By Paul Johnson
Almost thirteen years after 60s musical Hairspray hit the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre, it’s back for a limited eighteen-week run (from 23 April) at the magnificent London Coliseum. What’s more, the new production reunites original director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell with the one and only Michael Ball in the role of Edna Turnblad.
Mr Ball spoke to me about his return to the musical in which he not only starred in London but also toured after its 2010 closure: “I knew, with the final performance of Hairspray I did on the road, that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d wear the heels and boobs. In fact I still have them at home… and the frock.”
His involvement with the show formed a lasting bond between singer and the famous larger-than-life stage persona. “I’ve been involved in a number of shows and I don’t think I have ever enjoyed myself so much as in Hairspray. I’ve also never seen audiences enjoy themselves so much; it’s a magical musical, and is one of the best crafted and best constructed,” he enthuses with genuine excitement. Since John Travolta starred as Edna in the big screen adaptation (also 2007), Michael Ball has arguably made the role his own in Britain. “I remember seeing it on Broadway, five years before it came over here, and thinking, ‘I would give anything to play that part.’ But I thought nobody would ever cast me. Probably five years earlier they wouldn’t have but, when I eventually heard it was coming over, I literally begged for an audition. Thankfully, I’ve never looked back.”
The musical star is looking forward to bringing Edna to London’s biggest theatre. “I’m beyond excited that we’re doing it again. I’ve worked at The Coliseum a few times and I think it’s my favourite theatre. It’s epic and the show is going to look magnificent there.”
Whatever your political leaning, we can all probably agree that the world is somewhat skewed right now. “I think it’s also the right time to do Hairspray, he affirms. “With the stuff that’s going on in this country and around the world, we really need a dose of Hairspray… not only for the joy, the magic, the excitement and the laughter, but for the message it gives us. That message of inclusion and love… and family.”
Set in Baltimore in 1962, Hairspray is about Tracy Turnblad, a chubby girl who not only sets her sights on school heartthrob, Link Larkin, she also wants to star on the local television station – a place where black people aren’t allowed to appear… something the teenager doesn’t understand. In the new London production, American actress, Lizzie Bea, plays Tracy.
She is a big Hairspray fan: “My first experience of Hairspray was watching the musical film and I instantly became obsessed with it,” she discloses, before openly talking about her size. “To be in the casting bracket that I am – as a bigger girl, I’ve being chubby since I was very young – to see the lead in a film look like that and fall in love with the boy at the end, without being a joke character, was so powerful. People have constantly said to me, ‘You should play Tracy Turnblad!’ But I didn’t think the show would come back and give me the opportunity to do it, so for it to be opening at the Coliseum is kind of crazy, and I’m so excited. It’s my first West End show and is a massive deal for me.”
Michael Ball is such a big fish in today’s musical theatre world, he got to sit in on the all-important casting process. He asks Lizzie if she is prepared for the huge physical requirements of the upcoming musical. “I’ve had a personal trainer to get me ready for the demands of the show – don’t worry I’m not going to be thin!” she laughs, to which Michael responds: “…Welcome to my world!”
“I just want to be ready for the challenge so I can put 110% in. I feel really lucky to be honest,” continues Lizzie, before Michael gives her a friendly heads-up: “I’ll warn you about one thing that happens. Jerry Mitchell, our choreographer, every day as we come in, makes us do probably the greatest finale of any musical… You Can’t Stop the Beat. Fifteen minutes non-stop, full-out… and then, before you can catch your breath, he makes us do it again! The reason for that is because the finale is probably the most important part of the show and you have to have the energy.”
“The finale is one of the greatest moments in theatre,” agrees Lizzie. “Every single character gets their pay-off and no-one is going to leave the theatre without a huge smile on their face; and that’s exactly how you should feel, leaving any show. This is the best for doing that.”
Playing TV producer, Velma von Tussle, Rita Simons has, by now, successfully flushed all of Albert Square’s negative storylines from her system. “Oh, yeah. I flushed those out three years ago when I drowned in that swimming-pool,” ex-EastEnder ‘Roxy Mitchell’ laughs. Legally Blonde and, more recently, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, have proved Walford’s blonde bombshell to be an accomplished musical theatre performer. What’s more, playing a baddie comes easy to Simons. I’m up for Best Panto Baddie for the third year in a row. Then I played a homophobe in Jamie, so I’m really looking forward to this; I love playing baddies. If I feel that the audience hate me then I know I’m doing a good job.”
