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.

Things You Learn as a Directing and Artistic Leadership Fellow

By HATTIE CLAIRE ANDRES, 2016/17 Directing and Artistic Leadership Fellow

As I wrap up my year-long fellowship at The 5th Avenue, I look back on my experience assistant directing five shows this season, directing Rising Star Project and shadowing my mentor Bill Berry to gain Artistic Leadership experience and insight.

Planning Is Everything

  • So much of theater administration and leadership is being an expert planner: planning the shows for next season, planning who will work on those shows, planning financial allocation and strategy and planning calendars so that everything that happens in this busy building works in harmony.
  • As a director, you can spend more than a year planning your show before rehearsals even begin: in auditions, deciding how you want to cast the show; in meetings with designers to create the visual life of the story on stage; and in preparation for working with actors to decide how the story will be staged.

Communication Is Key

  • Hattie and Casting Director Kelsey Thorgalsen discuss RSP auditions. PC: Orlando Morales

    Artistic Leaders, such as David and Bill at The 5th, are charged with the job of developing a creative vision for the theater they work for, and communicating that vision to their staff, the artists, the board and the audience. This communication happens in many different ways but one of the most important outcomes it achieves is to have everyone understand the importance of the shows and the stories The 5th is choosing to tell on our stage.

  • As the director of a show, it is essential that you masterfully communicate your vision for the show to everyone working on the production – the choreographer, music director, actors, designers, crew and producers – so that each person feels confident in their ability and inspired to tell a unified story on stage with you. As an assistant director, you are often part of facilitating this process, delivering notes to actors and designers when the director is busy with another aspect of rehearsal.

Relationships Are Crucial

  • “It’s all about who you know” is often said as cliché in the entertainment industry but there is a large element of truth to that statement. Because creating a show together is such a personal experience, highly dependent on the chemistry of everyone in the rehearsal room and their ability to collaborate, it is not only important to be skilled at what you do – be it dancing, designing costumes, or running the sound board – but it is also important that people trust you and find you enjoyable to work with.

    Hattie with Romy and Michele Associate Director MK Lawson (L) and Choreographer Peggy Hickey (R) at opening night party. PC: Duell Fisher
  • As the assistant director, I got to work with five different creative teams this season, most of whom I didn’t know before beginning rehearsal. Each time I started with a new team, I intentionally spent time and energy to get to know each person and build a trusting, working relationship with them. By the end of the season, I had over 20 new collaborators with whom I’d built relationships.

Each Day is Unique

  • One of the most exciting aspects of working at a theater is that monotony is non-existent. When looking at Bill’s calendar to find shadowing opportunities, I saw that he had a completely different schedule every day: from meetings with a wide array of people to attending auditions in New York to directing Beatsville in Florida or The Pajama Game here at The 5th.

    Rising Star Project Students. PC: Jeff Carpenter Photography
  • In my own experience, working on five shows throughout the season, I saw first hand how wildly different each show was – from Man of La Mancha as a reimagined classic to The Little Mermaid as a family-favorite contemporary hit to The Pajama Game which embraced its Golden-Era identity to Rising Star Project with its abundant student energy to The Secret Garden revising its script and score for the revival production to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion developed from the ground up as a brand new, world premiere musical. No show was the same and each day brought a different set of challenges and exciting revelations.

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.

An Evolving Friendship: An Interview with Robin Schiff and Barry Kemp

By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach

“The Blonde Leading the Blonde.”

This was the original tagline of the 1997 blockbuster film on which the musical Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is based. Since its premiere 20 years ago, countless fans and audience members (regardless of generation, gender or hair color) have inevitably asked themselves which of the two iconic blondes they identify with more.

Are you a Romy or are you a Michele?

When this question is posed to the bookwriter of the film and the musical, Robin Schiff, her immediate answer isn’t surprising.

“I’m both!” Schiff exclaims with a laugh. It is delightfully surprising when she begins to introduce a Freudian analysis of her two well-known characters. “They’re such naked representations of…” Schiff pauses momentarily. “Now, is it ego… or id?”

Robin Schiff with Barry Kemp

Barry Kemp, who produced the film and is a producer on the musical, can’t help but interrupt his friend and longtime colleague.

“Robin just gave you a great example of why she’s both,” he says. “Romy and Michele would say something exactly like that. Which is it, ego or id? They would use the terms, but they wouldn’t know which one was which.”

Schiff adds, “Romy and Michele like to sit indoors on a sunny day and watch a movie with a best friend. I like to do that. But they are so matter of fact about their thoughts and their desires—they’re almost like kids in that regard—they’re guileless. That is id, actually.”

Romy and Michele represents just one bullet point on an astounding list of Hollywood writing, producing and directing credits accumulated by Schiff and Kemp over the years. Yet the characters also represent a phenomenon that continues to amaze both their creator and their early proponent, especially when reflecting upon the origin of the two friends.

