Theater News

Shaiman and Wittman Close Up Hairspray Loophole Allowing for All-White Cast

The writing team has addressed a situation that Shaiman says has “gnawed at me for years.”

A scene from NBC's live broadcast of Hairspray
A scene from NBC's live broadcast of Hairspray
(© Justin Lubin/NBC)

Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, alongside licensing organization Music Theater International, have closed up a casting loophole that has previously allowed for non-diverse productions of their musical Hairspray. The news was first reported by the website OnStage Blog and then separately confirmed by Shaiman in an email to TheaterMania.

While non-diverse productions of Hairspray were never encouraged, if theaters chose to present the musical, which deals extensively with racial segregation and the civil rights movement, in that way, production contracts stipulated that "the use of makeup to portray black characters in your production (e.g., blackface)" is strictly prohibited, and that each production could elect to present a statement from Shaiman, Wittman, late book writers Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, and film creator John Waters, discussing the choice. That letter can be read here.

In a comment addressing the situation to Onstage Blog, Shaiman said, "Since a major part of Hairspray is about fighting against the idea that someone could not be on a show because of their race, it seemed wrong that Hairspray would deny someone the chance to be in a show…BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE! While it always seemed like common sense to us that people would choose to put on Hairspray with the knowledge that they could perform the show as written, we were naive. But, to state what I hope to be the obvious, we never ENCOURAGED an all-white production."

Admitting that it was a "casting conundrum that has been an issue that all the authors of Hairspray have wrested with for some time," Shaiman also said that it "gnawed at me for years." Going forward, Music Theater International will now be "requiring groups to cast the show so as to accurately reflect the characters as we wrote them. A show that specifically addresses one aspect of the black experience during the civil rights battles of the early 1960s deserves to have its characters accurately and appropriately portrayed on stage."

With a Tony-winning score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and a Tony-winning book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight Baltimore teen with dreams of landing a spot on a TV dance show and bringing racial integration with her. The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2002, is based on the 1988 film by John Waters.