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What is Hairspray?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hairspray is the name of three different productions of a single—though adapted—story: a 1988 film, a 2002 musical, and a 2007 film. The original film, which began life with the title White Lipstick, was based on actual events involving The Buddy Deane Show during the summer of 1963. A sequel is said to be in the works for summer 2010.

The original movie of Hairspray is set in Baltimore in 1962. It tells the story of a plump teenage girl named Tracy Turnblad who has two goals: to win a dance competition on a local television show and to protest racial discrimination and segregation. Stars of the original film included Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, Divine as her mother Edna Turnblad and Jerry Stiller as her father Wilbur Turnblad. The screenplay was written by John Waters, who also directed. Although it had a modest box office return, it became a cult classic in its home video release in the 1990s. The 1988 Hairspray was nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards, as well as the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

The 2002 musical Hairspray is based on the 1988 film. The idea for transforming the film into a musical started with Margo Lion a theater producer, in 1998 when she saw the original film broadcast on television. Receiving approval from Waters and acquiring the rights from New Line Cinema, Lion began to assemble a team and a cast. The musical opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway in August, 2002 and ran until January, 2009. The original cast included Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad, Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad, and Dick Latessa as Wilbur Turnblad. The musical version of Hairspray was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and received eight, and it also won nine of the 14 Drama Desk Awards that it was nominated for, as well as the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical in 2007.

The 2007 film version of Hairspray was an adaptation of the musical rather than the original film, and had the same core plot, but a number of changes in presentation, as well as character and plot developments. New Line Cinema began development of the film in 2004. The film starred newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, and Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad. The production was nominated for a number of awards and won a number, including the Teen Choice Award as the Choice Summer Movie- Comedy/Musical of 2007 and Young Hollywood Awards for Nikki Blonsky and Zac Efron.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By Azuza — On Sep 25, 2011

One of my friends was living in Baltimore when Hairspray came out in 2007. Surprisingly, she said the movie was actually greeted with very little fanfare in the city at that time!

Usually cities tend to embrace movies that are set in them, at least a bit. My friend was really surprised that no one made a big deal about it.

By Catapult — On Sep 24, 2011

I saw the first Hairspray film in high school, but I had no idea it was something else first, and based on true events! It makes it even more endearing.

I love it as a musical because even though I don't really find Tracy Turnblad to be that likeable, she really breaks the mold of female leads in many ways, and not just her size. She is a total underdog, yet at the same time doesn't even seem to realize she's different, which is one thing that I do find really great about her. I also love the movie version of Hairspray from 2007.

By candyquilt — On Sep 24, 2011

I remember seeing the film when I was a kid, it must have been the 1988 version since none of the other ones had come out yet.

I don't remember everything about it since I was fairly young then although I do remember understanding the message about racial discrimination. I also remember Tracy Turnblad going for the dance auditions and crying because of the way people were treating her since she was overweight.

There is another scene that I particularly remember. It was about Tracy being very nervous about the competition and developing a big pimple on her face. She and her mother were going crazy trying to figure out what do. I thought this was a really funny scene.

I think this movie is really unique because it has such an interesting way of delivering the message about discrimination. It has music, comedy, dance but it still makes you realize how bad discrimination is. I haven't seen the 2007 version of the movie yet, I wonder how it's different from the original.

By Moldova — On Sep 24, 2011

@Animegal - I have seen the original Hairspray movie with Divine as well as the remake with John Travolta. I think that this movie is great on a lot of levels because not only is it entertaining, but it also addresses important historical issues relating to Civil Rights in a way that many people can relate to.

I also saw Hairspray the Musical on a cruise I went on a few years ago, and it was also fantastic. I love musicals because they have a way of transforming you and at the end of the show. You feel like you really know the characters and experienced a lot of their life as a result of the performances.

I read that psychiatrists say that this is a form of hypnosis because you are so focused on a movie or show that you laugh, or cry and when the movie is over you really feel different.

By popcorn — On Sep 23, 2011

Did anyone get a chance to see Hairspray on Broadway? How did you feel about Hairspray the musical?

I have seen the Hairspray movie but haven't had a chance to see the live version of the performance. After it won the Tony for best musical back in 2003 I have been thinking about making a trip to see it. I live quite far from anyplace with live theater, so I must admit to being a bit behind with what's hot on Broadway. Besides Hairspray, are there any other musicals that you could suggest that have similar fun and upbeat music?

By animegal — On Sep 22, 2011

I absolutely loved Hairspray, the movie done in 2007. I know it was a remake, but it was still a lot of fun, and the music made you really want to get up and dance.

Two of my favorite songs of the Hairspray soundtrack were "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and "Without Love". I found them really enjoyable and songs that I could get into easily. My mom was always quite happy with John Travolta, who helped out with quite a few of the songs.

I think that if you want a really fun movie to watch with your girlfriends, Hairspray is the way to go.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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