“They were like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Ladies Room,” Schiff explains. Her aptly titled play—which takes place in the ladies room of a Mexican restaurant called the Green Enchilada—first introduced the two loveable misfits in 1988.

“They were recognizable,” Schiff continues. “Their life started because I could hear them. And it’s the only experience that I’ve had of that—where I just heard these two characters talking in my imagination and decided to put them in different situations. And from their first entrance, they got laughter and applause—more or less as typical girls who you might encounter at a club…But they’ve evolved so much since then.”

Producer Barry Kemp, Bookwriter Robin Schiff and Composer and Lyricist Gwendolyn Sanford

Kemp adds, “One of the jokes in the original piece, and how [Robin] originally conceived of the two characters in [Ladies Room]—was that they were almost the same person. Each thought that the other one was the funniest person. They always laughed at each other—when no one else around them was laughing—and the two ladies were almost a single character. When [Robin] did the movie, she started finding what made them different. When we got to the musical—those differences became clearer—and more emotional. Not only are they different, they each have an Achilles heel that [Robin] has discovered. Now, they both have a vulnerability that they did not have in either the play or the movie.”

“We really looked to the essence of who Romy was,” explains Schiff. “She is a very insecure person who wanted to fit in. And it became clear that this wasn’t important to Michele. Michele wants to go to the reunion for fun. She goes along with all this other stuff because Romy says that it’s important.”

“For Michele it sounds like a fun time, and for Romy it’s a wake-up call,” adds Kemp.

Schiff continues, “In the movie they’re just kind of shocked that they hadn’t accomplished anything in ten years. It’s momentary. There isn’t any real panic bubbling up. But now in the musical, we get to explore this more. There’s a song called ‘Ten Years’ where we are really able to dig into Romy’s deeper fears. As a bookwriter, I find that a musical pushes you to ask yourself, ‘What’s really going on in this moment? What is she really feeling—and does that mean we’ll have a song or just a few lines of a scene?’ And we felt that that moment especially was a potential song with a lot of depth and a reason for her to sing her inner thoughts.”

With Romy and Michele now in their third iteration, both Schiff and Kemp are thrilled by the opportunity to continue discovering more of their story.

“I’m beside myself with excitement,” says Schiff. “I just think it’s going to be so much fun to go in and have time to dig in deeper and I’m looking forward to sharing that experience with the audience.”

When asked to explain Romy and Michele’s continuing appeal, Kemp offers this thought: “Everybody has an innate longing to have a best friend. Sometimes that best friend is a platonic friend and sometimes that best friend is a lover—sometimes male, sometimes female—but the fact is it doesn’t really matter. Every person wants to have somebody who gets them on a level that is not judgmental, someone who accepts flaws as well as attributes… And who see attributes that others do not. That’s what is at the core of this story.”

Schiff adds, “I think the other part of it is… they’re different. They’re weird. They’re the weird people at school and I think that’s one of the reasons for their longevity. So many of us have felt like the other. And so I think we relate to Romy and Michele. And we’d like to see them triumph.”

Behind the Curtain: In Rehearsal with Romy and Michele

We are so excited to be presenting our eighteenth new musical in a couple short weeks! Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is based on the cult film of the same name, but puts a whole new spin on it: a musical! This show will remind musical theater fans of Legally Blonde with its pop-rock new songs and its important messages of acceptance and friendship.

Scroll through the gallery to see behind-the-scenes photos from a rehearsal of Romy and Michele!

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Don’t miss this world premiere musical, running June 8 to July 2 at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Find out more and purchase tickets here.

Special thanks to Jeff Carpenter Photography for these awesome rehearsal shots.

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!”

Meet the Class of 1987 – The Ensemble

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Meet more of the class of 1987 with the A-Group, all of whom are making their 5th Avenue debuts! Tess Soltau (Christie Masters) Tess is taking on the role of lead mean […]

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Meet the last class of 1987 reunion-goers! Continue reading “Meet the Class of 1987 – The Ensemble”

Meet the Class of 1987 – The A-Group

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Meet more of the class of 1987 with the A-Group, all of whom are making their 5th Avenue debuts!

Continue reading “Meet the Class of 1987 – The A-Group”

Meet the Class of 1987 – Heather, Sandy and Toby

We’re ramping up to the World Premiere of the new musical, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, based on the 1997 cult hit film. Beginning today, we’re introducing you to the class of 1987. First up, Heather, Sandy and Toby!

Continue reading “Meet the Class of 1987 – Heather, Sandy and Toby”

Musical Round Up: Musicals Led by Young Actors

By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

In The Secret Garden, the lead character Mary Lennox is played by a young woman, usually 12 or under. In this video round up, we’re celebrating other shows led by young actors. Continue reading “Musical Round Up: Musicals Led by Young Actors”