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.
Hairspray The Musical played at The 5th Avenue Theatre from May 30 to June 23, 2002. Based on the 1988 cult classic John Waters film, Hairspray 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.
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.