Don't call the exterminator about rats in the theater

A remote's the only pest control needed

Object Lesson


"The rats on the street

All dance 'round my feet

They seem to say

`Tracy, it's up to you.'"

- lyrics to "Good Morning Baltimore"

Aw, rats! Rats may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Tony Award-winning musical, Hairspray. But a reference to the furry vermin pops up in the opening song, "Good Morning Baltimore." And, to the delight - or horror - of the audience, a pair of mechanical rodents dashes across the stage on cue.

Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, whose 1988 movie inspired the musical, has included rats in most of his movies. "Rats scare me, and I'm fascinated by them, and they'll outlive us all," he says of his fondness for the less-than-cuddly creatures.

He's especially pleased with the rats on stage. "When I saw them the first time, my heart just did a flip," he says. "The rats always make me happy because they put them in there at the very beginning. It was real proof that they wanted to keep the John Waters touch."

Nor is that the rats' only function. The show's original stars. Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur, told Waters the cast uses the rats as an audience barometer: "The more [theatergoers] react, the better an audience it is. It's market testing."

David Rockwell, the musical's set designer, says rats were always in the plans. "They are very authentic to the vision of the movie. They're irreverent. They're funny," he explains.

Figuring out what they should look like was another matter. "We looked at dancing rats, with people in costume," Rockwell says. That idea, however, was jettisoned as being too "Disney," and the focus shifted to more realistic Rodentia.

Paragon Props, a Canadian company, crafted the rats that made the final cut. The rat body - a fiberglass shell, covered with fake fur - sits on a small wheel base. On Broadway, the rats are attached to a thin wire, which is pulled by a prop man in the orchestra. For the touring production - currently at the Hippodrome Theatre - a remote control motor is attached to the base, and an operator in the wings controls the rats.

Like all stars, the rats have understudies. "There is a backup rat in each case," Rockwell says.

But thrilled as Waters is with the scurrying rats, he can't help dreaming. "I wish that we had a big budget, and they could be real ones that were trained and could run out and back to the trainer every time," he says wistfully.

Looking ahead to the 90-minute Hairspray that is scheduled to open at Las Vegas' Luxor Resort & Casino in February, he adds, "I just pray [the rats] end up in the shorter Las Vegas version. Maybe they'll wear mink coats."

HAIRSPRAY / / Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. / / Through Sunday / / $31-$76 / / 410-547-SEAT

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