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Welcome to the '60s

Brooke Pierce on the Hairspray cast album: bouncy, with great shine and a lasting hold. logo

It's hard to imagine anyone not liking Hairspray. With a fun-loving spirit and a cast that is supremely talented and seemingly having the time of their lives, the show is the definition of a crowd-pleaser. The cast recording, released this week on the Sony Classical label, has the same ebullient spirit; don't be surprised if you find yourself grinning all the way through it.

Based on John Waters's cult film, the show stars Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teen whose perseverance and dancing abilities earn her a slot on everyone's favorite teen music program, The Corny Collins Show. Tracy's twin ambitions then become to win over her crush, Link Larkin, and to racially integrate the Collins show. Keeping this premise from getting too, well, corny was the challenge for the Hairspray team; the job of maintaining a consistent tone for the show falls on the shoulders of composer Marc Shaiman and co-lyricists Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Was there any doubt that it was finally time for Marc Shaiman to write a Broadway musical? He's done extensive work in film and television, turning in effective cabaret parody for the Sweeney Sisters sketches on Saturday Night Live, honing his satirical skills working with Billy Crystal on his Oscar medleys, and then achieving his greatest triumph thus far: the shockingly funny score to the South Park movie. Hairspray is in another vein entirely -- an adoring tribute rather than a parody, sweet instead of vulgar -- but it is proof that Shaiman's got a knack for writing show tunes, as many musical theater fans discovered when they saw South Park.

Of course, if you happen not to like '60s-style doo-wop, R&B, and rock 'n' roll, then forget it -- those styles characterize this entire score. The first singing we hear is Tracy doing the heavily stylized, babyish "Oh, oh, oh" made famous by '60s girl groups; the second tune has Corny Collins's teen dancers uttering the refrain "Bop-bee-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba, bee-ba," followed by a good old-fashioned "na, na, na, na, na, na-na-na-na." But if this kind of nonsense language makes you nervous, never fear, as Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman have written plenty of perfectly coherent words: 17 songs' worth, in fact. The 34-page booklet accompanying the CD includes them all.

Many of Hairspray's songs would work well as stand-alone pop tunes. Numbers like "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" and "I Can Hear the Bells" work terrifically in the context of the show -- the former is sung by teenagers fighting with their moms, while the latter plays out Tracy's fantasy of her romance with and wedding to Link -- but either would have been perfectly at home on the radio in 1962.

Hairspray conjures up memories of singers like Brenda Lee, the Shangri-Las, the Supremes, and Sam Cooke; exuberant numbers like "Welcome to the '60s" and the compulsive, toe-tapping finale "You Can't Stop the Beat" evoke the time period while sounding uniquely Shaimanesque. Most of the songs practically beg you to get up on your feet and dance, but there are a few wonderful love ballads, too: Link's Elvis-inspired solo "It Takes Two," the thrilling "Without Love," and an adorable, old-fashioned duet called "(You're) Timeless To Me", delivered charmingly by Tracy's parents as played by Dick Latessa and the gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein. There's even the inspirational, gospel-style "I Know Where I've Been," sung with soul by Mary Bond Davis. Lest the mood get too heavy, that number is followed by Clarke Thorell as Corny Collins singing a tribute to the titular hair care product, "(It's) Hairspray."

The '60s were a great decade in the history of musical theater and an exhilarating era for pop music. The original Broadway cast recording of Hairspray, offering a bit of both worlds, is well worth a spin.

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