"Hairspray" is a musical based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. It takes place in Baltimore in the early 1960s and follows an overweight high school student named Tracy Turnblad who loves to dance and dreams of performing on the popular "Corny Collins" TV program. But when she learns of discrimination against some of the young, black dancers on the show -- they're only allowed to perform on a proposed "Negro Day," among other things -- she sets out to change the rules.
The show won eight Tony Awards and was turned into an entirely other film starring John Travolta and Zac Efron. The stage version has since toured the world.
But for "Hairspray" to really work, one would assume that black actors would be needed to play the black characters. Otherwise, its central message is blurred and the impact of segregation might not fully come across. It could be akin to performing "Porgy and Bess," an opera about a Catfish Row tenement in South Carolina that features only black characters, with an entirely white cast.
That's why a version of "Hairspray" at the Plano Children's Theatre, in Plano, Texas, is currently raising eyebrows. Reporter Elaine Liner covered the show, which is being performed by teenagers, for The Dallas Observer this week. She found that in this version of "Hairspray," no black actors were cast in any of the roles, and a very not-overweight girl was playing the lead role of Tracy (wearing padding to make herself look plump).
Liner interviewed Darrell Rodenbaugh, the president of the theatre's board of directors, at intermission, who said there were no black actors in the show because no black actors auditioned, and he wasn't one to bow to "political correctness" or deny the actors a chance to do a fun show. He also added that he would not personally object to all-white versions of "The Wiz" or "To Kill A Mockingbird."
"They're learning a good lesson in this show," Rodenbaugh said of the young performers.
In the program for PCT's "Hairspray," there is a addendum from the original composer, Marc Shaiman, book-writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and lyricist Scott Wittman, which references the unique casting decisions. It came via Musical Theatre International, the rights holders of the "Hairspray" musical:
"if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn't match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of 'suspension of disbelief' and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!"
The Huffington Post contacted Shaiman, a prolific composer who also wrote music for "When Harry Met Sally," "Sister Act" and the "South Park" film, as well as the recent "Catch Me If You Can" musical on Broadway, asking if he'd comment further on this particular production, and its casting choices.
Shaiman sent a letter addressing this version of "Hairspray," which can be read in full at the end of this article. In the letter he asks if it's still racism when a production of "Hairspray" in Japan uses only Japanese actors, since no black actors would likely be available to audition.
"Were we to stop the production because it was unrealistic that Velma would allow Asian teenagers to be on The Corny Collins Show?" he asks in the letter. "Would that not be a form of racism?"
He says he was particularly disturbed by a production of "Hairspray" in Italy in which actors performed in full blackface, and now wearing blackface in any production of "Hairspray" is explicitly forbidden by the authors.
Shaiman hoped he and the other writers' program addendum (the same one printed in the Plano production's program) would help audiences acknowledge "that not every community on earth has the correct racial make-up to portray the characters in HAIRSPRAY as written," but he added that he and the other writers did not feel it was "correct to tell an actor they are incapable of portraying a character" because of their skin color.
"I have grown to realize that when you write a show -- particularly one you are lucky enough to see have a long life -- you are, in effect, giving birth to a child," he wrote. "And you try your hardest to teach that child what's right, instill good values -- and a sense of humor -- and then, when the time comes, send it out into the world.'
Though he encourages communities to exhaust every available avenue, and even reach outside their own communities to find actors with the ethnic background suitable to each role, sometimes it's simply not possible. "I would ask for everyone to consider what I am saying here before assuming that greed and only greed has led to the decision to allow HAIRSPRAY to be performed to the best of the ability of each troupe that takes it on," he writes.
This is certainly not the only instance in recent months that an ethnically ambiguous casting decision has sparked controversy.
During the recent regional premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Tony-nominated play, "The Motherfucker With The Hat," in Connecticut, white actors took on parts specifically referenced in the text as Puerto Rican. When Adly Guirgis caught wind of this decision, he did not respond favorably and aired his grievances through Facebook and multiple news outlets. Though he praised the actors themselves, he said he'd hoped that the production would have tried a bit harder to find performers of a more appropriate ethnic background.
