Hairspray The Musical: An International Sensation Born at The 5th

By BRIDGET MORGAN, Senior PR and Communications Manager

There is such joy in the act of creation, particularly when your creation becomes something bigger than its creators and the sum of its parts; something enjoyed and embraced by many; something that impacts the lives of everyone it touches. And that is the nature of The 5th Avenue Theatre and its role in the creation of the musical Hairspray, an international mega-hit performed on Broadway, on the big screen, on TV and on professional and amateur stages around the world.

Any staff member who worked on the original production of Hairspray the Musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre will clearly tell you, “We knew from the beginning that that show was special.” Whether they are referring to the caliber of talent (Harvey Fierstein stopped in regularly to chat with the box office staff and even spent time in the company of the costume shop as they built the incredible gowns and ‘60s fashion pieces that would become so iconic), the thrill of doing something new (until that point, The 5th had only produced one other world premiere that had not moved forward to other productions), or the sheer energy buzzing in the rehearsal hall, the sensation that THIS musical would be something extra special, something extraordinary, is unanimously agreed upon.

In 2000, David Armstrong relocated from New York to Seattle to take the artistic reins at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Until that point, The 5th had primarily been a stop for Broadway tours out of New York and for productions out of Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Texas. It mounted a few productions of classic musicals a season, and that was largely it. But when Armstrong arrived at The 5th, he brought with him a vision of Seattle—and in particular, The 5th—as a testing ground for innovative and cutting edge new musicals.

He also brought with him a wealth of New York connections and friendships with Broadway producers, eager to develop new work without the scrutiny of the New York press. It was through his friendship with producers Richard Frankel and Margo Lion that Hairspray made its way to Seattle. While the show’s ambitions and trajectory was clear, the show needed the opportunity to grow and take shape, to find its legs in front of a smart educated theater-going audience. This, The 5th Avenue could supply in spades.

The 5th Avenue Theatre took an active and collaborative role in the creation of Hairspray. Rather than simply acting as a venue for an out-of-town tryout, The 5th’s artistic team contributed regularly to the show’s development, spending time with the show’s creative team and producers as they worked through the rehearsal process, made their way through tech rehearsals and digested audience feedback. David Armstrong was with them every step of the way.

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Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad. (credit Paul Kolnik)

Hairspray The Musical played at The 5th Avenue Theatre from May 30 to June 23, 2002. Based on the 1988 cult classic John Waters filmHairspray is the story of pleasantly plump Tracy Turnblad with big hair and even bigger dance moves who uses newfound celebrity to fight for integration. The musical starred Marissa Jaret Winokur as the vivacious young Tracy Turnblad alongside Broadway mega-star Harvey Fierstein as Edna, soon-to-be GLEE star Matthew Morrison, among many others. The show was a runaway hit with audiences and critics alike, and by the end of the run, the word-of-mouth  was so strong that tickets were selling out. The Seattle Times raved “Hairspray is big, smart fun – splendidly performed with a score that bears repeated listens. Hey, if New York doesn’t twist and shout about it, just bring it on back.” The Seattle P.I. said “Almost everything about it is fun: the acting, the songs, the dancing, the story, the staging, the scenery, the costumes and especially the wigs.” And from Variety:  “… it took only three snappy, candy-colored scenes to demonstrate that writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman have a shiny new hit on their hands.”

The show moved directly to Broadway in the Neil Simon Theatre with its first preview just three and one half weeks after the Seattle production closed: July 18, 2002. The show opened officially on August 15 and was immediately the toast of the Great White Way. The New York Times gave it a loving review, saying “If you’re not at all taken by the fantasy of the Supremes showing up to bestow a little Motown magic on your bedraggled, overworked mother, then you will probably be in the minority of theatergoers who will not find this musical irresistible. Otherwise, you won’t need Ecstasy or any other of those fashionable drugs said to generate warm, fuzzy and benevolent feelings.”

Hairspray received 13 Tony Award nominations, winning eight including Best Musical. It also won 10 Drama Desk Awards and two Theatre World Awards. The show ran on Broadway for an astonishing 2,642 performances and was consistently one of the hardest tickets to come by in New York.

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John Travolta and Queen Latifah in Hairspray, the film.

But its success didn’t end there. Since that fateful 2002 summer in Seattle, Hairspray has gone on to a slew of national and international tours and sit-down productions world-wide in locations ranging from Canada to South Africa to China. In 2007, the musical was adapted as a major motion picture starring John Travolta in the role of Edna Turnblad, Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussel  and Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle. In December of last year, NBC produced Hairspray Live! which has just received seven Emmy nominations. Additionally, there is a shortened version of the show called Hairspray, Jr. that  appears on dozens of school musical lineups annually. It would seem to be a story people just can’t get enough of.

