In “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the opening song to the musical Hairspray, protagonist Tracy Turnblad sings:
“The rhythm of town starts calling me down,
It’s like a message from high above.
Oh, oh, oh, pulling me out to the smiles and
the streets that I love.
Good morning, Baltimore,
Every day’s like an open door.
Every night is a fantasy,
Every sound’s like a symphony.”
When Tracy, the plump, loveable teenager who wins a chance to be on a local TV dance program, launches a campaign to integrate the show, social injustices of America in the 1960s are exposed. Particularly, racism and prejudice in Baltimore.
“In my opinion, race relations in America is a very deep gash to which has been applied only a Band-Aid,” says Curtis J. Williams, director of the upcoming performance of Hairspray, which opens on June 12 and runs through June 27 at Theatre Jacksonville. “Without stitches, that gash will reopen to bleed again and again. Our healing process as a nation depends on being open and honest.”
Williams is referring to the recent events in Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland, with a metropolitan population of 2.7 million people. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is what transpired:
On April 12, a 25-year-old African-American man named Freddie Gray was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade. On the way to the police station, Gray fell into a coma and died a week later from spinal cord injuries.
Eyewitness accounts suggested that the officers used unnecessary force against Gray. The young man’s death resulted in an ongoing series of peaceful protests, riots, and civil disorder in the city of Baltimore, including looting, dozens of arrests, and violence.
“As an American, it saddens me to see the same cycle of social unrest that my parents and grandparents went through seeming to recur in a more modern form,” Williams admits. “As a black man in America, it sadly doesn’t surprise me on a personal level.”
Based on John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name, Hairspray made its Broadway debut in 2002. Over the past decade plus, the musical has been staged all over the world and even sparked a remake of the classic film in 2007, starring John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky.
“I am generally not a fan of movies that are turned into musicals,” says Williams. “It’s often difficult to recreate the magic from the screen in a live performance. There are, however, some musicals that achieve this enormous feat and Hairspray is one of them.”
For the last five years, Williams, a 32-year-old resident of Springfield, has been involved with the big-production musicals of the performance season at Theatre Jacksonville, including Hot Mikado,The Drowsy Chaperone and Les Misérables.
Staging Hairspray, Williams encountered a few stumbling blocks.
“There were two big obstacles for me. The first was to meet the many location needs of the show, yet keep those transitions as seamless and fast as possible,” he explains. “The other obstacle was simply being the ‘directorial glue’ that holds a cast of 34, plus a production team of eight, together.”
There’s also the intricacy of the wardrobe. The crew will be using more than 30 wigs, which took more than 100 hours to style, utilizing countless cans of hairspray, as well as a total of 96 costumes, 48 pairs of shoes, and a slew of glitter and sequins including 144 Swarovski crystals on Tracy’s finale dress.
And while the timing of staging a local production of Hairspray after the recent events in Baltimore is uncanny, it’s also a chance to educate and heal. “‘Good Morning Baltimore’ sets the satirical tone that encompasses the entire show,” Williams says of the opening number. “Tracy sings of hope and finding her place in the world, but also mentions the darker aspects of her city. This song isn’t simply a teenage girl seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. She sees the good, the bad and the ugly, but still embraces it all as her home.”