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Hairspray's new big girl

Hairspray's new big girl


Actor Paul Vogt--Broadway's new Edna Turnblad--tells us about his journey from drag newbie to seasoned pro.

When you are a big guy in the comedy world, it is clearly stated in the Big Book of Comedy (I believe, page 72) that "if you are a man, big of the body and large of the funny, 'tis law that said large man shall portray large female for the laughing thereof."

I suppose I was doomed--no, let's say destined--to play a woman (or, more accurately, women) in my career.

The first time I remember playing a woman was in a community theater production of the musical No, No, Nanette, an odd, funny 1920s-style show. I was asked to play the role of the housekeeper--a woman's role--because in the small turnout of audtionees, there was not one woman that the director felt "had the right comic timing and energy." They also said I would be billed as "P. Vogt" so no one would know that I was a boy...a man...a guy...whatever I was then...and am now. That's where it started, at the Lancaster Opera House just outside of Buffalo, N.Y., where I grew up.

People saw the show, saw the funny, chubby, tap-dancing (in heels) woman, and wanted to meet her afterward at the stage door. As I left the theater people would ask me if "P. Vogt" was coming out and could I get out of the way so they did not miss her. I would slip by the throngs of fans wanting to hug, kiss, touch and fondle the funny large woman that they had just fallen for. Alas, she would never appear.

As an actor, I loved the challenge of playing a woman and making it believable. As a comedian, I loved that it was a funny role and I could get big laughs doing my thing dressed in lipstick, panty hose, and heels. Thus I was smitten by the allure of drag.

I played several females after that: the grandmother in Pippin, an ugly stepsister in Cinderella, the best girlfriend in the play Sheila, a lesbian animal tracker in...oh, no...sorry...that was a Halloween costume where I was lazy and just put on a flannel shirt, an earring, and a smattering of lipstick. Needless to say, I played a lot of broads.

Good thing I did too. All that experience playing women had given me a skill that I was about to employ. Little did I know that one of my big breaks would come in the form of a TV icon I had watched as a small boy--Mrs. Garrett from Facts of Life. (Not Charlotte Rae, mind you, but the character she portrayed. Does that mean Charlotte Rae might actually be a man too?) This was for a "funny" program called The Rerun Show. (It was on NBC a couple of summers ago. Remember?) We re-created popular sitcoms with actual scripts from the original shows saying the lines word for word but changing the intentions drastically and hysterically. (Now do you remember?) Anyway, I had never done an impression of Mrs. Garrett before (or anyone, for that matter), but the comedy gods wanted me to be this woman and I had to oblige.

This is where the casting people for Hairspray saw my womanly ways--there and on MADtv--and when my schedule finally cleared, I met with (and auditioned for) the show's creative team.

They liked me! They really liked me! I was off to Las Vegas to take over for the grand dame of Broadway, Harvey Fierstein! So excited and a little freaked out was I! How does one follow Harvey Fierstein?

I have to say, Harvey is a sweet, funny, and dare I say brilliant performer and writer and gay man. He is very accomplished at all of those things...and I mean all.

I learned a lot by watching Harvey--as a comic performer, as an actor, and as a woman. I even learned a few things about being a gay man as well. He is probably the only gay male performer who can fondle a straight Teamster stagehand, and make him blush instead of kill him.

So there I was--Edna of the Desert. Harvey gave me his blessing (which I honestly appreciate and honor to this day), and we were ready for a lo-o-ong Vegas run. But no! The pink slips began to fly. The stage door was shuttered. Some say our show did not sell well, but that is not true. We were doing just fine. The producers had things all set. Let just say there was a corporate "pissing contest" and Hairspray: West was the casualty. (I was married to the Big Ragu, Eddie Mekka from Laverne and Shirley. That was exciting!) A few months after that, I ended up in the north shore area of Boston and did the first regional production of Hairspray in the round.

So fun, yet so odd. I never did theater in the round before. Now everyone was seeing all the many vast angles of my womanly frame. Oh, yeah, speaking of that: I wear a "fat suit" in the show. Surprise! It gives me my girlish figure. Can I just tell you, as a big guy, when you walk into a costume fitting and they say, "Here, put on this fat suit," it makes you cry for joy, a little bit. Just like I'm sure John Travolta must have done when he found out how fun it is to be welcomed to the '60s as a Baltimore woman. Hey! John Travolta and I are playing the same role. I have to tell my manager to get me out for more Travolta-like roles. Like Vinnie Barbarino in the new Welcome Back, Kotter, or I can play Danny in Grease or give Urban Cowboy a drag makeover. I could be the urban cowgirl

So here I am on the Great White Way, having a really amazing time in an amazing show during its renaissance. The life of a Broadway actor gets no better than being in a fabulous pink-and-purple, feather-trimmed Pucci gown, a hot red lipstick, panty hose to make my legs look even sexier than they already are, and a pair of breasts weighing close to 40 pounds. Yes, Pam Anderson, I know why you had the surgery.

It was this journey--and that golden rule of comedy (page 72)--that has helped me become the biggest mother on Broadway in one mother of a hit.

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Paul Vogt