G-Rated John Waters

I went back to my old high school last night, for the first time in thirty years, to see my nephews in “Hairspray,” the Grant High School spring musical this year.  Having only ever seen, of the John Waters’ repertoire, “Pink Flamingos,” I was understandably surprised at the choice.  Wasn’t Divine in that?  Back in my day, we had to censor parts of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” so I had no idea drag queens were so mainstream these days at the high school level.

Nor did I expect the production to be so, well, good.  In my day, we had a washed-up cocktailhag for a drama director who couldn’t be bothered with, say, relevance or production values, and the result was pretty predictable.  As it turns out, shortly after I left new drama teachers and music directors moved in and turned Grant into something of a theater powerhouse, and it shows; the house was packed on closing night (at $12 bucks a pop) after five previous well-attended shows.  With nearly a hundred kids in the cast, all of whom prove themselves able to pull off huge song and dance numbers together, that’s not only a miraculous feat of cat-herding, but a whole lot of relatives eager to buy tickets.  In my ballet days, we had Nutcracker for just that purpose.

But really….  John Waters?  As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried.  “Hairspray” is a saccharine treat with a teensy bit of innocuous social conscience thrown in for drama.  In that, it may be Waters at his cleverest.  He takes still-intractable social problems of, race, class, and sexual identity, and teases them up into a cheery 1960′s bouffant for the blue-haired set.  The plot, which involves the heroine, Tracy Turnblad, winning a dance competition by learning from her “Negro” schoolmate how not to dance like a white person, uses her newfound “fame” to try to integrate the American Bandstand-like TV program, is at all times subservient to the catchy and sometimes inspired musical numbers at the heart of the show.

But the interesting part is the drag queen, who in his case turned out to be a kid who grew up across the street from my nephews, and I’ve known since he was a little boy.  Harvey Fierstein played the role on Broadway, and John Travolta (!) played it in the movie, so it’s clearly not intended to be played by a convincing drag queen, and this kid doesn’t try to be.  That’s what made the climactic kiss between “Edna” and her husband, played by my younger nephew, Paul, pictured, a huge crowd-pleaser, instead of the shocker it would have been just a few years ago.  (I did worry about my 85 year old Republican dad,  though, who was in attendance and can see a lot better than he can hear…)

Grant High School hasn’t changed much since I left, at least physically; they haven’t even changed the linoleum in center hall, and I was delighted that I remembered where the bathrooms were at intermission.  But other changes have occurred, and they’re good ones, like this incredible performing arts program.  Unfortunately, the evening was marred by urgent pleas for the reversal of looming budget cuts that would halve the teaching staff dedicated to it.

As generally happens in musicals, the heroine got the boy, her stardom, and all her enemies became friends.  What happens at my old high school remains to be seen.





  1. Wow, Grant High School!

    Isn’t that where “Mr. Holland’s Opus” was filmed? I loved that film.

    I have never been a big fan of Richard Dreyfuss, but I thought he gave a fantastic performance as a music teacher caught in the contemporary sports and parental politics of a typical upper-middle class public high school.

    Plus, I thought the “real” high school setting was perfect.

    You actually went to Grant High School in Portland?

    I’m impressed.

    • cocktailhag says:

      It might have been.. They also filmed a cheesy made-for-TV movie there called “Reunion.” It was a pretty good school, and five blocks away; of course I went there. Class of 1982.

  2. avelna says:

    This is why idiots like Rick Santorum, Bryan Fischer (who’s website looks like fecalpointradio.org in small print on TV), etc. are losing their fight against the LGBT community. Hoo ha!

  3. dirigo says:

    Hag, I think, in honor of the French election, you should get Grant to support a national tour of Moliere’s “The Miser”, and get it up and running by the first of August as a good ol’ USA! USA! pre-election romp. After all, absurdity knows no national boundaries – nor limits within time and space.

    Guest artists in the role of Harpagon (the miser) could include stalwarts such as Allen West, Grover Norquist, or maybe David Koch. Of course, some extra directorial support might be needed for one or another of these less experienced actors, but I’m sure the Grant artistic staff will be up to it. Besides, what troglodyte could resist lines such as:

    HARPAGON – What a crowd of people are assembled here! Everybody seems to be my thief. I see no one who does not arouse suspicion in me. Ha! What are they speaking of there? Of him who stole my money? What noise is that up yonder? Is that my thief who is there? I will hang everybody! And if I do not find my money, I will hang myself afterward.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I don’t think any of those guys would need much directorial direction to do those lines convincingly. They wake up reciting them.

      • dirigo says:

        Great! More time for the dance numbers and those busy village scenes, with the rainmaker and the music man walk-ons.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Definitely. The more commercial the better, I always say.
          Then again, I always worked on the production side, so my priorities were in that area, and spectacle sells.
          I think we could have the peasants in line for one of those free medical trailers, and after they sing a few songs about their plights, they get hauled off to a private prison for a big jailhouse number.
          Just before intermission, there should be a sweet, hopeful number, perhaps in counterpoint harmony, about the freedom of finally joining the “free market.” Performed by actors playing former teachers, policemen, and firefighters, “When I Put On My WalMart Smock” is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
          A sexy, Dracula-themed number could be worked into the second act, “What’s That On Your, Neck, Granny?” with either the real Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, or failing that, lookalikes.
          The possibilities are endless.

          • dirigo says:

            Hmmmm … we’ll have to build those trailers, the prison, and the Wal Mart facade so they can double as a Bastille, for the big revolutionary scene – the “denouement” (that’s French drama lingo for “when ze sheet hits ze fan, mon ami”). And we’ll need red bananas for all the docile “public servant” extras who will also storm the ramparts, transformed.

  4. Ché Pasa says:

    Waters is such a social scientist at heart, isn’t he? “Hairspray” is a triumph of art and social science in that it can be done by any high school with the balls to mount it — so to speak — and the blue hairs can’t say nothin’ — they’re loving it too much… By now they’ve forgotten all about “Female Trouble,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Mondo Trasho,” and the like (or like today’s high school students, they never knew of them!) Glad to hear that Grant High in Portland can still mount a show worth seeing, but for how much longer will that be true at any public school?

    I learned everything I know about Baltimore — and a whole lot of other things I knew nothing of before (well, mostly) — from John Waters pictures at the Midnight Movies when I was barely out of high school myself. His stuff was a staple, a mainstay… brilliant, illuminating, harsh, and sometimes, well, a bit raw. Heh.

    • cocktailhag says:

      The only time I was in Baltimore was for a wedding, which took place in an exclusive, Olmsted-designed neighborhood called Guilford, in a house designed by the same guy who designed the Jefferson Memorial. It was a Jewish wedding, and the rabbi joked that he wasn’t sure if his license was good there….. Baltimore evidently even has white segregation.
      I spent most of the weekend in a dive bar in Fell’s Landing and I fit right in.
      As for Grant, the students have mounted a program called “Get Upset,” with a rally downtown on Friday protesting budget cuts. A bunch of little Occupiers, lurking in the stately Tudors under the tall firs.
      Who’d a thunk?