Hairspray may be set in 1962 Baltimore, but Mark O’Donnell says his experiences growing up on Cleveland’s near West Side gives the musical its blue-collar spirit. The 54-year-old playwright wrote the stage adaptation of the original 1988 John Waters flick, a story about Tracy Turnblad, “a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart” and her quest to win a spot on a local TV dance show. O’Donnell’s friends and relatives may even recognize some of the dialogue when the production comes to the Palace Theatre Feb. 6, 7 and 8.
A common line that was once uttered by a playmate of O’Donnell — “Go tell your mother she wants you” — is used early in the show by Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, to get rid of her daughter’s best friend, Penny Pingleton.
“Later in the show, there’s some schoolyard teasing,” O’Donnell adds. “One of the characters says, ‘Snicker, snicker, sneer, sneer.’ The line may be older than my own family. But it was a phrase that we used.”
The Harvard grad began his career getting laughs as a writer on Saturday Night Live and gradually made the transition to playwright by getting four of his plays produced off-Broadway. His original works and adaptations so impressed New York theater critic John Lahr that he recommended O’Donnell to producer Margo Lion for Hairspray. Although the musical debuted in 2002, it sounds as though it just opened when he talks about it.
“It’s like candy packed with vitamins,” he says. “It’s a hilarious situation — the big hair, the ridiculous clothes, the wild music.” Yet Hairspray also tackles the heavy topics of discrimination against blacks — the TV show is a whites-only production — and overweight people.
“The story line usually mirrors the story line of the actors in it,” he notes. “The large girls who play the leads would not ordinarily be playing romantic leads.”