In the musical “Hairspray,” mother and daughter are conniving and ruthless. The show opens Saturday in Torrance
During rehearsal breaks, Megan Davis would go up to her fellow cast members and apologize: “I’m sorry I’m so mean!”
Amanda Webb comes to her colleague’s defense, as well as her own: “Both of us are really nice in real life.”
Maybe. But you’re going to hear it right here first: They’re villains! Both of them!
At least in the musical “Hairspray,” that is, in which Davis plays Amber von Tussle and Webb performs as Velma von Tussle. The year is 1962, the place is Baltimore, and Amber is something of a spoiled brat with Velma her snooty mother. While Amber is a prissy sorority girl in the making, Velma is one of the key producers of the Corny Collins show, a music-and-dance TV program for teens, the likes of which were popular (remember “Shindig” or “Hullabaloo”?) during that boisterous decade.
“Hairspray” is a bit like “Little Shop of Horrors” without the man-eating plant, specifically in its colorful outfits, crazy hairstyles, and cartoonish humor. Add to that the fact that “Hairspray” emerged from the cyclonic mind of film director John Waters and then, as a musical, grabbed eight Tony Awards in 2003.
At face value, the narrative is rather implausible. Tracy Turnblad is a plump teenager who longs to shake it up with the other boys and girls on Corny’s show, and of course is scoffed at when she auditions. After all, the regulars are uniformly fair-skinned and slim as pencils. The star attraction is singer-guitarist Link Larkin, every girl’s dream, what a heartthrob, but Link is linked with Amber, Miss Stuck-Up. In short order, though, Tracy will win Link’s affections and desegregate the Corny Collins show–despite efforts by both Amber and Velma to make Tracy’s life a total wreck.
“She’s one of my best friends,” Davis says of the actress who plays Tracy Turnblad. “It’s a lot of fun disliking each other. We laugh at it.”
Slipping into character
Although Amanda Webb didn’t set her sights on any one role, Megan Davis says she specifically auditioned for the part of Amber. I didn’t want to bring this up, but if you apply for the “villain” role, and then get it, shouldn’t you be a little suspicious? Wouldn’t you ask yourself, Why did they really give me this part?
“I’ve actually played one villain before,” Davis says, “and I had the best time with it. It’s so much fun being completely different than who you are.”
Possibly you’ll be typecast after this, I tell her.
“Oh, gosh,” she says, laughing, with a big I-hope-not expression.
It’s pointed out to both of them that sometimes an actor will get so much into their role that it takes a while after the run of the show for them to completely disassociate themselves from their character.
“Yeah, some people get in trouble like that,” Davis replies. “I remember the research, I was like, ‘Oh, my, I’m not going to say this; but I have to.’ You just have to realize it’s not you, it’s the character. It’s really far out from reality, but you have to make it your reality.”
Webb concurs, and says that the character has to be grounded in the reality of the situation in the show.
On the other hand, although mother (Velma) and daughter (Amber) stand in for society’s reactionaries and conservatives who are happy with the status quo (“They’re afraid of change,” Webb says), they’re also parodies of their real-life counterparts.
“The characters are extraordinarily over the top,” Webb adds. “That’s part of musical theater.”
Speaking of way over the top, Davis describes the show as “a great fun piece, and it’s also huge.” Pause. “Huge like my wig.” Set out on a table, these hairpieces are indeed formidable attractions.
“I’m excited to wear my wig,” Webb says. “I’ll be a blonde for the first time in my life.
“When you put on the costume and the heels and the wig and the makeup,” she continues, “it transforms you, and helps you get more into character. The way I walk… everything changes.”
The mask, once removed
Megan Davis went to school for musical theater at Indiana University, but she’s been living in Manhattan Beach. Although she herself didn’t attend Mira Costa High School, her brother and sister are students there. Davis has been performing on stage since she was 12, and her intention is to keep acting, perhaps getting into TV or film as well. It could be there’s a Cruella Deville role somewhere that’s waiting for her. After all, she’s certainly quite expressive:
“In my character (as Amber) I’ve noticed that I’m using more facial expressions than I’ve probably used in my life, because I’m staring and I’ve giving this evil look. And then I come off stage and I’m like, oh my gosh, my face is numb!”
Amanda Webb, on the other hand, lived in and went to school in New York City, and at her university she majored in voice. She moved out to the West Coast about two years ago and has already performed several times with the Torrance Theatre Company. Six shows, she says, with “Hairspray” her second musical.
Unlike her “evil daughter,” Webb’s theatrical ambitions are down to earth.
“I just do it for fun now, and it’s a lot more fun for me that way.”
And yet the theater, Webb emphasizes, is a good outlet for her creative energies. She’s thankful to have a day job that enables her to lead a very different kind of life at night and on weekends.
Breaking the color barrier
“Hairspray” can come across as frivolous and a waste of time, and maybe it is. And yet…
“There’s this underlying tone and meanings that are really serious, like segregation,” Davis says. “Taking the perspective on being the villain, I find it very important to have this side of the story too, so it can impact people more.”
Remember, “Hairspray” takes place in Baltimore, recently in the news for police excess and civilian unrest.
“We talked about it at the first rehearsal,” Davis says, “about how relevant an issue it is.”
“People are still fighting for these rights,” Webb says, “and this is still an issue. There’s so much you can learn in this musical. It won’t end; these issues will continue forever.”
Or as Davis puts it, the show is “fun to watch, but also very important to watch.”
“You’ll have this really fun, silly dance number and then you’ll be into this emotional piece that’s all about change and making the changes,” Webb says. “Which I didn’t know going in. I knew roughly what this musical’s about, but some of that didn’t really hit me until I was rehearsing it and then, oh, wow, I can see how watching this would be a whole other journey.”
“And we’re all pushing ourselves,” Davis says. “To do this show well, and make an impact, you have to go full force. This is one of those shows where it’s a whole production. Every single song’s a production. You never stop.”
Indeed, and “Hairspray” often takes some hairpin curves,with great comic asides from Tracy Turnblad’s mother (always played by a man). On a sociological level, Tracy finds herself drawn to the more emotive and less rigid dance moves of the black community. While it may be hard to imagine her as a crusader for equal rights, she nonetheless takes up the cause and valiantly attempts to permanently integrate the racial makeup of the Corny Collins show. Truly, the times were changing, and in the end there was nothing that the Ambers or the Velmas could do about it, just as more recently the right to legal marriage has been extended to all Americans regardless of their genders past, present, or future.
Since the two of you play the villains of the piece, have you noticed the rest of the cast treating you a little differently?
“Outside of rehearsal?” Davis replies. “Nooooo.”
“They know we’re kidding,” Webb says.
Well, that’s what you think!
(I’m joking, of course. Both women were a ton of fun to talk with and I’m sure they’ll do a great job–even though we’ll have to boo and hiss when they take their bows. After all, they’re the villains!)
Hairspray opens Saturday at 8 p.m. in the James Armstrong Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance. Additional performances: Sunday at 2 p.m., plus Saturday, August 15, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, August 16, at 2 p.m.; and also Friday, August 21, and Saturday, August 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets, $35 general; $30 students with ID and seniors; $25 children 12 and under. (310) 781-7171 or go to torrancetheatrecompany.com.