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Despite its origin in a 1988 film from John Waters, the underground master of camp, shock and transgression, the story of Tracy Turnblad, as told in multiple iterations, has become wholly mainstream. Thanks in large part to the 2002 stage musical version, Tracy’s story of leading an effort to integrate a local TV music program in Baltimore has had America singing and dancing along for years now. Beyond its more conventional musical numbers, it offers up a craven TV producer who laments her salad days as “Miss Baltimore Crabs” and teens miming the crushing bugs as part of a dance craze. Indeed, the mildly subversive tone of the musical, while significantly less spiky than the original film, is set by Tracy’s buoyant paean to her home city, which includes shout outs to the rats on the street and the local flasher.

In spite of its popularity and its pro-integration narrative (the show is set in 1962), the musical has been been criticized by some as advancing a white savior narrative, since it portrays a white girl, albeit one who is ostracized for her weight, taking the initiative and risk to make “every day Negro Day” on The Corny Collins Show, the musical’s American Bandstand analogue.  Given that it’s explicitly about the crossing of the racial line between blacks and whites, a certain amount of disbelief met the news in 2012 that one Texas high school did the show with an all-white cast, seemingly deracinating a story about race and posing a particular challenge to truthfully representing the narrative.

Consequently, the casting of a March production of Hairspray at Princeton University, in which Tracy was played by a biracial student and her mother, Edna, was played by a black student, was both surprising and informative. It demonstrated how this musical about integration can be explored anew, 15 years after its debut and 30 years after the original film. The production, which played for five performances in a studio theatre on the campus, was the senior thesis project of two students, Alex Daniels, who played Tracy, and AJ Jones, who directed (only her second time directing). Princeton does not have a theatre major, but does offer theatre certificates for a concentrated course of study. The production was entirely student driven, except for its musical director and its sound designer.

In an interview with Arts Integrity subsequent to the run, Daniels, who describes herself as ethnically biracial and racially black, and Jones, who identifies herself as white, explained the thinking behind their production.

Daniels began by saying, “When I was a freshman, way back when, I was having a conversation with someone about dream roles of mine and I mentioned that I really loved Tracy and that she would definitely be a dream role. That person was like, ‘That’s not possible. You’re not white. You could never play Tracy.’ And so that comment really hit me in a not so great way. Why should the color of my skin limit me from any possibilities? I brought it up with AJ and from there we thought, why not? This script and this show seem to be catered to having a person of color in this position struggling with these issues.”

Expanding upon the inception story of their Hairspray, Daniels said, “When Alex told me about this comment, I started thinking more about Tracy possibly being biracial and it made a lot of sense, especially given her role in the show, bringing these two groups together. It changes the relationships with all of the characters in the show and gives them all a little more depth as well.”

In the production, Daniels appears in facial makeup that is noticeably lighter than her own skin tone. The rationale for this was described by Daniels as addressing, “How is Tracy going to fit into this world when she very clearly is not white? I personally cannot pass as white. Then we had the conversation about what if she’s trying to pass. What if she’s using makeup to lighten her skin, using whiteface in order to make it through every day in this community. So that’s where this conversation came in. We also just felt that the story of passing was something we wanted to talk about, the extent to which African-American, biracial females, and definitely men as well, went to belong in this community to reap the benefits of being white.”

Jones noted, “We spent quite a bit of time testing a lot of different types of makeup. We decided to have it only on her face because we wanted to make it clear to the audience that she’s not white, that she’s passing as white. We discussed whether other characters in the show know that Tracy’s trying to pass, and we came to the conclusion that yes, they have to be suspicious, but they can’t really know for sure, they can’t really say anything about it, because of the power of this white face that she has on.”

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At this point, it would be fair to question whether this color conscious casting of the roles of Tracy and Edna was contrary to the authors’ intent for the show. Arts Integrity asked that very question of Music Theatre International, which licenses the show, specifying what the production had done in regards to those roles. In reply, MTI president Drew Cohen said that the company does not place casting restrictions according to race on its customers, and pointed out specific material answering questions about racial casting for Hairspray, in the form of a letter from the four authors of the show, as well as John Waters. It reads, along with instructions for using it, in its entirety, as follows:

The use of make-up to portray black characters in your production (e.g., blackface) is not permitted under this Production Contract. By signing below, you agree to inform the director of your production that such use of make-up is strictly prohibited.

If your production of Hairspray features actors who are portraying characters whose race may be other than their own, you may elect to include the below letter from the creators of Hairspray in your program. You are not permitted to edit the letter in any way. 

Dear Audience Members,

When we, the creators of HAIRSPRAY, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.

Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast HAIRSPRAY as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone’s face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.

Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “politically correct” one.

And so, if the production of HAIRSPRAY you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn’t match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief” and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!

