Why Is Edna Always Played By A Man In 'Hairspray'? NBC's Live Musical Keeps This Tradition Going
Since 2013, NBC has made its live musical into a December tradition that viewers look forward to every year — and Wednesday night's Hairspray Live! is no exception. The show also continues another time-honored tradition of the musical itself: the role of Edna Turnblad is played by a man — Harvey Fierstein reprises the character he played in the Broadway version and for which he won a Tony. But why is Tracy's mom always played by a man in Hairspray and not a woman? The origins of this casting choice can be traced to the original 1988 John Waters movie Hairspray that started it all.
In the '80s musical film, drag performer and frequent Waters collaborator Divine played the role of shy mom Edna Turnblad to Ricki Lake's Tracy. When the film was adapted for Broadway and premiered in 2002. Fierstein auditioned and won the role for the Broadway production with Waters' blessing, according to The Advocate in 2002, a casting choice that seemed to cement the tradition of Edna being played by a man. "From the moment they offered the role I knew that Edna was not a drag role," Fierstein wrote in Playbill in 2003. "While paying homage to this wonderful performer [Divine], I needed to create an Edna all my own."
But Waters wrote in Variety in 2007 that even he is unsure of how the tradition started. "Edna Turnblad isn’t a drag-queen part," the director wrote in the publication. "It has become a tradition for men to play her, as with Peter Pan, where it is always played by a woman. Why, I don’t know. It gives it an edge." According to The Baton Rouge Advocate, though, there is no definite rule that Edna must be played by a man. The New York Times reported that the Broadway version director Jack O'Brien said that Edna is "a female character whose DNA ... requires that she be played by a male — the cosmic opposite of Peter Pan."
The tradition carried on with actors such as Michael McKean, Bruce Vilanch, Blake Hammond, and George Wendt playing Edna on Broadway. In the 2007 movie version of Hairspray, John Travolta took on the role, which was a task the Grease actor took very seriously, he told the New York Times. "I didn’t want it to be ‘John Travolta plays Edna,’" he said to the newspaper in 2007. "That’s not interesting. It had to be something I could go all the way with, disappear in, like I did in the Bill Clinton role in Primary Colors or in Saturday Night Fever."
The 2007 movie version was produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who are also the executive producers of NBC's Hairspray Live! In 2007, the Chicago Tribune reported that Meron said Travolta was cast as Edna in order to continue the tradition of the musical, which has continued years later in the NBC live version of the musical.
Though this casting choice could be problematic depending on how the character is portrayed, and Newsweek questioned whether it's inherently misogynistic, Hairspray Live! seems to see it as more of a tradition. And considering his history with the role, Fierstein was a solid choice to play Edna in the NBC musical.
Images: Trae Patton, Colleen Hayes/NBC