Role brings actress to a new stage

Tracy Turnblad and Marissa Jaret Winokur have a lot in common

August 11, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Marissa Jaret Winokur's kindergarten and pre-school report cards hang on her dressing room wall. The teachers' comments describe her as a dominant leader and refer to her "distinct and husky" voice -- and the need to control and soften that voice.

"Very Tracy-esque things," says the 29-year-old actress.

Tracy, of course, is Tracy Turnblad, the lead character in the new Broadway musical, Hairspray. Ricki Lake played the star-making role in the 1988 John Waters' movie. Winokur is playing it on Broadway -- her first Broadway lead and only her second Broadway show.

In some respects, Winokur's situation mirrors Tracy's. In the musical (book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), Tracy is an overweight Baltimore teen-ager who dreams of winning a coveted place on a local TV dance show. In real life, Winokur is a 5-foot, 170-pound woman who says, "I can't remember a time that I didn't want to do this, a time when I didn't say, oh, I want to be a Broadway star."

Nor are size and show-biz aspirations all that Winokur and Tracy have in common. "Certainly they're both indomitable. The confidence part is brilliantly matched, because both of them are full of life and full of positive energy," says Jack O'Brien, director of the musical.

If Winokur looks slightly familiar, it's due to what O'Brien calls "the side glance" -- a series of supporting roles in everything from the TV series Moesha (as Brandy's college roommate) to the movie American Beauty (as the burger-joint employee who tells Annette Bening: "You are so busted").

But supporting actresses have dreams, too -- though in this case, Winokur says, "I feel like I fell into [Hairspray producer] Margo Lion or Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's dream, because I couldn't have dreamt this. ... I'm the leading lady in this Broadway musical! In my mind, I would have thought I would have had to be different or look different."

That brings up the ways in which Winokur and Tracy differ. "Tracy is much more of an optimist than I am," the actress says. "My pessimism makes me more driven. I'm like, I don't want to fail, and that's what drives me, whereas she can't fail, she can't even think about failing."

O'Brien puts it this way: "I think she went through a period of mild panic which comes from the realization that you all your life wanted to play Hamlet and oh, my God, you've got to play Hamlet now."

Getting here wasn't easy. The daughter of a retired architect and a schoolteacher from Westchester, N.Y., Winokur was cast in the first national tour of the revival of Grease right out of high school. She stayed with the show for 3 1/2 years -- understudying the role of Jan on tour, then taking over the part and eventually playing it on Broadway.

After Grease, Winokur moved to Los Angeles and began racking up TV and film credits, among them, the Oscar-winning American Beauty. But along with the high-profile movie came the perils of type casting. Suddenly, all the roles she was offered seemed to be "deadpanning, jaded New York characters," she recalls.

"I kept thinking, now that I've done American Beauty, I'm never going to get to play a perky, sweet young girl again."

Then one of American Beauty's producers told her that Hairspray was being turned into a Broadway musical. A self-proclaimed "huge John Waters fan," Winokur wasted no time. She was the first actress to audition for the role of Tracy, more than two years ago.

She arrived at Shaiman's studio wearing a pink blouse and with pink barrettes in her hair. "I will be like Tracy Turnblad when I walk in that door," she told herself.

But, she adds, "it took two years of convincing them that I could do it." Although Winokur played the role in all of the staged readings, the producers continued to hold auditions -- including an open-call in Baltimore. "Marc and Scott kept saying they couldn't believe the first girl that walked in the door would get the role," she says.

Winokur embarked on a regimen of singing and dancing lessons, and never lost faith. "There was no stopping me when it came to this show," she says.

During the musical's tryout in Seattle, she battled bronchitis, and she's been warding off a cold during the Broadway previews.

Now her name and picture are displayed on the front of Broad-way's Neil Simon Theatre, and she knows the rest is up to her.

"You want something your whole life," she says, "when you get there, you'd better not mess up."

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