Thank You,
Marc, Scott, Mark, Tom & John

While Cohen did not respond directly to the query regarding the specific color conscious casting at Princeton, where certainly white students were available, his pointing out of the letter, and his comment about not imposing racial restrictions, strongly indicate that such casting is permissible. In a separate piece of correspondence, Cohen stated, “The key is that the show must be performed as written and the characters should be portrayed as written.” He also clarified that while the authors’ letter singles out high school and community theatre productions, it is applicable to university productions as well.

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So what was the effect of this concept of Hairspray? It seemed, as the thesis students intended, to deepen the story, and staging decisions only enhanced that. “Good Morning, Baltimore” was played slowly, more like a sad ballad, suggesting that Tracy’s everyday routine was not a joyous leap from bed, but rather the start of a new day of struggle. When the perpetually panicky Prudy Pingleton commented to Edna, her laundress, about “colored music,” it read as more pointed than ever before, and Edna’s dismissal of the characterization read as self-negating. When Velma von Tussle humiliates Tracy at her dance audition, it ceased to be solely an attack of her weight but also decidedly racial. When first encountering Edna and Tracy together, Velma’s already ugly sizeist comment “I guess you two are living proof that the watermelon doesn’t fall too far from the vine,” became doubly ugly. That all of the female characters are released from jail after the altercation at Motormouth Maybelle’s save for Tracy, a particular focus is placed on the continued imprisonment of a young woman who is biracial, while the black characters and white characters are all freed.

At the same time, the friendship between Tracy and Penny came across as particularly special, since clearly Penny – in and out of the Turnblad house like any teenager – surely had no questions about Tracy’s mixed parentage, but ignored the racial faultlines of the day. When Seaweed declares that, “Detention’s a rainbow experience,” he negates any concerns about racial divisions or conflicts as well for Tracy, who has been trying to pass as white. Detention becomes, in effect, a racial safe space.

By consciously altering the racial dynamic of Hairspray through only two characters, albeit leading roles, it is fair to suggest that the story of racial acceptance, integration and diversity became possibly even more resonant than the original portrayal as defined by the Broadway production. While the authors’ letter permitting cross-racial casting may have been intended primarily to address situations where there aren’t sufficient performers of color available, it laid the groundwork for Daniels and Jones’s interpretation, even though they asked the audience to engage directly with their color conscious casting, rather than suspending disbelief over it.

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It is unfortunate to report that Cohen’s statement, common to all licensed productions, that “the show must be performed as written” was not fully adhered to when it came to the text. Daniels and Jones acknowledged that they had made small changes and excisions, such as changing the song “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” to “Big, Black and Beautiful,” as their Motormouth Maybelle wore her hair more naturally. Perhaps most significantly, in “You Can’t Stop The Beat,” a late segment involving the Von Tussles, both mother and daughter, in which they are encouraged to join the full on party, initially resisting and then ultimately joining in, was gone. They were denied their redemption as the authors intended.

Because Daniels and Jones did not request permission to make these changes, and perhaps other smaller ones that went unnoticed, they were violating the authors’ copyright and the licensing agreement. While their production may have been a student thesis and part of their academic work, it was publicly presented, and for multiple performances, so the legally standard practices should have applied. That they felt the need and the freedom to reauthor any of the show is a shame, since the casting, direction and performance had already been transformative, while still working within the existing text and the leave granted by the authors regarding race.

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It is the right of Tom Meehan, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, John Waters and the estate of Mark O’Donnell to determine what may be done in productions of Hairspray that go beyond the existing casting template, and they’ve offered up their thoughts for producers and directors to consider. This mirrors Lin-Manuel Miranda’s statements regarding the racial casting of In The Heights, where he has made clear that in high school productions, the cast need not be Latinx, in whole or part, so long as the performances are respectful of the Latinx identity. But it’s important to remember that this guidance is specific to these shows by these authors about their own work, not a policy applicable across the literary spectrum. Texts should remain inviolate without express permission, which may be hard to secure, but is nonetheless legally and ethically required.

While the criteria for evaluating the Princeton students’ thesis academically is unknown, they did achieve two silent but memorable moments that have not typically been part of productions of Hairspray, but are both worth remembering. The first came midway through Act II when Tracy, inspired by “I Know Where I’ve Been,” wiped away the makeup which had been used to indicate that as a biracial teen, she was trying to pass as white, and would no longer. She becomes secure with her racial identity, even if it means more struggle in that community in that era.

The second memorable invention came in the very final moments of the show when, after the joyous and victorious refrain of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” hit its final peak, there was not the customary blackout. Instead, the cast (sans the Von Tussles, as noted previously) were arrayed in a straight line across towards the rear of the stage. Maintaining the rhythm of the now ended song, they stepped forward in unision, in unity, to the beat, beat, beat, and the dance party was transformed into the front lines of a civil rights march, of the fight for racial equality that would extend far beyond the integration of a single teen TV show.