There’s something about a great musical that sets my feet tapping and my heart pumping with some extra juice. Seeing a high school revival of Hairspray that was packed with talented kids having a ball doing the show reminded me just how much fun a light-hearted musical can be. When it debuted in 2002, the original musical won an impressive 8 Tonys and even crossed the pond to win a Laurence Olivier Award on London’s West End.
Walking home from the high-school performance, I began pondering what made the show so enjoyable. Sure the music is great and the songs are fun, but it’s musical lite compared Oklahoma! or Chicago. Still, it possesses many of the classic ingredients for a hit — the kind of qualities that stand the test of time and that we, as writers, would always be wise to keep in mind:
Energy: From the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore,” to the rousing finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the show runs on high-octane gas. It’s got brio, verve, pep, dynamism, energy — take your pick. It starts at a high pitch and rarely flags. This kind of energy and enthusiasm is infectious: the show takes the audience into its heart.
Outsider blues: The lead, Tracy, is an outsider; so’s her mother, Edna; so’s her dad, Wilbur and her friend, Seaweed. From the first number, we know that Tracy’s on the outside looking in, a hair-sprayed David who’s out to slay Goliath and make her dream of being a dance-show star come true. So we are automatically in her corner from the word go.
Sneaky villains: The mother-and-daughter duo who try to do Tracy in are caricatures, but they work, precisely because they’re so totally rotten that we want them to get their comeuppance — they deserve it!
People on the fence: In the show, we meet a couple of players who have to make a choice about whether to do the right thing or give in to self interest. Watching them choose is fun and creates a bit of extra tension.
A message: While the show is a light-hearted confection, it rises above the cotton-candy category because it addresses a sobering theme: desegregation in 1960s Baltimore. While it uses a deft touch, Hairspray doesn’t shy away from a tough issue, but embraces it with humor and conviction. The note it hits rings true.
Energy, outsider blues, a message that matters — when you bring qualities like these to your work, it too will shine. Write on!