On August 16, 2017, a new cast will embark on a new tour of Ireland and the United Kingdom and they carry with them the best wishes of the theater that gave the show first life: The 5th Avenue Theatre. We are sending our love to the cast and crew.

For more information about The 5th Avenue Theatre’s New Works Program, visit our website.

In Development: New Works at The 5th

Here at The 5th, you may have seen one or two, or even 17 or 18 new musicals explode onto the scene on our 5th Avenue stage – musicals like Hairspray or Memphis (both winners of the Tony Award for Best Musical!) But for every new musical that appears on our stage in a season, I can promise you that we have at least a half dozen more in various stages of development through our New Works Program. Currently we have eight new musicals actively in development.

About the Writers’ Group

For nearly two decades, we have committed to nurturing the artists in our community, which is something you may notice when you see our many local actors starring in our shows. But we also seek to nurture the writers, composers, librettists and lyricists living right here in Puget Sound. Our current Writers Group has met bi-weekly for the past two years. In these meetings, a group of nine writers led by 5th Ave artistic staff members, meet to present new material from their musicals in development, and the work is very promising! These musicals include Anybody Can Do Anything, Industry, The Rumble Within, Prodigal Song and Promised Land. These five musicals, which will be our second cycle of Writers Group presentations, will be presented in 2018 at The 5th Avenue Theatre’s NextFest: A Festival of New Musicals.

Anybody Can Do Anything, with a book by John Longenbaugh and music by Bruce Monroe, is based on Betty MacDonald’s memoir of the same name. Longenbaugh is a novelist and local writer. His publications have been in Seattle Weekly, City Arts and Seattle Magazine. Monroe often works at The 5th Avenue Theatre as an orchestrator and conductor. He attended NYU for composing and has written scores for many musicals.

Industry, with book, music and lyrics by Naomi Morgan, tells the story of sisters Vivian and Lisa, who work at a strip club in Seattle as they each struggle with a demon of their past. A concert version of the musical opened for Warren G in 2016. Morgan has previously been seen on our stage in Oliver! and RENT. She is also a local producer and her productions appear at casinos and senior centers throughout Washington.

The Rumble Within, with book by Andrew Russell and music by Richard Andriessen, follows the true story of Linda Hazzard, a Washington doctor in the early 20th century, who famously helped patients starve themselves (sometimes to death) to cure illnesses. Russell is the Artistic Director of Intiman Theatre. You may have seen his last project The Fourth Estate, which was also the product of our Writers Group, during our 2016 NextFest. Andriessen (also known as Major Scales) is the co-creator and co-star of The Vaudevillians, which he created with Jinkx Monsoon, and has appeared previously at Seattle Rep.

Prodigal Song, with a book by Keri Healey and music by Anne Eisendrath, is an original story about a convicted felon, released from prison, who finds hope through music. Healey has previously won the M. Elizabeth Osborn Best Emerging Playwright award recognizing her play Torso which had its premiere in Seattle in 2012. Eisendrath has appeared on our stage in productions of Pirates of Penzance, Carousel and The Sound of Music.

The Promised Land, with book, music and lyrics by Orlando Morales, tells the story of Joseph, a young Buffalo soldier who is sent to the Philippines in 1898 and the Filipino villagers who rescue and shelter him, unaware that he has been ordered to subdue their fight for independence. The score takes on a Golden Age-style and the script includes three different languages to depict this war story. Morales’ most recent writing endeavor was with the gospel musical Psalm which he continues to develop. He is also the Director of Education and Outreach at The 5th Avenue Theatre and a skilled pianist.

New Works on New Stages

Part of our New Works program is recognizing the importance of development over destination, meaning that we aim to feed and foster the growth of new musicals even if they ultimately premiere at other theaters. In that vein, we are very excited that the musical version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which was written in our first Writers Group, will have its first production at Taproot this summer. Persuasion has a book by Harold Taw and music and lyrics by Chris Jeffries.

