As well as "the bubblegum-style sixties fun of the show," Hairspray, the musical, has a strong anti-racist message, says director, Joseph Walsh, who is delighted to be working on the show for the Cork Opera House. The Boston native directed The King and I at the Cork Opera House seven years ago
The show is about a plump teenager, Tracy Turnblad’s ambition to dance on The Corny Collins Show on TV. When Turnblad (played by Nancy Hill from the UK) wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity. She goes on to launch a campaign to introduce racial integration to the TV show. Hairspray is a social commentary on the injustices common to parts of American society in the 1960s.
“I love Hairspray and always wanted an opportunity to direct it,” says Walsh. “There’s something for everybody in it. It has great heart and it’s funny. But for me, the most important thing is its strong social message. Aside from being a story about racism, it’s also about love and about accepting yourself. Once you know who you are, you can accept other people. That’s the story I want to tell. There are also wonderful jokes and gags, amazing dance and song numbers. I think people are going to leave the show on cloud nine and then the next day, they’ll think about something that happened in the show. I hope they reflect on it and realise that it’s a lot deeper than what they initially thought. I saw the original production on Broadway and I don’t think I’ve ever left the theatre feeling so euphoric. I just wanted it to start all over again.”
When it came to casting the musical, Walsh says he was “pleasantly surprised” at the level of talent in Cork. “I spent ten days casting it, mostly with Cork-based performers. We did one day in London because of the specific requirements of the show. Because it’s multi-ethnic, we needed a strong black ensemble. I love the fact that the cast has come from all over.”
Walsh says that the themes in the show are timeless. “Unfortunately, there is still the necessity for civil rights movements. I spoke to the cast about my grandmother being an Irish immigrant in Boston at a time when ‘no Irish need apply’ for jobs. She was left a single mother of five and couldn’t get work because she was Irish. We’ve had the civil rights movements for both blacks and whites. Now there are gay rights movements in the world. Until the oppression of people who are different stops, shows like Hairspray will always be far more than just a laugh.”
Walsh and Cork-based black American singer, Karen Underwood (who plays Motormouth Mabel in the musical) have been talking to the cast about America’s shameful history of discriminating against black people.
“Some of the cast didn’t understand what exactly it was like. I hope they get as much out of the time we have together as audiences get from the show every night.”
-Hairspray is at the Cork Opera House from July 26-August 23.
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