‘A generational show’

Original Broadway choreographer discusses 'Hairspray' tour


Since director John Waters’ “Hairspray” movie was released in 1988, a slew of versions have followed. 

The “Hairspray” musical has appeared on Broadway, coast-to-coast across the United States and far beyond — including on Royal Caribbean cruises. It was broadcast live on NBC in 2016. High schools regularly perform its school adaptation. Riverwalk Theatre produced the musical in June 2019.  

So, why should you see yet another “Hairspray” tour when the musical comes to the Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall Wednesday (Nov. 29)through Sunday (Dec. 3)?

“I think it’s sensational,” choreographer Jerry Mitchell said.  “After all these years, it’s still quite sensational.”

Mitchell choreographed the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of the show that opened in 2002.  He continues to be an enthusiastic cheerleader for the original stage version, about a “pleasantly plump” teen who yearns to be on a local TV dance program — and helps to integrate it. 

“Something happens when you create something from scratch,” Mitchell said from his home overlooking Manhattan’s south side. “There’s a magic that happens that’s hard to replace. You don’t know it when you’re doing it. You’re doing your work and hoping for the best, but sometimes that special thing happens, and it defines a show for many, many years.”

Mitchell said this has happened with a couple of shows he’s worked on, but “Hairspray” was “certainly the first.”

“It’s become a generational show,” he said. 

When the show first opened on Broadway, Mitchell noticed that a lot of parents were taking their youngsters to see it. 

“Those young people are now parents themselves, and they’re bringing their kids back to see ‘Hairspray’ again because their memories of the show were so sensational,” he said.

To him, the story about integration makes the musical, set in 1962, still relevant today. 

“Unfortunately, integration is still such a big issue in our country and in our world,” he said. “Hairspray’s” messages about accepting others and making space for everyone mean a great deal to him. He created — and for many years, directed — the annual Broadway Bares burlesque fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Mitchell said that “giving back” is what he’d most like to be remembered for.

Not much in the version of “Hairspray” coming to East Lansing has been changed from the original Broadway production, directed by Jack O’Brien, who returned to work alongside tour director Matt Lenz before the show hit the road. It still features music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. 

“We have changed a few lines to make it more inclusive,” Mitchell said. “We’ve tried to update some things and give a little more power to a few of the Black characters who are creating their own moves in the show. They’re small adjustments, but they’ve made a big impact on the company and the tours.”

Before “Hairspray,” Mitchell choreographed Broadway productions of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “The Full Monty” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” 

He went on to choreograph the Broadway production of “Legally Blonde” and Las Vegas’ “Peepshow” as well as films such as “Camp,” “In & Out” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” He’s won Tony Awards for his choreography in “La Cage aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots,” also earning a Best Direction of a Musical nomination for the latter. 

Even though it’s quite a lot of work, Mitchell enjoys both choreographing and directing.

In 2011, he directed and choreographed a three-night, star-studded “Hairspray” production at the Hollywood Bowl amphitheater in Los Angeles. He also assumed the dual role for the original Broadway production of “Pretty Woman,” which had a six-day run at the Wharton Center last December. 

Mitchell was born and raised in Paw Paw. He credits the training he got there and nearby for his Broadway success. 

“I went to Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, which was incredible,” he said.

At 18, he moved from Michigan to  St. Louis to attend Webster University’s Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts. After two years, he visited New York City for spring break and auditioned with the late dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille. He landed a dancing part in Broadway’s 1980 revival of “Brigadoon.”

Mitchell’s athletic and energetic dance style was influenced by de Mille and later by mentors like the late choreographers Michael Bennett, Bob Avian and Jerome Robbins. When watching Mitchell’s choreography, “I hope you would notice I like to have fun,” he said.

“Michael and Jerome taught me to tell the story with choreography,” he said. “Working as a choreographer, you’re doing exactly the same work a writer is doing. The difference is, you’re doing it physically. You have to write the language for the character physically, and no two characters are alike. That’s what I love most about choreography — finding that.”

He mentioned that finding the right cast members is getting harder for him — and not for the reason you may think.

“It’s mind-blowing how talented the people are who come to audition for shows,” he said.  “I always say I could cast a show five times with the people who walk into the room. The trick is finding the person who, when they sing the songs and read the scene, you believe is telling you something for the very first time. You don’t believe anyone wrote it. You believe they’re just talking to you.”

Having the privilege of picking casts, choreographing and directing might not have happened for Mitchell if two of the first friends he made in New York weren’t Shaiman and Wittman. 

“We worked on little off-Broadway shows and in the clubs, and we all wanted to be on Broadway,” Mitchell said. “Cut to 23 years later — ‘Hairspray’ opened on Broadway, and they wanted me to choreograph it!”

Mitchell had worked with O’Brien on “The Full Monty,” and his friends asked if Mitchell could get him to direct “Hairspray.”

“I’m sure I can get him,” he told them. Mitchell and O’Brien, who was born in Saginaw, continued to work together for a decade on musicals like “Catch Me if You Can” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” 

“It was the perfect storm,” Mitchell said.

(The original version of this story was edited to say that Mitchell and O'Brien are returning for the "Hairspray" tour. They worked with the tour director and choreographer and were "heavily involved" prior to the tour's kickoff, Wharton Center PR Manager Bob Hoffman said, but they are not on the road with the show.)


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