"What can small theaters conclude from this not-so-small drama?" Guirgis himself wrote in The New York Times. "Well, for those casting my plays my suggestion is that if the part calls for a specific race or ethnicity, make it a point to cast it that way if at all possible. Sometimes it is not possible to find exactly who you're looking for, and that's okay. But you cheat yourself and the audience and the experience if you fail to try."
Plano Senior High School speech teacher Karen Wilbanks said that in her 18 years of teaching in Plano, she never saw an instance of alternative casting like that featured PCT's "Hairspray." She said she could remember that when certain actors of color were attending school in Plano, they tailored shows around them specifically, like a version of "Big River" and another of "Othello."
"My shock is, why do you choose the play if it doesn't fit the cast of people?" she asked. "I mean, if you know you don't have people to play those roles, why do it?"
She mentioned that over the years she'd seen some interesting interpretations of Shakespeare -- mostly gender-based decisions -- but she'd never seen something stray so far from the author's intent.
"I have never seen anything like this," she said. "It doesn't mean it hasn't happened, I've just never seen it or heard about it."
"Hairspray" runs in Plano until February 11.
Read Marc Shaiman's letter in full:
"A recent article out of Plano Texas reported of a children's theatre production of "HAIRSPRAY" that featured not a single black actor.
Many years ago, when MTI started preparing for the release of "HAIRSPRAY" for licensing to regional, community and children's theatre, the subject of "color-blind casting" was hotly debated. Starting the discussion with "absolutely no production can exist without actors who are the race of the characters" I was asked by a rep of MTI "Ok...what about in Japan?". "Oh..." I replied.
"How about South America? Scotland? Sweden?" they said. "Oh..." I replied.
I then remembered when Scott & I went to his summer stock alma mater when they performed HAIRSPRAY. Up to Vermont we drove only to see two Asian actors in Velma Von Tussle's "Nicest Kids In Town". This was a company of young actors put together to put on a bunch of shows that summer. Were we to stop the production because it was unrealistic that Velma would allow Asian teenagers to be on The Corny Collins Show? Would that not be a form of racism?
I thought back of when I musical directed a community theatre production of WEST SIDE STORY in Plainfield NJ in the early 70's. "Anita" was played by a African American (a beautiful woman named Audrey) who was probably in her 40's. And she was, probably, the only non-white in the cast. Should we not have been allowed to tell this story of the consequence of bigotry. Should Audrey not have been allowed to play Anita because she was black? Or 40?
By the way, the kid who played Tony was REALLY cute.
I have grown to realize that when you write a show -- particularly one you are lucky enough to see have a long life -- you are, in effect, giving birth to a child. And you try your hardest to teach that child what's right, instill good values -- and a sense of humor -- and then, when the time comes, send it out into the world. My mother and father raised me right, but would they be proud of every single choice I have made in my life since leaving home? Probably not. But they did their best, I do my best and we authors of HAIRSPRAY do ours.
A few years ago, we were horrified when pictures appeared online of a one weekend only bootleg production of our show in Italy that had people in full blackface. Really terrible images. By the time we saw the photos, the "production" had come and gone but we were put on red alert to what some people out there might do. So, we authors wrote a program letter that acknowledges that not every community on earth has the correct racial make-up to portray the characters in HAIRSPRAY as written. But that we did not feel it was correct to tell an actor they are incapable of portraying a character and hopefully moving an audience by inhabiting that character, regardless of their skin color. Which, ironically, is a huge part of the message of HAIRSPRAY. But that blackface was forbidden. Who knew we would even have to say that?
We also stress to every group that licenses it that the best solution is to look outside their community until every avenue is exhausted. There are literally (and lucky for us) thousands of productions out there. It is simply impossible to police every single one but MTI does a remarkable job. As do the folks who license it throughout the world.
I would ask for everyone to consider what I am saying here before assuming that greed and only greed has led to the decision to allow HAIRSPRAY to be performed to the best of the ability of each troupe that takes it on. This is an ongoing learning process, and we authors are doing our best to spread the right message and learn the lessons each production and each year brings us.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referenced "Porgy and Bess" as being by Stephen Sondheim, when in fact the original version was composed by George Gershwin, with libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.