Beatsville, a musical by Wendy Wilf and Glenn Slater, has been in development with our program for the last two years. It started in our inaugural NextFest with a 29-hour reading. A 29-hour reading allows the writers to teach the material to a group of actors and have it presented without sets, lights or costumes. In the 29 hours they have allotted, they are able to hear the material read and sung out loud, which allows them to more clearly see necessary edits to their work. Since that initial reading, the team has met many times in Seattle and New York to continue diving into the material. This process resulted in a co-production with Asolo Repertory Theatre where a full production was mounted with our very own Bill Berry at the helm as the director. The production was received very well and work continues to be done on the show before it is mounted again.

And of course, we are very proud that a project that made a development stop at The 5th Avenue Theatre in 2014, Come From Away, is appearing on Broadway this season. Come From Away received 7 Tony Award nominations and won the award for Best Direction of a Musical for Chris Ashley, who you may remember from his work on Memphis here at The 5th. During Come From Away’s time here, Chris Ashley, Kelly Devine and Ian Eisendrath put the show on its feet in our rehearsal room during a 3-week developmental production. It then went on to be seen at Seattle Rep, La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and the Mirvish Theatre in Toronto before making its Broadway debut.

New Things Still to Come

INTERMISSION! is the exciting new work from the brilliant mind of Jerry Zucker with music and lyrics by Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary, who we were fortunate enough to work with on First Date and Second Hand Lions. The musical will be directed by Zucker and Broadway sensation Chris Gattelli, who will also choreograph. Gattelli is a two-time Tony Award-winning choreographer and is in high demand in New York. Gattelli is committed to a number of new projects, one of which very unexpectedly received the opportunity to open on Broadway during the time when INTERMISSION! was scheduled to be in rehearsals, and in the interest of having the best creative team possible for this exciting new musical, we made the difficult choice to delay the show until our 2018/19 season. However, the team is currently hard at work with a developmental production in New York City at this very minute. This step allows the team to put the musical on its feet in a rehearsal studio to explore staging and choreography for the production. INTERMISSION! has had two 29-hour readings in the last year and we look forward to seeing it on stage!

We also have a very exciting new commission called ’64, which is in collaboration with book writer Cheryl West and composers Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar. Based on a true story of racial discrimination in the fraternity community at Stanford in the ’60’s, this new musical focuses on a battle for integration. The first draft is currently being written with a goal of a 29-hour reading in the next year.

And That’s Just in Active Development…

Over the years, our New Works Program has touched dozens of new musicals, shepherding them from the kernel of an idea to fully-produced productions. While we have many shows in active development, we have even more that we have simmering on the back burner. Maybe we are seeking the right creative partners to help the show along. Maybe we are following writers as they develop concepts into songs, scenes and more.

We continue to be hard at work in our New Works department and hope to continue to bring new musicals to Seattle and beyond. The development of these new pieces is central to our mission here at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Over the past 17 years we have produced 18 new musicals and will continue on with this tradition to bring new musicals into the theater canon.

A Beloved Family Member Retires: Deb Engelbach Departs The 5th After 28 Years

By BRIDGET MORGAN, Senior PR & Communications Manager

Candid shot during the Romy and Michele pre-production photoshoot. PC: Mark and Tracy Photography.

For the last 28 years, any actor who has crossed the stage in a 5th Avenue Theatre production has at some point or other worked closely with Deb Engelbach in our costume shop. Very closely. Deb has a curious specialization in the world of costumes: shoes and underwear. In addition to some more general operational work in the costume shop, Deb is the person who is purchasing and fitting undergarments for performers, purchasing shoes, building and stretching tap shoes, and adjusting shoes for quick changes. In a sense, Deb is responsible for the most basic layer of confidence an actor or actress has when they dance their way onstage.

Continue reading “A Beloved Family Member Retires: Deb Engelbach Departs The 5th After 28 Years”

Fifteen Years, Friendly Giants and Footloose: A Recap of the 2017 5th Avenue Awards

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach

On June 12, The 5th was thrilled to host the 15th annual 5th Avenue Awards: Honoring High School Musical Theater.

The evening was the culmination of months of dedication and passion. Beginning October of last year, a team of evaluators traveled thousands of miles to see productions at schools all over Washington—a record 122 productions performed by 100 schools—as near as Capitol Hill and as far away as Blaine, Vancouver, Spokane and Sequim. From large urban areas, to small rural communities the mission has always been the same: to recognize the work, talent and commitment that students, faculty and parents devote to their school’s musical theater productions. Through these efforts, we hope to emphasize how high school theater programs are invaluable to our communities.

