Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Hairspray is a musical movie based up a 1988 movie by John Waters. The movie is driven by Water’s love of his hometown Baltimore. The show begins with a fantastic song--“Good Morning Baltimore”--as Tracy Turnblat makes her way from her row house to school. In just this opening, we get a glimpse into the urban history of the city. For students used to wide open house lots and fields, the tightness of houses in row house settings will be shocking. The houses are, of course, tight to each other with no front yard. Back yards are also small. The point being that cities were built around keeping people as tight together to minimize the transport cost to work.

The postmodern city is based on spreading out based upon the bus and automobile allowing travel to further spots at a time and financial cost that is still minimal versus incomes. The space of the suburb is allowed by the fact that one can still drive to work in an acceptable time and cost; and have a big lot and space between houses.

Row houses come from the time when walking was the transport form, then the horse cart, and streetcar. Incomes were lower and the time factor meant that one stuck homes as close together as possible to the city center, or later to the bus stops.

While small and tight now, they functioned perfectly in the early 1900s and prior. The house also is small inside and has two or more stories. This maximizes land use.

Many cities have row houses as they reflect a time point in the development of cities and transportation. While Baltimore celebrates its row houses, other cities have very few. In Minneapolis there is one small area in the Cedars-Riverside neighborhood that has some left. Minneapolis would have developed at a different time and redevelopment has tended to eliminate this housing type.

And this is just with the opening scene! The film goes on. The racial divides of the 1950s and 1960s are clear. African-Americans and Whites have “their” parts of town, and do not mix. Even integrated dancing on the TV show [a local version of American Bandstand] is shocking and banned. The kids, of course, prevail and the barriers are broken down through the film. The racism, no doubt, seems extreme and even silly to postmodern children used to an integrated world; but the movie is an accurate reflection of its times. Even having African-Americans and Whites on the same TV show was forbidden ground. What would the audience think and what would the sponsors do? That the detention room in a high school was nearly African only amplifies the message.

But Tracy breaks the barriers and the barriers crash though the film. The film becomes a historic record of the 1960s challenge to the racism of the past. A demonstration is met by a police barricade. Even the suggestion of integration forces parents into extreme actions that now seem ridiculous. But they existed and the film brings this out.

The film also establishes the divisive nature of housing discrimination. There are distinct parts of town where those of each race felt real fear over being in the “wrong” place. It works both ways. Unfortunately an issue that does remain in American society.

Hairspray is a movie that combines some great 50s sounds with history and geography lessons; and it is an entertainment gold mine to boot.


“I’m a New Yorker. Fear is my life.” These words from an AIDS patient in Rent tell you alone that musical is taking you deep into the depths of New York City life. With all its bright lights and charisma, New York City has an underbelly of degradation, loathing, sorrow, and sin. And, Rent tries to show it all.

Rent is La Boheme with Mimi as a pole dancing, stripper. Rudolpho becomes Roger, a down and out musician with AIDS. The setting is not the classy poverty of Paris, but the streets of New York City’s broken society. Urban New York City is unclean and dirty. It is in such disrepair it clouds the vision and dreams of those who see it. It is a place of row house tenants who ride the infamous subways.

Even songs like “Tango Maureen” bring the frustrations together. The tango is a moody dance of dark tones; sultry, but dominated by remoteness and grey. It is not a dance done with a smile, but rather a hard face stiffened by life and cultural decline

Rent is filled with sex, drugs, bondage, lesbianism, transexualism, AIDS, heroin use, and massive multiculturalism. It is filled with a sense of alienation actually common in Broadway’s biggest hits; from “Old Man River” in Showboat, to “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” in South Pacific, to “America” in West Side Story. If you can’t see the isolation and cold in Le Miserables, you are not watching and listening very well. Broadway’s hits often play to the sense of alienation in American society.

Of course, like the dancing hoods in West Side Story, it does take work to accept drug addicts and outcasts singing and dancing; but like West Side Story, it is worth it. And you get to see the underbelly of the glitter that is New York City.