Rita knows exactly what she’s getting herself into: “Hairspray is set at a time when they weren’t ‘down’ with integration, she informs. “In fact my character, Velma, who is a TV producer, doesn’t want to tolerate any form of integration whatsoever – ‘Not on her show!’ It’s so appropriate to talk about this stuff now… and to be honest the 60s wasn’t that long ago anyway. We’ve come such a long way in a short space of time; not only was it commonplace to be racist back then, it’s entirely inappropriate to behave like that in the age we’re living in now.”
It wasn’t long ago that Simons was trapped in the jungle on ITV. Hopefully her diet will improve somewhat in Baltimore. “If I do end up eating any bugs or kangaroo’s testicles, then it means something has gone very wrong with the show!” she jokes.
Filling the shoes of Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad, and the owner of a joke-shop, is comedian Paul Merton. “This is my first musical,” he tells me. “I was in a pantomime at Wimbledon Theatre a couple of Christmases ago – which had music in it – and I’ve already met the choreographer and told him this is a professional challenge which he won’t be able to meet, because I am one of those people who can’t dance.” With talent like this it’s little wonder Have I Got News for You marks its thirtieth anniversary in 2020. “Not only am I not aware of what I should be doing, I’m also not aware of when I should be doing it!” he continues, gathering momentum. “Anyway, he said it’s ‘walking to music’ for my part, so I’m quite happy about that. It’s amazing how one person can ruin an entire production… There’s actually so much going on in this show, that if anybody even notices what I’m doing then we’re in trouble.”
Paul is actually familiar with Hairspray, although he’s yet to experience the Ball-effect: “I have seen the show in the last ten years, when Phil Jupitus was playing Edna at the Shaftesbury Theatre,” he remembers, before explaining about his leading role in the show: “It’s very much about a bloke who runs a joke shop, and there’s some ‘family’ involvement for other members of the cast, but that’s not really important. Everybody’s, basically, supporting me! Ha, ha! My ego tells me that when I’m not onstage everybody else is thinking about me. That’s a first for some people!”
Paul Merton leading a West End musical would indeed be a sight to behold. Of course he knows the real score… “To be serious for a second, one of the first things I remember seeing in the theatre, that really knocked me out, was Michael Crawford in a thing called Billy in the early 70s. When good musical theatre works it really is astonishing; it transports you more than any other form of theatre. And what this show is all about is the ability to transport you to another place. This is going to be a magnificent production. You come out feeling ten foot taller than when you went in. This is why we’re in show business; for moments like this. If you can’t get excited by a project like this then you should be working in the Civil Service – which I did, until they kicked me out, I kept being funny and didn’t concentrate enough on the work.”
He’s back to making us laugh soon enough: “When the producers asked me to do this I was a bit bemused but, as I said, it is the major role… I resisted it being called ‘Wilbur’ because I think it’s unfair to the rest of the cast. Actually I am pleased to be playing a small part, which is not what I’m used to but I am a stage performer and I have played Widow Twankey in pantomime. In fact people still talk about that around Wimbledon. They say, ‘There’s no point in ever doing that again!’ I think it’s the ‘Never again!’ bit that they keep repeating!”
Paul then makes a good point: “After a did Widow Twankey, I was keen to do something bigger. I’ve been doing Have I Got News for You for a long time, and like anything, when people see you do something for a long time, you sort of become part of the furniture. So I was very happy to do something which gets me out from behind a desk answering questions about Michael Gove. Really it’s a chance to use other skills I might have. I’m looking forward immensely to making this work. It’s really not something I ever thought I’d be doing, or ever considered to be perfectly honest.”
The regular Friday-night panellist is under no illusions of the calibre of performer he’s going to be sharing the stage with. “It’s also great to be working with people with such skills and discipline; singers, dancers, choreographers, musicians… In a world where we constantly gaze at tiny screens all day, to be in a massive theatre, watching a big production like this… with big performances, big singing, big wigs, and me! It doesn’t get any better than that. As I’ve said, musical theatre, at its best, is the most awe-inspiring and powerful thing there is.”