Continue reading “Fifteen Years, Friendly Giants and Footloose: A Recap of the 2017 5th Avenue Awards”

The 5th Avenue Awards: High School Musical Reunion

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach

Since its launch in 2003, The 5th Ave Awards program has sought to recognize and celebrate the amazing work that is being done across the state in the world of high school musical theater. Each season, dozens of evaluators see hundreds of performances in every corner of Washington and in June, thousands of students come together for the culminating 5th Ave Awards ceremony.

Over the years, countless students have taken part in this educational program—and as a high school reunion (Romy and Michele’s!) is taking place on The 5th Ave mainstage, we’re taking the opportunity to also throw a 5th Ave Awards Reunion.

Recently, a handful of 5th Ave Awards alumni came together to share memories, updates, and advice for the Class of 2017.

MACARONI AND CHEESE, I DID IT!

On the night of the awards, many students are invited to receive recognition, but also to perform for their peers. Many memorable moments are made when they step onto the stage for the Awards ceremony the first time.

Justin recalls being a bit anxious: “Oh man, I remember being in the stairwell backstage with the other Lead Actor nominees waiting to perform our medley…And I was a nervous wreck. A couple of the nominees had been nominated before and performed before, but I had never performed on that stage in front of that many people. I just remember trying to absorb all of that confident energy and trying not to sweat off my fake mustache.”

“I remember saying to the girl next to me, ‘I’m gonna pee my pants!’” remembers Kirsten. “I didn’t pee my pants. Instead I walked out there, stood amongst my peers and sang my heart out to a full house of students and parents and teachers. I’d never felt anything like that before.”

Sarah remembers the moment she received her award. “When I got up there the only thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Macaroni and cheese, I did it!’  I was so shocked when I got up there—it was the first time I really thought I could do theater as a career.”

“I will never forget stepping onto The 5th Avenue stage for rehearsal that day,” says Lauren.  “It was the first of what would become many, many times. Since then, my new favorite moment comes every year when I get to stand backstage and listen to the roar of thousands of high school students supporting each other. The theater is never more alive than on the night of the Awards.”

LASTING EFFECTS

For many alumni, it is hard to believe that one night can have such a lasting impact on their lives.

“I was pretty dead set on pursuing a career in Opera—Classical Baritone,” says Jordan. “But the experience at these Awards is what started me down the path to choosing musical theater—which is one of the better decisions I have made in my short life. My experience being on that stage drove me to work until I could get back on it as a professional…It absolutely affected who I am today!”

It fueled my passion to celebrate weirdos,” says Justin with a laugh. “Of the Lead Actor nominees that year, I was definitely one of the weirdest.  But the support of the crowd—full of teachers and peers—made me feel welcome and encouraged me to lean into the weirdness. I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t stopped since.”

Brandon adds: “The 5th Ave Awards was truly my ‘in’ to The 5th Avenue Theatre where I would later intern during college, assistant direct, become the Executive Assistant to David Armstrong, then move up to Casting Director and Artistic Projects Manager… And then eventually—I’ve directed three shows on the mainstage. I participated in The Awards and less than 10 years later I was directing on the mainstage. I feel pretty lucky about that.”

“After The Awards I knew that a career in the arts was what I wanted to pursue,” says Kirsten. “After graduating from PLU, I moved to Seattle and immediately auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! I went on to play Ado Annie in that production, performed with their Adventure Musical Theater program, interned, worked in casting, helped with many education programs, participated in the New Works department in both administrative and performance roles and continued to perform in productions over the course of six years. For me, I know it started with The Awards, and feeling like this was a community to which I belonged and could grow from.”

WE NEED YOU

Allison is one of a handful of 5th Ave Awards alumni who are now 5th Ave Awards teachers with students of their own. She, like many of the alumni present, are constantly reminded of the value of musical theater in one’s life.

“Musical theater allows us to explore our own identities and step into the shoes of others. It’s a place where anyone can show up and hear ‘we need you.’ It’s a place where we can tell important stories as an ensemble and have conversations with people we might not have otherwise.”

Jared agrees: “To absorb someone else’s story, to see someone else’s craftsmanship, to ‘escape’ one’s life for a minute or two… It helps with the pain and sorrow of this world and teaches us that there are others aside from ourselves.”

Jordan appreciates how musical theater bridges generations: “It can touch on issues and it can reach audiences of all ages.  Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of me watching some musical with my grandmother. And I find that it brings a feeling of nostalgia to a lot of people I know.”

“Musical theater also teaches the art of collaboration,” Lauren adds.  “Whether students remain in musical theater or not, they have gained the insight that an incredible product takes the efforts of all types of individuals – each contributing their own talents and expertise.”

