'Hairspray' creating Broadway buzz

Adaptation of John Waters movie garners rave reviews, even before critics see it

— Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Nathan Lane have already seen it. So has Bette Midler, but then she's an investor.

Danny DeVito and Yoko Ono are on tap for next Thursday, and we haven't even gotten to the musical-theater groupies who have bombarded Internet chat rooms with their opinions, most of which range from rave to rave to rave.

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AP Photo

Actor Harvey Fierstein, right, and Marissa Jaret Winokur are shown performing in a scene from "Hairspray" in New York. The buzz is building for "Hairspray," and although the $10.5 million musical is still in previews and doesn't open at the Neil Simon Theatre until Aug. 15, its already being burbled about as "the next 'Producers,'" Broadway's hottest show.

The buzz is building for "Hairspray," and although the $10.5 million musical is still in previews and doesn't open at the Neil Simon Theatre until Aug. 15, it's already being burbled about as "the next 'Producers,"' Broadway's hottest show. Critics won't see it until close to the opening.

"It's wild. I can't believe what's happening," said producer Margo Lion, who came up with the idea for a stage version of John Waters' campy movie about a pudgy teen's obsession with a TV dance show in 1960s Baltimore. "And most of it has been word of mouth."

At Friday's sold-out performance, you could hear a contented hum.

"The people were like little bees," said JoEllen Kitchen of Pasadena, Calif. "The audience walked in knowing they were going to have a good time � and they did."

Ticket phenomenon

That contentment has translated into growing ticket sales. Before previews began July 18, the show � which has a top ticket price of $95 � was pulling in $40,000 to $50,000 a day, according to Lion. A week later, the daily figures had climbed to over $200,000. On Friday, the box office took in $330,000. Lion said the musical now has a $6 million advance ticket sale, and that could double by opening night.

Not bad for a musical with no stars � except perhaps Harvey Fierstein, who has inherited the role of full-figured Edna Turnblad, played in the film by Divine. To portray Edna's daughter, perky Tracy Turnblad, Lion chose Marissa Jaret Winokur, who achieved minor cult status by uttering one of the biggest laugh lines in the Academy Award-winning film "American Beauty" � "You are so busted."

Out-of-town reviews in Seattle, where "Hairspray" played in June, were enthusiastic, setting the stage for chat room frenzy and growing media interest, including an upcoming segment on NBC's "Today."

"This will be the longest theater piece they have ever done," chirped Richard Kornberg, the musical's relentless publicist.

Web sites have been exhausting in their comments. Log onto www.talkingbroadway.com, for example, and you will find review after review, with most of the critics saying they can't wait to see it again.

The music's the thing

Lion and her army of other producers (they number more than a dozen) also initiated an innovative marketing campaign. They mailed 325,000 CD samplers, containing three songs from the show, to potential ticket buyers whose names were culled from various mailing lists.

"We made the decision early on that the easiest promotional tool was the music," said Lion, praising the pop-flavored score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The sampler also allowed recipients to purchase tickets at a discount. This direct-mail effort cost more than $200,000, but the return has been over $1 million so far, she says.

And there are other promotions, according to Kornberg, who is more than just the show's press agent. Together with three friends, he invested $40,000 in the show.

Bloomingdale's will sell "Hairspray"-inspired clothing in five of its stores, including two in the New York area, he said, adding it's the first time they're promoting plus sizes.

The producers also invited 120 hair stylists to see the musical during its early previews. "If you wanted to build word of mouth, who else could spread the word more effectively?" Kornberg said.

Even the show's cast recording will be pressed into service earlier than usual. It has already been recorded and will be released by Sony Classical on Aug. 13, two days before the opening.

Still, Lion believes the show's universal appeal will be its biggest selling tool.

Early on, Lion sent Nancy Coyne � who runs Serino, Coyne (a theatrical ad agency) � a copy of the songs. Coyne told Lion the show would be huge, appealing not only to those who grew up in the '60s but to young people as well.

"And she's right," Lion said. "There aren't that many shows parents and children, not to mention adolescents, can all enjoy."

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