Being one of the wittiest comedians in the business certainly seems to open the right doors. “It’s a bit like in the pantomime I did, where a comedian gets to actually work with somebody who isn’t making comedy themselves,” Paul tells me. “Going back to the days of Variety, I think you’d expect to be working with people from different genres of show business. I asked Michael Ball how many times he’s played the role, and he said about seven hundred times! But he’s still as enthusiastic as anybody to be doing it again. That’s an indication of how powerful an experience it is, not just for the audience, but for members of the cast as well. Either that or he just loves dressing up… I think it’s a bit of both!”
Paul Merton is well-known as being one of the great improvisers; a skill that was fully utilised during his run in Aladdin. However, a musical has a script, and your fellow cast members won’t be too pleased if you go offscript every time you’re onstage. Michael Ball asks Paul about this aspect. “In some ways it’s easier because there’s a sort of safety-net in the form of the script, choreography and direction,” explains the comedian. “The challenge in that is to make every show work to the best of its ability. We even share a song together – and I really don’t know why you’re risking your reputation in this way because there’s no way you’re coming out of this unscathed!” Michael Ball laughs and looks worried in equal measure. “But there will be parts in every show where we’ve got to hit that dramatic moment or that comedy line, so it’s a different discipline. The discipline is obviously to perform as if it’s the first time you’ve ever done it. I’ve been to see some long-running shows – not necessarily musical – where you see the cast and, despite their best efforts, look as if they’re walking through it a bit. So you need to fight against that every time; make sure that you’re doing it for the audience. You’re certainly not going to be bored with this show. It’s great even though it’s a different kettle of fish which I’m used to. I feel as if I’m in very good hands.”
To directly answer the question about improvising, Paul adds, “The only time I’d ever have to ad-lib is if something went drastically wrong and I had to get us back on track. In the early days of the pantomime, some of the cast were a bit shaky on their lines so I was always able to improvise us out of a mistake and get us back onto the script. I don’t think that’s going to happen in this. The producers would be tearing their hair out.”
Playing Paul’s wife, Michael then gets exactly what he deserves as he throws in: “The most important question I think I can ask is, are you a good kisser?” to which Paul replies: “Yes, but not to music; we’ll practise out of hours.”
Michael Ball’s final addition to the cast really is one of the West End’s current leading ladies. Marisha Wallace has been in Dreamgirls and Waitress, so Hairspray will make a nice hat-trick for the American when she takes on Motormouth Maybelle. I ask Marisha what she’ll be bringing to the party. “You’ve obviously gotta be sassy!” she tells me in no uncertain terms. “I’m a comic, but I can break people’s hearts too. It’s also a great family show which covers some difficult subjects at that family level. Kids will be able to ask questions and discuss the issues from the show with parents. And we’re talking about issues which are still very relevant today.”
The singer, who may threaten to steal the show on a nightly basis, is not a newcomer to the musical, as she explains: “I actually played one of the Dynamites in a version of Hairspray when I was twenty-one years old, and also I understudied Motormouth. Now, fourteen years later, here I am. I think it’s the right time. I came over from America to do Effie White in Dreamgirls for three weeks – I ended up over here for three years! Ha, ha! It was a whirlwind experience; they told me to fly here in four days, and I was onstage in five, leading a West End show. I always wanted to play Effie, but you can’t really predict the detailed journey that life takes you on. London was seriously not even on my radar. That led into Waitress and now Hairspray. Everything about it is so important now as things are so divisive in the world; we kind of have to remember where we’ve been to know where we’re going. This is a great reminder of what it was like and how we can overcome it… today!”
Divisive or not, the big question remains about those delicious apple pies, the aroma of which wafts into the Waitress audience during every performance. You’ve gotta miss those, right? “Ha ha! You know what; I never got to eat a single one. I was serving them all the time and never got to eat any.” Well that’s me put in my place.
Hairspray opens at the London Coliseum on 23 April for eighteen weeks. For more info and tickets visit: www.hairspraythemusical.co.uk