John Travolta fans finally have their two big wishes: his return to movie musicals after almost 30 years and his first role as a plump Baltimore housewife.
Travolta heads the bill in a new production of “Hairspray,” whose cast helped preview the film Wednesday night and blew the roof off the joint with show-stopping footage and live music-and-dance numbers at ShoWest, an annual convention of theater owners.
“I’ve had the itch for 30 years” to return to movie musicals, said Travolta, who wears a fat suit and prosthetic jowls for the gender-bending part, his first musical role since 1978’s “Grease.”
“I thought maybe it’s smart to come back to it in a whole different way, an unexpected way. Because how do you top ‘Grease’?” Travolta said.
Adapted from the Broadway stage hit, which in turn was based on John Waters’ 1988 cult film starring Ricki Lake, “Hairspray” is the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), an overweight sweetheart of a Baltimore girl who takes a stand for civil rights in the 1960s by leading the charge to integrate a teen dance show on television. Travolta plays Tracy’s tubby mom, Edna, a role originated by Waters regular Divine in the first film.
With Adam Shankman directing, the new film features Michelle Pfeiffer as the villainous TV station owner and mother of Tracy’s rival, Queen Latifah as the saucy record-shop owner Motormouth Maybelle, Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s best pal and Christopher Walken as Tracy’s dad and Edna’s husband. Walken gives Travolta an affectionate kiss on the cheek in one scene.
When Travolta first appeared on screen, it took a few moments for the crowd of theater owners to realize who it was. They began whispering to one another, “That’s John Travolta?” Each of his scenes was greeted with hearty laughs and applause as Travolta played the part with surprising sweetness and femininity.
“I tried to make it so you never really knew it was me, that you thought it was some sort of eccentric overweight woman. Divine always had kind of the wink that it was a man playing a woman, but I tried not to have the wink,” said Travolta, who spent five hours a day getting into his makeup and did his four musical numbers for the film inside the hot, heavy get-up.
“It’s not easy, but part of my character interpretation is I pretended that she thought she was 100 pounds. I played opposite the weight, like a flying elephant or something.”
Pfeiffer, a fan of the Broadway version, said “Hairspray” has a deceptive social consciousness wrapped up in a sugary, toe-tapping package.
“It’s very entertaining, very funny and at the same time deals with subject matter that is really uncomfortable for most people to talk about,” Pfeiffer said. “You don’t realize that this kind of brilliant message about bigotry and racism is being washed over you while you’re being entertained in this sort of sweet, innocent way.”
Latifah, who scored an Academy Award nomination for her previous movie adaptation of a stage musical, “Chicago,” said she loved both Waters’ original film and the Broadway adaptation of “Hairspray.”
“This was a chance for us to do it our way. I always like to see what happens when a director and the studio use their imagination to bring something from Broadway to the screen, especially when it’s been on the screen, then Broadway, now back to the screen,” said Latifah, who performed one of her numbers from “Hairspray” for theater owners Wednesday night.
Fans of Waters and the Baltimore milieu of his films can take heart that the original filmmaker endorses the new version, which hits theaters July 20: Waters appears in a cameo near the beginning of the film as a dirty old man who flashes Tracy on the street.