Iconic drag queen Divine was the first actor to take on the role of the colorful, plus-sized, all-knowing Edna in 1988's Hairspray. The casting was provocative and a game-changer. Over the course of time, the story was revived in the Broadway adaption, the 2007 film, and 2016's Hairspray Live! by NBC. Edna's role not only became a tradition, but a legend. Since Divine, Harvey Fierstein played Edna on Broadway (and reprised the role in Hairspray Live!) and John Travolta in the film remake. Hairspray Live!'s executive producer Craig Zadan (who also produced the 2007 film), has addressed the tradition, comparing it to that of casting a female for Peter Pan. At The Paley Center's new exhibit "The Art and Artistry of Hairspray Live!" (open through May 21) in Los Angeles, I speak with Zadan about that tradition and why the casting is anything but misogynistic.
In a piece by Newsweek upon release of the 2007 film, the question, "Why is it still OK for male actors to wear dresses?" is raised. It argues that it wouldn't be acceptable for actors to dress or look like another race, so why is gender an exception? Zadan tells me that beyond tradition, this choice represents freedom, fantasy, and a celebration of women.
"People would kill you if you did a woman playing that role," he says. "It’s not the same piece," he says. "I think you enter a world of Baltimore in the '60s and once you see that character played by a man, you know you're sort of in Oz, a different world. Once a woman is playing a woman, it doesn’t take you out of the reality and bring you into the fantasy of it." The 1988 film pushed the boundary, and the adaptions pay homage to that.
Zadan says each actor has their own special take on portraying Edna. "John Travolta’s vision was that... he was not a guy. He wanted you to look at that character and see a woman," he explains. Fierstein, on the other hand, wants the audience to know he's a man playing a woman. These opposing concepts is what made Zadan want to bring both to life.
"I don’t find it misogynistic, especially because the people playing the part love it so much and the characters so much," he says. "Nobody wants to do anything that’s awful to women. They are doing it as a tribute to women." In fact, Travolta took inspiration from his sister when playing the part. "He said, ‘My sister wore this and wore that.’ He was trying to dress in ways that his sister did when he grew up."
Zadan respects and admires the role as much as the actors who play it. "It’s done with love. It’s iconic," he says.
By now, it's clear that Edna will live on as pop culture legend and it will be an honor for any actor who gets to play her in the future.