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There are few people more familiar with Hairspray than composer Marc Shaiman--after all, he spent years of his life turning the John Waters classic into a Broadway musical. Still, as he scored music for the upcoming movie version, even he found moments that surprised him.
"At one point I just suddenly stopped and stared at the screen on my computer and I said, 'That's John Travolta in a dress, and he's singing a lyric about Christmas ham!' " laughs Shaiman, one of Hairspray's many out behind-the-scenes talents. "It's just surreal."
Surreal doesn't begin to describe the image of this erstwhile Wild Hog donning latex and a wig to play a role previously inhabited by such actors as Divine, Harvey Fierstein, and Bruce Vilanch. Though the idea of Travolta as full-figured housewife Edna Turnblad seems unlikely, director Adam Shankman says the actor was more concerned with overcoming the specter of Grease.
"He starred in the biggest musical film in history--Danny Zuko is this iconic figure--and he didn't know how he was going to top that," says Shankman, who's also gay. " So I said, 'I know how you're going to top that: You play a woman.' And I think that appealed to him as an actor."
"He's done a lot of things that nobody's done before with the role, insofar as his conception of her as being a real woman with some sort of sexuality as opposed to the shapelessness of the Ednas prior," says producer Neil Meron. "They were in caftans and muumuus, and John specifically said, 'I want cleavage; I want to show a waist; I want to show that this woman still has some sense of womanliness left in her.' "
"Even when we weren't in front of the camera, it was interesting to see how he'd transformed himself into this woman," says actor James Marsden, who plays TV dance-show host Corny Collins. "He wasn't playing a drag queen--he was playing a woman. We were all sort of mouths agape when we first saw him."
Travolta also affected a distinctive Baltimore accent, something no previous Edna had attempted.
"When he started with [the accent], a lot of us on the movie said, 'Uh-oh,' " recalls Shaiman. "But he just said, 'Trust me, this is my Edna.' He said that Quentin Tarantino sat him down when they started filming Pulp Fiction and said, 'I'm not sure exactly about how you're playing this.' And John said, 'Believe me, when you cut it all together, it'll be right.' He said the same thing to us, and he was completely right."
While Travolta's elaborate latex makeup hews closer to Eddie Murphy than to Divine, "it has to be believable in a close-up," says Scott Wittman, another of Hairspray's gay talents, who collaborated with Shaiman on the lyrics. "Most of the people who played this role did it in 2,000-seat theatres."
Producer Craig Zadan maintains that this Edna, despite her differences, still falls in line with John Waters's original vision. "He was thrilled that it wasn't going to be the Edna from his movie," Zadan says, "and he was thrilled that it wasn't going to be the Edna from Broadway. As John Waters said, it's great that each person who played Edna has played it in their own, different way."
For more summer movies and more on Hairspray, get the May 22, 2007 issue of The Advocate.