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Pope of the BSO

John Waters dishes on Hairspray: In Concert, hitchhiking, and Baltimore’s music scene

Photo: Cory Donovan, License: N/A

Cory Donovan

Photo: , License: N/A

A performance of Hairspray: In Concert with the indianapolis Symphony


After spending the late spring hitchhiking and much of the winter touring with a spoken-word Christmas show, local auteur John Waters is back in Baltimore to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his most famous film with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s production of Hairspray: In Concert. That’s right, Waters’ 1988 film about “a fat girl standing up to segregation,” has moved from Broadway, where it was a huge hit, to the symphony (where it stars the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz, among others). We caught up with Waters to ask about this and his other projects, and found ourselves laughing through much of the conversation.

City Paper: Tell me a little about the BSO and Hairspray. How did that come about? It’s sort of an odd pairing.

John Waters: It’s not an odd pairing. What it is is another reinvention of Hairspray. I wrote completely new stuff for the narration explaining where the ideas came from. They came to me—Jack Everly did—of the Baltimore Symphony, and we went back and forth with the [Indianapolis] Symphony [which recently performed it]. We liked the idea, my agent and I did, first of all because this is a new field for me, classical music. You know, I’ve never been involved in that world. I’m always eager to charge over into another field. And at the same time I thought it was a way to make Hairspray seem new, to me at least. I think the idea seemed to work, at least when we did it in Indiana, but you’ll have to tell me because I’m onstage. I mean, I’ve seen Hairpsray a million times in the audience—from the very first table reads in New York to when we were in Seattle for tryouts, all through the Broadway run, London, all over the world—but never have I seen it from the wings when I have a cue to go on. So that made it a different experience for me.

CP: Thinking about the trajectory of your work up to Hairspray, when you were first writing it, could you have imagined it would go to Broadway and the BSO?

JW: Let’s put it this way: I wasn’t Pecker. I wasn’t totally naive. I got Variety since I was 12 years old, so it wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine it, but at the same time, when I made Hairspray, I never thought it was going to be more commercial than the other ones I’ve ever done. I talk about that some at the BSO thing. It was beyond a good idea that a fat girl fights segregation. It was the only kind of subject matter I was obsessed by that didn’t scare normal people. I realized that if I ever made a subversive movie, it was that one, because it snuck all my ideas into the deepest middle-America. They’re doing that show in grade schools and high schools now everywhere. It’s still two men singing a love song to each other. It still encourages teenage integration, something I’m still not sure is such a popular idea. No one ever seems to be put off or threatened by Hairspray. I’m amazed by it, but I think it’s because a fat girl stands for anybody who’s ever not been included.

CP: Are there future plans for Hairspray or is this the final incarnation?

JW: Oh, I wrote a big sequel to it with Hollywood money called White Lipstick about what really happened in the ’60s, but it didn’t happen, and I wrote a TV series that so far hasn’t happened, but you never know. Hairspray keeps being reborn. I’ve always joked that I want it to be on ice. That’s when I’ll finally say it’s retired, when we do the whole show on ice skates.

CP: Are you working on any other film projects now?

JW: Well, I’ve been trying to do Fruitcake for years, but mostly I’m writing my hitchhiking book. That’s the main thing I’m working on. This week I’m going to Aspen to do a gay ski week, that ought to be something. I’ve never done that before.

CP: You’ve really begun to stand out as a writer. Role Models was a great book of profiles.

JW: Thank you. And it did very well. And all my other books, I’m proud to say, have never gone out of print. I was in Finland this year, where Shock Value came out for the second time in Finnish. Amazing to me. Someone said to me there: “This book got me through high school.” I’m like, “In Finland it did? How do you even know who I am?” I can’t say my career has been misunderstood. It really has not.

CP: How did you come up with that plan for the hitchhiking book?

JW: Well, I needed an adventure. It went viral, but I didn’t plan that. I never even confirmed it until I finished the trip. The New York Times was calling my office and I never confirmed it until I got there. And the fact that it went viral never really helped me when I was hitchhiking because I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t—not that I tweet; I don’t—but I couldn’t tweet, “come get me,” because I didn’t know where I was. I was on some entrance ramp. Sometimes you don’t get a ride and stand there for 10 hours.

CP: Did you find on the road that people’s view of Baltimore is really filtered through the lens of John Waters’ films?

JW: Yes, people think of Baltimore as my films, as The Wire, and the films of Barry Levinson. But you know what? All three of those are in some ways documentaries about different parts of Baltimore. I told the cast for this Hairspray—because they’re so excited about coming to do this in Baltimore—you’ll see, I make documentaries. You’ll see people who look like Divine on the corner. It’s not exaggerated. I think I represent it fairly. And wherever I go in the whole world, the first question I get from the smartest people is about how brilliant The Wire is. The Wire is thought of in Europe ten thousand times more highly even than it is in America. And I think Barry’s films, also—Diner and Tin Men—also paint a very realistic portrait of Baltimore. I think Matt Porterfield today is really a great filmmaker. He’s really, really good and his own voice and he is showing Baltimore in a different way but a really great way. I’m a huge fan of his movies.

CP: Do you think the Baltimore you’ve written so much about is changing?

JW: It’s changing for the better in some ways. The stuff that I write about is still there. I have bars that I go to that have not been touched by the world. . . . But I love Hampden. I love that it’s an uneasy mix of old Baltimore and new. I think it’s a perfect way to show Baltimore. I don’t think anywhere has gotten so trendy—well, there’s places, but I don’t go to those places. I don’t want places in Baltimore that remind me of Tribeca. I’ll go to Tribeca. There are a great many places that keep the spirit. And the music scene here is so amazing. Kids really are moving here now from New York, ’cause God knows, no matter what, for your buck, you can get the best housing here of anywhere. Baltimore is jumping right now. My friends who come down from New York love it. We’ve got edge; they don’t.

CP: You mentioned music, any favorite bands?

JW: The obvious ones. I go to the Ottobar a lot. I’m not going to pick one because I know them all. I listen to the new music but I have help. I have youth spies.

CP: That sounds like a new band. You’re also something of a fashion icon.

JW: You should never spend a lot of money on clothes. We have great thrift shops here, always have. You should go buy that thing no one would wear at your school and wear that. Then fashion designers will copy that. It will cost a nickel now in the bottom of the bin at Value Village, but then it will cost $2,000 in New York. So start your own fashion.

CP: Any other advice to City Paper readers?

JW: City Paper paper readers don’t need advice from me, certainly. Because I read City Paper to get advice about what’s the new thing going that I don’t know about. What’s the thing that will surprise me? The City Paper covers local crime well, and I know about new music from City Paper. And your ad campaign, “Get it,” that used to be what every character in all my movies said when they wanted sex—“get it, get it.” And somebody once said to me, “Do you say that?” I said “No, I don’t say that.” But when I see your boxes, I think Edith Massey having sex.

CP: That’s a fine image for us to quit on.

JW: [Laughter.] All right.

Hairspray: In Concert Jan. 24-27 at the BSO. For more information, visit bsomusic.org.

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