YOU ARE NOT WEIRD

At one point, the group begins to imagine what they would say if they could go back in time and offer advice to their former high school selves.

“Keep embracing who you are and what you love,” Brandon declares.  “And find the people that love it as much as you do.”

Kirsten adds, “You are not weird. You are gifted. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the joy you find in theater is silly. It is hard, absolutely. It is a hustle. But if you love it, if it brings you joy, do it. Work hard, never stop learning, never stop teaching.”

“Trust your work and never stray from what you find to be meaningful in this business,” says Jared.

“I think I would tell myself to have lots of fun, keep asking questions, and continue to explore as many sides of theater as possible,” says Allison.  “Going backstage at The 5th during the Awards was such a cool eye-opener…In college, I tried stage managing, directing, wardrobe, stage crew, and discovered applied theater—using theater for education, social justice, reminiscence work…My world opened up and theater became something so much bigger than I’d ever imagined.”


Heartfelt thanks to our title sponsor WELLS FARGO and to THE BOEING COMPANY and ALASKA AIRLINES for their additional support of this program.

Click here to learn more about The 5th Ave Awards and for a list of this year’s nominees.

The 2017 Tony Award Nominations and The 5th!

By DAVID ARMSTRONG, Executive Producer and Artistic Director

As always, there are many connections this season between the shows and artists that are nominated for Tony Awards and The 5th Avenue Theatre.

Come From Away PC Matthew Murphy

310 - Ian Eisendrath, Caitlin Warbelow and Ben Power. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Topping the list, of course, is Best Musical nominee Come From Away.  We are so proud to have co-produced with Seattle Rep the developmental lab production of this show as part of our New Works Program — and there are many, many other 5th Avenue connections as well: The show’s Music Supervisor is our own Resident Music Director Ian Eisendrath, ably assisted by Chris Ranney, who is a regular at The 5th. Several long-time 5th Avenue favorites are featured in the cast including Kendra Kassebaum, Rodney Hicks, and Chad Kimball. Continue reading “The 2017 Tony Award Nominations and The 5th!”

Our Mission: One-of-a-Kind Collaborations

Did you know that The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre share an artistic collaboration unlike any other in the country? For the past seven years, our two cornerstones of Seattle’s cultural landscape have partnered to co-produce one musical each year, including First Date which went straight to Broadway. Continue reading “Our Mission: One-of-a-Kind Collaborations”

Accessibility at The 5th

Did you know that The 5th has sign language interpreted performances? How about Braille programs? Or large print programs, audio described performances, assistive listening devices, captioned performances, and wheelchair seats? All of these are true! At The 5th Avenue Theatre, we are committed to making our theater as accessible as possible for all of our guests. In pursuit of that goal, we are constantly expanding our offerings. Read below to find out more about each of these services, and to be directed to more information.

American Sign Language-Interpreted Performances

We have an ASL-interpreted performance for each production that we present, usually the last Sunday evening of the production run. Ticket prices for ASL performances vary based on seating location close to the ASL interpreters. Click here to find out more and learn how to purchase tickets. Continue reading “Accessibility at The 5th”

This Is 90: The 5th Commemorates the Anniversary of Our 1926 Opening

Compiled by JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

THIS FALL, THE 5TH CELEBRATES ITS 90TH BIRTHDAY. Since the beautiful, historic theater opened in 1926, The 5th has reinvented itself several times, leading the nation today as a home for musical theater.

Our historic location was modeled after three of Imperial China’s most spectacular architectural achievements: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace and the Summer Palace. Designed and built a year before Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, The 5th has been called “the largest and most authentic example of traditional Chinese timber architecture and decoration outside of Asia.” From the lotus blossoms and phoenixes to the dragons featured throughout the interior—most notably the Great Dragon in the dome of the theater—The 5th has been celebrated for its exquisite design and authenticity.

Continue reading “This Is 90: The 5th Commemorates the Anniversary of Our 1926 Opening”

The 5th Generates $27 Million a Year for the Local Economy

Originally published on Puget Sound Business Journal on September 7, 2016
By Patti Payne, Columnist at Puget Sound Business Journal

The 5th Avenue Theatre, one of the nation’s leading musical theater companies, has significant economic impact on the Seattle area. A numbers study done by the theater, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, indicates that The 5th infuses $27.3 million annually into the local economy.

For every dollar spent on tickets, an additional 73 cents is spent on a variety of goods and services in King County, amounting to $13.3 million in the 2015-16 season. Continue reading “The 5th Generates $27 Million a Year for the Local Economy”