The Hairspray Problem: Is Feel-Good in Musicals What Matters?

Anton Spivack

Yes, a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down, but there is a fine line between medicine and a sugar pill.

By Anton Spivack

When I saw this video on Youtube about how to choose a high school musical, one commenter listed a set of guidelines.

One of which rang particularly true:

“it has to address a social issue in order to be pedagogical, but the addressed issue can’t be too controversial. A struggle of a bygone era, like the civil rights movement is a good topic, that way mummy and daddy can give themselves a pat on the back about how far society’s come without having to think about the problems it currently has”

This calls to mind musicals like Hairspray, a massive Broadway hit that has since become a popular choice for school musicals. On the surface it denounces segregation and presents a world where racial barriers are easily shattered, usually thanks to a white person without a racist bone their body.

However, with all its intents and purposes, its message has not held up well in the wake of Black Lives Matter. What musicals like Hairspray purport to say boils down to “racism bad, different good,” which comes off as shallow at best, patronizing and self-congratulatory at worst. This would not be such a problem if this were not the common approach taken by most narratives addressing race relations.

Such plays, films and television series focus squarely on the past to distance the predominantly white audience from today’s racial struggles, creating the impression that things are not as bad as they once were, and to make clear distinctions between the good white people who embrace outsiders and the bad white people who snub them and spout epithets that would repel even the staunchest conservatives.

Also, they focus on more overt forms of racism, such as discrimination, while ignoring the more insidious forms, like microaggressions. The overall goal is not to confront the viewers but reassure them, as if to say, “hey not all white people in those days were racists, and you would have been one of the good ones, so give yourself a hand, you are officially more enlightened than the next person!”

This is because the creators are aiming for mass appeal, which means going easy on the social content. Not so much that it repels them, just enough so they can pride themselves on attending and still feel good about themselves. When you see kids of different races joyously dancing together you don’t have to think about the fact that, as this article articulates, since the civil rights movement things haven’t improved all that much, if any, for BIPOC.

While we do not have segregated bathrooms these days, Black people are facing voter suppression and killed by the police, and White America cares more about the riots and looting than the inherent racism that provoked it. Of course, this sort of unsettling reality does not play on cruise ships. The 2007 film adaptation of Hairspray did try to address this by including a song called “Come So Far (Got So Far to Go),” however this comes off as half-hearted as the lyrics have no mention of racial justice. Not to mention the big eleven o’clock number, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which focuses on the hardships Black people have struggled to overcome without indicting those who have caused it.

This not only applies to racial issues. Several weeks ago, I wrote an essay about a certain number from The Prom, “Love Thy Neighbor,” which, aside from being hokey and a pat solution to religious bigotry, still reinforces the idea of The Bible as the last word on right and wrong.

The responses I have received fall along the lines of “if it had been more critical it wouldn’t attract as big a crowd” and that changing this song would affect the overall tone of the show, though no one quite explained how. Not to mention, as I pointed out in my essay about the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the NTs who agreed to stage it sacrificed my own story on the altar of broad appeal and reassuring the dominant culture instead of calling them out.

The lines are clearly drawn: feel-good versus controversial, general audience versus niche market, cutesy aphorisms versus critical examination. Yes, a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down, but there is a fine line between medicine and a sugar pill.

I am not saying that such works are bad, or that you should not like them, I do find them enjoyable. All I am saying is that if you must choose between honesty and attracting the great unwashed masses, keep in mind how your message will come across and whose voices are and are not heard.

Anton Spivack

Anton Spivack is a native New Yorker who writes, acts, sings, and cartoons. He hold a BA in theatre from Bard College at Simon’s Rock and has also performed with the sketch comedy group MONKEYS TYPING SHAKESPEARE, plus has been a member of EPIC Players for two years, where he has played the leads in The Tempest and The Little Prince. Anton has written the play Mixed Messages, which has had several readings over the years. He has also written a full-length musical, THE AMBER CRYSTAL, with his father, musician Larry Spivack, and they are working on another, Let Down your Hair!, based on Rapunzel. Read more about Anton here.

3 replies on “The Hairspray Problem: Is Feel-Good in Musicals What Matters?”
  1. says: Heath Wilder

    Thank you. Agreed.
    The John Waters film had a completely different subversive tone and historical placement to what was done with the work subsequently; ie: whilst you were “feeling good” it was challenging your values. post 2000 it actual serves to do the opposite by self congratulating as you say.

  2. Thank you. A close relative (I won’t name names) dismissed me, claiming that there was nothing wrong with a musical that makes people feel good. This person came of age during the civil rights era and insists that things have improved, as we don’t have segregated bathrooms or fountains these days.

Comments are closed.