Hairspray: 'The Beat' goes on

Austin gets its first blast of Hairspray via a new national tour, and director Matt Lenz explains what makes this musical such a crowd-pleaser

©2006 Chris Bennion
©2006 Chris Bennion

Matt Lenz knows Hairspray. He ought to, considering that he's served as associate director for the Broadway, Vegas, and Toronto productions of the musical based on John Waters' film, as well as the first national tour. Which pretty much makes him the go-to guy for new incarnations of the Tony-winning show. As the Equity tour wrapped up almost three years on the road in June, who was at the helm of the new non-Equity tour ramping up to take its place? Who else?

The tour landed in Austin this week, straight from its launch in Atlantic City. But we're seeing considerably more Hairspray than the casino crowds, since Harrah's wanted the show just 90 minutes, no intermission. (Gotta get the gamblers back to the tables!) So Lenz came down with it to see this company play the full version for the first time. Given the director's familiarity with the city – his sister lives here; his partner grew up here; he's directed Dirty Blonde, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and Aida at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center – you can bet the visit will be as much pleasure as business. Lenz chatted with the Chronicle about Hairspray and how he keeps working it.

Austin Chronicle: Were you ever skeptical about a John Waters movie making it as a mainstream Broadway musical?

Matt Lenz: Yes. I was mildly familiar with the movie. I had seen it when it first came out. My first exposure to the Broadway show was a reading that the director, Jack O'Brien, had invited me to. I walked into the room, and people had started to learn the music, and I thought, "This is one of the best scores I've ever heard." And then when they were reading the book, people were falling over with laughter. So my doubts were quickly assuaged.

AC: What's the biggest challenge for you in reproducing the show for touring?

ML: I'm so inside of the show. I know it so well. This is the fifth company I've worked on, so the challenge for me is to make sure we're keeping it true, keeping the tone intact. It's so funny and irreverent and subversive, and it can easily spiral off into cartoonland, so my challenge is to keep the truth of it.

AC: What's the moment that wins over even the toughest crowd every night?

ML: I'll give you two answers. The more obvious answer is "You Can't Stop the Beat." The whole evening is this freight train that builds up to that ending. And I think it's just about as fun and irresistible as the finale of any musical ever written. Sometimes I love to walk down the side aisle and just look at people's faces while it's going on. But with this particular company, there's a scene where it's just Tracey on stage, and it's one of the smallest moments in the show. It's a very, very simple moment, right after she's auditioned to be on the Corny Collins Show, [the kids have rejected her,] and Tracey says, "Why do they have to be so mean?" There's something about Brooklynn [Pulver], who plays Tracey in this production, that just has us rooting for this little girl. And then, bam! She's right back on the horse, her ball-of-fire self again.

The show is kind of difficult to describe to people. It's a little of this and a little of this, and if they've seen the advertising, they know that it has this Sixties vibe, and they know that it's a good time. But it's the sweet and the tender and the heart that surprises people. They know they're going to have a lively, fun experience, but if we do our job, they're also going to have some real lump-in-the-throat moments, too.

Hairspray continues through Sept. 17, Thursday-Sunday, at Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus. For more information, call 471-1444 or visit

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Hairspray, Matt Lenz, touring productions, Broadway musicals, Brooklynn Pulver

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