The Songs and Themes of "Hairspray"

The Messages of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's Musical

Hairspray poster

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Of all the musicals created in the last two decades, it is difficult to find a Broadway show more upbeat and life-affirming than Hairspray. The original John Waters film premiered in the late 1980s. It had a lot of dancing, but it wasn't a genuine musical. Instead, it was a campy examination of pre-civil rights Baltimore through the eyes of a plus-sized ingenue named Tracy Turnblad.

Like its movie predecessor, the Broadway show plays for laughs most of the time; however, several of the songs convey the messages more deeply than in the Waters' film.

"Good Morning, Baltimore"

The opening number "Good Morning, Baltimore" tells us everything we need to know about the protagonist. She is a goddess of optimism. Although she lives in a society in which she is considered "plump," Tracy sees herself as beautiful. Moreover, she believes there is beauty in subjects that most would deem ugly. During the song, she croons, "The rats on the street / All dance around my feet." She also greets the denizens of Baltimore, including a drunk and a flasher. In her eyes, they are kindred spirits.

The song also reveals her ambitious nature. Her main dream is to become a dancer on the Corny Collins Show, a local television show featuring attractive teens from Tracy's school.

"Nicest Kids in Town"

"The Nicest Kids in Town" is the theme song for The Corny Collins Show. Tracy and her best friend Penny are obsessed with this show, not just because of the rock n' roll hits, but because the stars on the show represent teenage royalty. In particular, Tracy lusts over Link, the handsome favorite, who happens to be dating the wickedly mean girl, Amber.

The "Nicest Kids in Town" may be popular, but according to the lyrics they don't sound too bright. When Corny, the host of the show, sings about them, he delivers several back-handed compliments about the young dancers:

Forget about your Algebra and Calculus / You can always do your homework on the morning bus.

Can't tell a verb from a noun, they're the nicest kids in town.

You'll never get to college but you'll sure look cool.

The song satirizes the youth cultures obsession with popularity, even at the expense of academic success.

"Run and Tell That"

The character Seaweed isn't simply the cool Black kid who makes Penny swoon. His character embodies a generational shift towards integration. Seaweed and the other young Black characters are marginalized at their school. They are constantly and unjustly sent to detention.

Authority figures such as teachers, parents, and television producers demean the Black characters, openly advocating racial segregation.

Seaweed begins the song, unable to understand why certain people are so prejudiced.

I can't see / Why people look at me / And only see the color of my face.

And then there's those / That try to help, God knows / But have to always put in my place.

Despite the opposition, Seaweed is confident that his character will win over others. The playfully seductive lyrics, such as "The darker the chocolate, the sweeter the taste," are more than just flirtatious banter. This, by the way, is not the first connection between multiculturalism and food. The song "Big Blond and Beautiful" features lyrics with a similar message. The message seems to be that diversity benefits society the same way a multitude of flavors can enhance a meal.

Seaweed's sister, Little Inez, was shunned during the Corny Collins dance auditions. In the song "Run and Tell That," she exudes both confidence and frustration.

I'm tired of covering up all my pride...

I got a new way of moving and I got my own voice, so how can I help but shout and rejoice.

Like other activists who wait for civic justice, Little Inez can no longer maintain her patience.

"You're Timeless to Me"

One of the most entertaining aspects of Hairspray is that Tracy Turnblad's mom, Edna, is played by a man. In the John Waters film, world-renowned drag queen Devine originated the role. On Broadway, Edna was played by the incomparable Harvey Fierstein. In movie musical, John Travolta took on the character. Aside from the humor factor of seeing a middle-aged man in a dress, this casting choice also adds another social element to the musical. Edna and her husband are a heterosexual couple, according to the storyline, but watching them on stage it is easy to think of them as a gay couple.

With this in mind, the musical celebrates a combination of cultural diversity, body image, and sexual orientation. The song "Timeless to Me," expresses the idea that appearances do not matter; it is the person who matters most. Surface details such as weight, skin color, or gender should not be considered when choosing friends, lovers, or dance partners.

"I Know Where I've Been"

The most serious-minded song and perhaps the most inspiring one is sung by Motormouth, the mother of Inez and Seaweed. Her solo "I Know Where I've Been," is a testament to the historical struggles of African-Americans. It's a powerful anthem that reflects on the past while still endeavoring to fulfill the promises of the future.

There's a dream
In the future
There's a struggle
We have yet to win
And there's pride
In my heart
'Cause I know
Where I'm going
And I know where I've been...