John Waters was the first to notice - the fat girls dressed in bright colors and displayed a lot of cleavage. The skinny girls wore black.
Normally, he pointed out, large women try to disguise their size by wearing dark colors. But yesterday was a day when fat was fine, and thin was in - especially if you could sing.
It was the day the Hairspray auditions came to Baltimore. The coming Broadway musical, based on Waters' 1988 movie of the same name, held its first ever open-call auditions at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The auditions didn't begin until 10 a.m., but teen-agers - and those who hoped they still looked like teen-agers - started lining up five hours earlier.
More than 500 Hairspray hopefuls showed up, standing in a line that wound around the Meyerhoff from the stage door on Cathedral and Biddle streets to the ticket office on Preston.
For a John Waters crowd, they looked surprisingly wholesome. But then, "So's the movie," Waters' long-time casting director, Pat Moran, explained. Set in the 1960s, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teen who wins a spot on a local TV dance program based on WJZ's former Buddy Deane Show. It's Waters' only PG movie.
First through the Meyerhoff stage door was Kevin Curtis, a junior at the Baltimore School for the Arts, whose mother dropped him off at 5 a.m. "She told me I was crazy," said the 16-year-old, who could pass for several years younger. Curtis' first stop was a locker-lined dressing room where he sang a cappella for Victoria Pettibone, one of three casting agents whom Bernard Telsey, the musical's New York casting agent, brought with him.
Curtis - who said he'd be happy to win an ensemble role - sang "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," one of numerous appropriately titled songs the agents heard throughout the day. (Others included "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "The Impossible Dream.")
Auditioners who did well in the a cappella room were asked to sing with piano accompaniment in a larger room. There they found themselves facing two long tables of Hairspray's head honchos, including Telsey, Waters, Moran and Margo Lion, the musical's Baltimore-born producer, whose Broadway credits include Angels in America and Jelly's Last Jam.
If this group of tough-but-friendly judges liked what they saw, then Telsey handed the aspirant a scene from Hairspray and instructed him to step outside and go over lines for a particular character - Tracy, or her skinny best friend, Penny, or Tracy's boyfriend, Link, etc. "Take five minutes or three hours. We're here all day," Telsey said each time. (The script is by Broadway newcomer Mark O'Donnell; the score is by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.)
Among those given lines to read was 22-year-old Michelle Timmons. A 2001 graduate of Catholic University of America in Washington with a degree in vocal performance, Timmons left her New Carrollton home at 5 a.m. and was in the Hairspray line at 7. Dressed in a fuzzy beige V-neck sweater, shiny black stretch pants and platform shoes, Timmons sang "Amazing Grace" three times for the folks at the tables. "We want to see how loud and how high you can go," Telsey told her.
Timmons was among the most fortunate yesterday. She's one of two potential Tracys whom Telsey has asked to travel to New York in the next few weeks. There she will work with Telsey and his staff before attending a call-back audition. (Additional auditions will be held in New York and Los Angeles.)
Sitting outside an audition room, Timmons said that not only was Hairspray one of her favorite movies while she was growing up, but "in high school a bunch of us dressed up like Hairspray characters."
She resisted the temptation to dress in character for yesterday's audition. But Phat Man Dee - a performer whose eccentric name was matched by her eccentric appearance - went all out. A jazz singer whose credits include playing a half-man, half-woman in the circus, Man Dee showed up in a brunet beehive wig adorned with a purple bow, long white satin gloves, purple beaded mini-dress, gray fur stole, white patent leather platform boots and enough sparkly blue eye shadow to rival the late Divine, who played Tracy's mother in the 1988 movie. (Not wanting to press her luck, Man Dee concealed from the casting agents a tattoo of Divine that adorns her upper back.)
Man Dee, 24, took the train from her home in Pittsburgh to audition for the role of Tracy. "If that role had big lights on it blinking on and off saying `Phat Man Dee,' I could not have seen it more clearly," she said. "I've decided I'm going to get it, but if I don't, I'm not going to cry for months."
The performer's gender, however, left Waters and company guessing. "We can't have two drag roles," the filmmaker commented, referring to the casting of Harvey Fierstein, who will play Tracy's mother on stage. (Later, Man Dee cleared up the matter, saying: "I'm a natural-born woman.")