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Speak Out, Don't Speak Low by Matthew Murray

  • Hairspray1127.jpgIf you've been despondent, as I've been, about the legions of youngsters enthralled by Disney's vapid High School Musical in all its countless incarnations, at last you can fight back with a real weapon in your corner. And, for all those squealing young girls in your life, it even involves Zac Efron! It's the DVD of Hairspray, this summer's film adaptation of the hit 2002 Broadway musical by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (music and lyrics) and Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book) that was itself inspired by John Waters's 1988 film.

    I can't remember now what compelled me to avoid the film in theaters, but it might have been some combination of being unimpressed by clips I saw of John Travolta as Baltimore hausfrau Edna Turnblad or a lingering dissatisfaction with the stage show that I greatly enjoyed the first time, but started to seem more manufactured, molded, and mechanical with each subsequent viewing. Neither, however, proves an issue—this is an outstanding movie version of a show, and a darn good movie in general.

    Unlike recent musical efforts like The Phantom of the Opera or Dreamgirls that didn't know what to make of their works' inherent theatricality and thus ended up muddled and unexciting onscreen, Hairspray transformed itself into a movie that sang. The screenplay (by Leslie Dixon) is faithful to O'Donnell and Meehan's, but not slavishly so, removing the characters' plastic edges, polishing up the relationships between the characters, and driving home plot points in more forceful, succinct ways.

    From the addition of some scenes to better pave the rocky road toward integration down which everyone is traveling (whether they like it or not), a slight restructuring of the show's events to increase tension at key points, and a raucously rethought final scene that revitalizes the by-now-exhausted "You Can't Stop the Beat Finale," almost nothing doesn't flow better here than onstage. The smooth direction by Adam Shankman, who also provided choreography that recalls but doesn't mimic Jerry Mitchell's Broadway dances, is integral, as are the few new songs ("Ladies' Choice," "New Girl in Town," "Come So Far") that seamlessly fit in among the originals.

    The performances are the most real and carefully crafted of any seen in any prior incarnation of Hairspray. Travolta brings a sad, fish-out-of-water quality to Edna that's completely devoid of camp; Queen Latifah's fun-loving but world-weary demeanor injects Motormouth Maybelle with an unusual amount of warmth; and Efron's assured, self-implicating turn as would-be teenage pop star Link is more convincing than the overgrown preppy usually seen onstage. The subsidiary roles are also superbly filled, with Amanda Bynes a hilarious successor to Kerry Butler as Penny, Christopher Walken a sullenly comic spectacle as Edna's husband Wilbur, James Marsden a dazzling and daring Corny Collins, Elijah Kelley a suave Seaweed, Allison Janney a riot as Penny's bigoted mother, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow just right as the scheming mother-daughter team Velma and Amber von Tussle.

    Last but by no means least is Nikki Blonsky, an unknown who landed the plum central role of rotund rabble-rouser Tracy Turnblad, and makes what I'd consider an even more impressive screen debut than Jennifer Hudson in last year's Dreamgirls. With a high, bright belt voice, a disarming manner, and dynamic dance skills, she's thoroughly convincing as a girl you'd be willing to follow right into the history books. While I'm not sure this Hairspray will go down as legendary, if there's any justice it will be remembered as one of the very best musical movies of this newest wave of them.


    With Ghostlight's release today of the original cast recording of LoveMusik, every other method of kicking insomnia has become obsolete. At least the pharmaceutical industry can find some solace in the fact that if sleep-aid manufacturers will soon be out of business, sales of blood-pressure medication are likely to soon surpass those inspired by the 80-hour work week.

    This most-necessary recording of one of history's least-necessary musicals shouldn't have been quite the coma-inducing tragedy it is. Granted, LoveMusik onstage was no great shakes: The love story of Berlin-to-Broadway composer Kurt Weill and his crackly voiced muse Lotte Lenya proved one that didn't need telling, at least through a labored libretto by Alfred Uhry and pseudo-Brechtian direction by Harold Prince. The Weill-Lenya correspondence that provided the basis for the show, as compiled in Speak Low (When You Speak Love): The Letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya simply related the complexities of their relationship more gracefully and more artfully. But no Kurt Weill song on disc, as there just aren't as many as there should be, has ever been a waste.

    Until now. The success of the LoveMusik cast recording as a self-contained listening experience was predicated on its divesting itself of as much of the show's considerable baggage as possible. But it's clear form the first song that they've attempted to capture the spirit of the show on disc—a monumentally unwise move for a show that, despite its serious intentions, usually came across as ridiculous as best. That opening number is "Speak Low," the gorgeous duet from One Touch of Venus (lyrics by Ogden Nash), and as soon as Michael Cerveris (as Weill) starts in on his oh-so-precious pronunciation ("Speek lo, ven yoo speek luff"), it's all over. Donna Murphy doesn't even need to start her version of Lenya's whiskey-bottle warbling, but as soon as she does, the recording has Saturday Night Live sketch written all over it.

    Whether it's Cerveris mincing his way through "That's Him" (also from Venus), the blissful, post-coital reverie introduced by Mary Martin in 1943; the terminally America-in-the-1940s "Girl of the Moment" (from Lady in the Dark, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) sung by the ensemble (with their own ragged accents) to celebrate Lenya's Threepenny Opera triumph; "The Illusion Wedding Show" (a corruption of the climactic scene from 1948's Love Life, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner) that diagnoses problems in Weill and Lenya's marriage no one had previously acknowledged; or especially Murphy's not singing Threepenny's "Pirate Jenny" despite the vamps that promise she will, this recording paints LoveMusik as exactly the silly, un-conceived show it was.

    The very few pleasures on offer, such as Judith Blazer singing "Nanna's Lied" (lyrics by Bertolt Brecht) or the terrifically jingoistic "Buddy on the Night Shift" (with a romping lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II), are simply overwhelmed the nonsensical song spotting and performances (especially from the two leads) that have been stripped of the empathetic qualities that made them mildly charming onstage. On disc, you're forced to contend with the show's haphazard construction, questionable musical value (despite a lovely, if small, orchestra that's nicely conducted by Nicholas Archer), and borderline-parodic treatment of two people who were undoubtedly more interesting than the brittle, precise figures Cerveris and Murphy portray here.

    Both sound like they're singing every song while walking on glass. Weill's songs, especially his American ones, pulsed with a brassy, vibrant energy that captured the world and energized it with the most modern of emotions. This recording of LoveMusik sounds so antiquated, one can't imagine that the theatrically adventurous Weill and Lenya would have wanted to be associated with it.

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