The women of Hairspray on racism, sexism and having to hustle

There’s not a lot of work for people of colour in big, commercial stage shows in Australia, says Asabi Goodman, who makes her mainstream debut in Hairspray the Musical this month. “You have to just hustle; there’s a lot of hustle,” she says. The African-American singer and actor, who moved to Brisbane from the US 14 years ago, has performed in bands and choirs since she was six years old but cracking the main stages proved far tougher.

As Motormouth Maybelle, the role made famous by Queen Latifah in the movie and ’60s singer Darlene Love on Broadway, Goodman has some of the biggest numbers in the show, which makes it even more remarkable that this is her first foray into the spotlight.

“A lot of the productions I do, it’s quite specific, [they say] ‘we need a person of colour in this role’, so I don’t do a lot of theatrical performances that don’t call for that specific casting type,” she says, adding that it’s frustrating to say the least. “I’m like, I can play Snow White! And it’s like, ‘No, you can’t.’”

From left, Asabi Goodman, Rhonda Burchmore and Carmel Rodrigues embrace the powerhouse women of Hairspray.Credit:Wayne Taylor

That said, Goodman sees change afoot, with productions such as Hamilton that are deliberately not “race specific” leading the way, hopefully heralding in a new era in musical theatre.

It’s a pertinent anecdote, given segregation is one of Hairspray’s core themes. Set during the civil rights era, in the early ’60s, it’s a love story centred around a teenage television dance show. Many of the themes are as relevant today as they were back then — being true to oneself, body positivity, the need for kindness and acceptance and following your dreams. As well as universal messages, it has great dancing, humour and a nostalgic appeal with fabulous ’60s music, dancing and costumes.

First staged on Broadway in 2002, the show played 2642 performances before closing in 2009, winning eight Tony Awards, including best musical. An adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film, it features music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman and a book by Thomas Meehan. The Australian production is directed by Jack O’Brien, whose last show was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Choreography is by Jerry Mitchell of Kinky Boots fame, with John Frost as producer.

John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in the 2007 film of Hairspray.

Shane Jacobson undergoes an extraordinary makeover to play Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad — John Travolta in the 2007 film. Todd McKenney is Wilbur Turnblad and Rob Mills is TV host Corny Collins. But female characters dominate the storyline: Carmel Rodrigues as Tracy Turnblad, Goodman as Motormouth Maybelle and Rhonda Burchmore as Velma Von Tussle.

Asabi Goodman, Rhonda Burchmore and Carmel Rodrigues star in Hairspray.Credit:Jeff Busby

That role-modelling is critical, says Rodrigues, who used to teach “tiny tots” to sing and perform. She hopes the show inspires young girls to think big. “They can choose to be anything they want to be,” she says. “Even with Von Tussle, even though she’s the antagonist, she is running the TV studio. She’s still a woman in a position of power.”

Goodman argues women being front and centre in the show makes complete sense. “It speaks truth to history: women have typically been on the forefront of change, in civil rights and in women’s rights; I feel that the show really captures that and puts that straightforward.”

In keeping with a tradition that began on Broadway and continued on the West End, the role of Tracy is filled by a relative unknown. Making her commercial debut in the Australian musical is Sydney-based 23-year-old Rodrigues, who, when told the role was hers, initially thought it was a prank. She appeared as a 16-year-old in 2016 as a semi-finalist on season five of The Voice and studied at the Sister 2 Sister School of Singing for eight years, where she now teaches. Her aunt saw Shane Jacobson interviewed on television, saying they were scouting for someone to fill the role, which is how she ended up auditioning.

Rodrigues admits that growing up, she was sheltered from racism and discrimination. “It’s only just now I’m starting to learn these issues do exist,” she says. “I was quite oblivious to it — I knew things were happening but I didn’t watch the news much; my parents would protect me from it.

“Now I’m 23 and starting to learn things. It’s affecting me a lot. We had some diversity training the other day. It hit real hard. I was just crying because I don’t want to be a bystander any more.

“To learn from it, we need to confront it. We need to confront the issue of segregation and integration head-on. That’s what I love about Tracy, she’s so determined and confident, she’s sure, ‘This is going to work, I can see it in my head’.”

Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma in the film remake of John Waters’ Hairspray.

Burchmore plays the glamorous villain Von Tussle, the character played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the film version. “[She’s] an equivalent to Cruella de Ville,” Burchmore says. “There’s so much wrong with her. She’s so politically incorrect, she ticks every box.

“Velma is the one who is anti-everything, anti-change … she is just larger than life and everything that was wrong with those women back then. They were like Stepford wives, perfectly groomed all the time; they did whatever they had to to get where they wanted and stepped on anyone who got in their way.

“I’m channelling a few people who have been quite hideous to me throughout my life.”

Goodman’s Maybelle is an absolute powerhouse. Is it daunting playing a role made famous by such superstars as Darlene Love and Queen Latifah? Absolutely, she says. “This being my first big commercial production … I think I’ve always had a little bit of fear. It is unbelievable and I’m just happy every day. You audition for years and then you finally crack it, and you think, ‘Am I actually good enough? Is it going to be OK?’ You’re with the likes of Rhonda Burchmore and Todd McKenney, it’s like, how did I get here? It’s so amazing.”

Burchmore says Goodman has several killer numbers in the show, including I Know Where I’ve Been. “And she sings the dickens out of it. I get quite emotional watching it.”

Rodrigues chimes in: “She made me cry when she sang [it].”

Working with the next generation of performers is a great joy for Burchmore, Australian musical theatre royalty. Being back in a show with a big cast and such a great storyline is also a thrill. “I’ve been here … forever,” she says with a laugh. “I’m celebrating 40 years in the industry and it’s great to watch the younger cast. Some of the talent in that room and the energy is amazing.”

Speaking about performing in Hairspray in 2005, Darlene Love told NPR that for her, the musical was a case of life imitating art. “It’s a lot of fun for me to be in it because I tell everybody it’s like reliving my life the whole time I’m on stage. Back in the ’60s I was with a group called the Blossoms and we did a television show called Shindig! and they did not want us on the show because we were black. And that same thing happened in Hairspray. They don’t want black children on a white TV show.”

It’s an echo of what happened in Australia, where diversity on our television screens continues to be an issue.

While Goodman has not experienced racism in Australia, she has witnessed it. “Because I am not First Nations — which is where Australians tend to direct their racism — I’m seen as different. I haven’t personally experienced any true racism while I’ve been in Australia but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it delivered to other people.

“Working on Pirates of the Caribbean, there were a number of African-Americans cast as the maid, even though we knew we were the slaves. One of the things we talked about was that the weight of all the stereotypes and the belief systems that we get back in the States were lifted, because no one thought of us that way. It’s a different sort of dislike,” she says. “We just don’t have that weight of the stereotypes hanging over us here, that’s why a lot of my friends who are African-Americans stay here. You just feel freer.”

For her, the Black Lives Matter movement and other key events in the United States have had a strong knock-on effect in her adopted home. “In the last two years, the thing that’s changed is the fact that we are talking about it more,” Goodman says. “[People are saying], yes, we did this, we’re acknowledging, we’re adding the history back in. We’re finally … discussing, trying to heal those wounds.”

Hairspray The Musical is at the Regent Theatre from August 7.

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