a preconceived notion of who she was. She had to be the shiny new face of courage and honesty, and I ended up finding this heavenly creature [turns to Blonsky] who is literally, exactly what Tracy is, who went through some of the same struggles that Tracy went through, is from the same kind of background as Tracy in a weird way. Would you call your background working class?

Nikki Blonsky: Oh, absolutely. My parents both worked two jobs.

AS: Working class, really pretty, the size and proud of it! She sees no sexual or color lines. There's literally no judgment and the level of confidence that I saw in her audition was mind blowing! So when everybody else joined the cast, they became a little bit intimidated, oddly, by her, because she had no pretense. No baggage. And no nothing. And everybody else kind of had to -- although, by the way, everybody kind of ended up becoming who they were, you know, their characters, in a truly charming way. John [Travolta] became very maternal with her. Michelle [Pfeiffer] really wanted to make sure everything was ok, she was white-knuckling it through some of those numbers some times. Amanda [Bynes] is a total goofball, and Queen Latifah is a one woman NAACP. Christopher Walken, a walking joke shop! Zac Efron, a teen idol. Imagine! But the only two people who are literally nothing like their characters are Brittany [Snow] and Allison [Janney].

NB: Yeah.

AS: Those are miraculous performances because they have absolutely zero in common with the people that they play. Corny -- Jimmy [Marsden] is the corniest person on the planet, and he was like, "How far can I go?" I said, "Your name is Corny, how far is there to go?" And I did have to pull furniture out of their mouths sometimes, they were so larger than life performances, but the material can handle it.