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Hairspray - Neil Meron and Craig Zadan interview

Michelle Pfeiffer in Hairspray

Interview by Rob Carnevale

HAIRSPRAY producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan talk about attracting John Travolta to the role and why they think musicals remain a very valid film genre…

Q. Who made the phone call to John Travolta and how was it put to him?
Neil Meron: We had offered John the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago not once but three times and he turned it down. After the movie opened he took us to drinks and said: “Why did you let me pass? You should have insisted I met the director, you should have insisted that I hear more about it.” He also said that one of the reasons he passed was he thought that the best roles in Chicago were played by women [laughs]. So, then when we signed on for Hairspray he was really the first and only choice to play Edna.

Craig Zadan: The process took one year and two months because after he said “yes” we checked the calendar and it took exactly that time. A lot of people thought he was scared to play the woman and wear the dress. But from day one he said it was nothing to do with that part, it was that: “I’ve been living for the last 30 years in the shadow of Grease and my fear has always been, how do I follow it up? How do I live up to Grease? I’m panic-stricken I’ll do another musical and fall on my face, so I have to be very careful.” However, by being careful he turned everything down for 30 years. It took that long to get him to say “yes” but once he did, he jumped in with both feet.

Q. Can you tell us about getting John Waters [the original Hairspray director] to cameo as a flasher?
Neil Meron: Well, John when we all came on board gave Adam the greatest freedom and said: “Make it your own!” He did read the script and he was on the phone with Adam. Actually, Adam gave him a tour of Baltimore before we started filming and so he began to authenticate everything that was being done. We always had John’s blessing. He sent us the greatest email after he’d seen the completed film. He said: “Thank you for making me a happy grandfather.”

Craig Zadan: What happened was that Adam [Shankman] and Neil [Meron] sat down and made a list of parts that he could possibly play. And John said: “I really don’t want to come in and take a big role, I actually would love to play the flasher because it’s typecasting.” He also loved the idea of starting a movie and being in the first moments, so therefore he was saying to everyone he condoned the movie and loved it.

Q. What do you think about the current revival of musicals?
Neil Meron: Hairspray is different because in recent musicals, everyone is kind of making an excuse for breaking into song, whereas Hairspray is more a no excuse, balls out movie musical. So it does hark back to the classic musicals of the 60s and we’re thrilled to be able to do that. It’s just an all out singing spectacular.

It’s really been our contention that movie musicals were a very, very valid movie genre and the fact that people turned off to them was not because they just turned off to movie musicals, it was because they weren’t very good. If you did something that was entertaining and gave you uplift, people would show up. Hopefully, with Hairspray they will.

Craig Zadan: If you all think the movie works, the reason it does is because of Adam Shankman. The reason that musicals have failed in the past and in the last couple of years is because you really need somebody that understands the genre. Adam started as a dancer, then became a choreographer and then a film director has every bit of skill in every single area to pull it all together and create what you see on the screen. You could take dozens of other directors who are talented filmmakers but who cannot make a movie musical. The way to make it explode on-screen is Adam’s talent – and that’s why the movie works.

Read our review of the soundtrack