He's the clown prince of bad taste, and Broadway is about the last place you'd expect to find him. Yet movie director John Waters is proudly proclaiming: "Broadway, here I come!"
Waters' "Hairspray" is about to become a mainstream musical. A Sixties-era comedy about teen-agers vying to star on a Baltimore TV dance show, "Hairspray" (1988) will be produced by Margo Lion, a Baltimore native, as is Waters. Lion's Broadway credits include "Jelly's Last Jam," "Angels in America" and "Triumph of Love."
"It combines all the things I love -- a wonderful comedy that has kind of a delicious and fresh style, and it also is a story that's about something, which is the push for integration in Baltimore," Lion said yesterday from New York University, where she was part of a symposium on "Jelly's Last Jam."
Reached in Berkeley, Calif., where he was doing post-production sound work on his newest feature, "Cecil B. Demented," Waters said that though he would not describe himself as "completely a fan" of Broadway musicals, "that even makes it more thrilling for me."
"Hairspray" was the last film made by Waters' late cross-dressing star, Divine, who played the mother of a teen-ager portrayed by Ricki Lake. Although no casting decisions have been made at this point, Waters said, "We have discussed whether it will end up being [played by] a man. It gives it that edge."
For her part, Lion said, "We're going to choose who we think is best for the role, regardless of gender."
Waters is serving as a consultant on the musical, which is being created by writers who will be making their Broadway debuts.
"[Co-lyricist] Scott Wittman and myself are huge John Waters' fans. We know every movie, every line of dialogue, every denizen of Baltimore as described in his book, `Shock Value,' " said composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman, who composed the music for the movie, "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." "Scott and I would love for it to be called, `John Waters' Hairspray.' It's our intention to celebrate his style as much as tell the story of the movie `Hairspray.' "
Wittman and Shaiman are co-writers of several off-Broadway musicals with Waters-esque titles ("The G-String Murders," "Trilogy of Terror" and "Livin' Dolls") and Wittman has also served as a writer for "The Howard Stern Show." Librettist for "Hairspray" is Mark O'Donnell, a playwright and humor writer who has had four books published by Knopf and whose prose, poetry and cartoons have appeared in the New Yorker.
The show will be directed and choreographed by Broadway veteran Rob Marshall and is aiming for a Broadway opening in spring 2001. A reading of the first act is expected to take place this spring.
The television show featured in "Hairspray" is modeled after "The Buddy Deane Show," which aired on WJZ in the 1950s and 1960s. The score of the musical "will have a very '60s pop sensibility," said Shaiman. "We get to explore every white Phil Spector-style pop and also the black sound that was emerging in pop music, the beginnings of Motown and James Brown."
"Hairspray" is Waters' only movie to earn a PG rating, much to the disillusionment of the filmmaker, who had previously specialized in counterculture trash epics. "Coincidentally, I made a family movie. It was PG -- a shock. I remember when it got a PG rating I wanted to commit suicide," he recalled.
Of all of Waters' films, "Hairspray" would appear to be the most logical candidate to be adapted into a musical. After all, as the director pointed out, "It's got singing and dancing and great comedy and hairstyles."
He said "Hairspray" had been optioned for Broadway once before, as had his 1990 film, "Cry-Baby." There was also interest, at one time, in making an opera of "Pink Flamingos" (1972), whose most famous scene features Divine munching dog excrement.
"Hairspray," however, looks as if it will become the first Waters' movie to make it to the legitimate stage -- a situation whose irony is not lost on the filmmaker. "The irony in my life, I cease to be amazed at anymore," Waters said.