In The Can: Peek Inside the Arts Center Production of Hairspray

My occasional and tenuous hold on the professional stage was renewed this spring when I was cast in Hairspray at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.  Entering the last week of its 30-day run now, I can hardly be accused of promoting it selfishly if I use the blog this week for a backstage story.


The millions who saw the movies (there’s an original, non-musical and also a film rendition of the Broadway hit) have missed the heart of Hairspray, I think.  It’s about transformation – fat people; people of color; heck, even us un-cool people – during a few turbulent days in 1962.

Tracy Turnblad at Arts Center of Coastal Carolina

The triumph of Tracy Turnblad

That makes it sound way too serious, yet Casey Colgan’s direction, and his performance as the mother, Edna, brings out the heart of that story, even as the singing and dancing sweep audiences away with sheer fun.


It’s another example of Broadway hits I’ve enjoyed at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina more than I did on Broadway.  Evita, Cats and Chorus Line would be just a handful of others.  I was discussing this several months ago with Terry Cermak, Vice President of Production at the Arts Center, and he said something memorable.


“You know the cast of our Chorus Line here?  Every single actor in that was better than every single actor in the original production,” Terry told me.  He’s not a man to overstate things.  And as an audience member in three of the 6,137 performances of Chorus Line at the Shubert Theater in New York, I felt a tiny stake in the power of the original.  (It ran at the Shubert just three months short of 15 years when I lived there.)

Seaweed at Arts Center of Coastal Carolina

Seaweed J. Stubbs uses his blues

“What happened in theatre is the same thing that happened in football and basketball.  The athletes just got better,” Terry told me.  In 1975 they cast A Chorus Line with dancers who could sing.  Today, he said, “Everybody is a triple-threat.”  In other words, all the Broadway babies today can dance, sing and act superbly.


That’s my favorite accolade to the ensemble of Hairspray.  It’s a privilege to be with them, and I learn more than I can ever give thanks for, every time I sign-in at the theater.


The Arts Center commands some serious attention in New York when it casts a show.  Hundreds of top professionals audition when a chance to work for seven or eight weeks in Hilton Head comes up.  The Tracy Turnblad of our current Hairspray, Lindsay Braverman, won her part over the most recent Broadway Tracy, and the Tracy who just left the national touring company, for example.


And on and on.  So when people say, “I can’t imagine a better Velma,” or, “That girl who played Penny just WAS Penny,” or “I had tears in my eyes when Motormouth sang ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’;” or when they exit the Arts Center saying, “Wow, that was as good as Broadway,” there’s a reason for that.

Mr Pinky wig at Arts Center of Coastal Carolina

One of my three wigs in Hairspray

I was fascinated when I first worked at the Arts Center to see how courteous and responsible is the world of professional theatre.  After an ad agency career in which I saw “creative” people use that word as an excuse for everything from lateness, to rudeness, to dressing like teenagers, it reassured my sanity to see that the most creative people I ever worked with were always on time and unfailingly polite.


The intensity of preparing a big show with just a little more than three week’s rehearsal – and then running it six or seven times a week for a month – forges a feeling of family.  During Camelot I noticed that in the final week people started signing in later, closer to the “call.”  It seemed there was gradually less banter in the dressing rooms.  You could almost feel the cast beginning to disengage from each other (but not from the show).


I learned why after the closing night.  There’s a champagne toast in the lobby.  Four or five actors head for the airport already, to catch late planes.  By mid-morning the next day, the only trace of that tight little company is the memory.  Back to Chorus Line, I guess that’s why the ultimate inside story of the stage has a song that goes, “Kiss today goodbye, and point me toward tomorrow.”