BWW Interview - Special 'Tracy Trifecta' Series: Marissa Jaret Winokur Shares Fond HAIRSPRAY Memories
With NBC's HAIRSPRAY LIVE! on the horizon (Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. ET/PT), BWW caught up with the 'Tracy Trifecta' - the three talented actresses who have taken on the iconic role of bright-eyed teenager Tracy Turnblad in various incarnations of the beloved musical.
Next up in our special series is Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won the Tony Award for her portrayal of Tracy in Broadway's HAIRSPRAY. Below, Winokur shares her fondest memories from the show and explains why HAIRSPRAY is "the gift that keeps on giving!"
Your journey with HAIRSPRAY really began years before the production even reached the Broadway stage.
Yes, actually I worked on HAIRSPRAY for two years before I even got the job to play Tracy on Broadway. I'm the person who did the reading when the only two songs written were 'Good Morning Baltimore' and 'Welcome to the 60s.' In fact, we only did Act 1 in 1999 when I did my first reading of the show.
How did you first get involved with the production?
I remember I met Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman at their house in LA with Rob Marshall, who was the director at that point, and I remember I sang 'Where the Boys Are' for them, which was the song that I auditioned with when I did 'Grease' on Broadway. It was just me and them and they were like, 'come do this reading we're doing in New York.' They sent me the new music, and I think it was Nathan Lane singing on the demo track, and I went and did the first reading.
At that time, did you know you would be playing Tracy when the show eventually got to Broadway?
It was so crazy because I had started working on it in 1999 and then we did readings all through 2000. In 2001 we did about four or five of them and then finally we had a whole script and everything. And I remember while I was doing that last reading, I was living in LA
and I went to do it and they were still auditioning for Tracy - while I was working on it! At our last reading in 2001 there were literally posters outside of where we were doing the reading in New York City that were like 'Come audition for Tracy Turnblad!' And I was like, 'um, I'm doing this show you guys!'
It was. I think since I was the very first person they ever met for the role, they must have just thought, 'there is no way the first girl we saw is doing this role. There's no way!' But for me, it had been my whole entire life for years. It was truly just years of my life being like, 'this is happening, this is happening. This is my dream, this is everything that I've ever wanted.' Because HAIRSPRAY truly was everything I had ever wanted. I was 29 at the time I did the role and I was 30 when I won the Tony. Of course because of stage, I could play a 16 year old. But there was nothing naive about me. I knew this was my one shot. This was everything I worked my whole career for.
So when did they finally tell you that you had the role?
I remember that day so well. I was sitting outside Marc Shaiman's apartment in New York City. I will never forget it, I was sitting on a blue bench, and they were like, 'you're doing it!' And my agents in LA at that point were like, 'don't go back to New York and do Broadway. You're being crazy.' And I was like, 'I will pay them to do this!' I remember sitting on that blue bench crying because my agents were saying, 'It's fine to do the workshops, it's fine to do the readings, but HAIRSPRAY's really not gonna be something.'
But I knew they were wrong because the music was so good and it was fun and it was my kind of musical. But honestly, Harvey [Fierstein] and I had no idea what kind of impact the show was going to make. The fact that HAIRSPRAY is still being done all over the world, I never would have thought that. I knew it was great, but I didn't know if other people would.
What do you think it ultimately was about the show that made it become such a worldwide phenomenon?
I think that if you break it down, John Waters wrote an amazing story. He didn't mean to write an amazing, mainstream story, that's not his niche, but he did. But if you think about it, the overweight girl is the biggest minority of them all. So he knew that everybody can relate to the overweight teenager. My whole thing about Tracy is that she doesn't know she's changing the world. She's changing the world because she's just doing the right thing. That's the biggest part of this whole show. Tracy's not doing it because it's politically correct. She's just a 16-year-old girl who knows what's right, who knows what's in her heart- it's the best message of all. It's someone doing something to change the world, to make it a better place because that's what it should be.
And the message of the show is really still so relevant today.
Absolutely. You know Tracy truly doesn't know she's overweight. She's like, 'I want to dance.
Why can't I dance on this show? I'm as good as anybody else.' She just breaks down every wall and makes everybody feel like, 'yeah, wait a second. I can do that.' So I think the message of this show is just perfect. And it does still hold true today. It's civil rights, that's what it's all about.
And on top of that, not only do we have a great story with a great message, but it's just the most perfectly written musical there is. There's no 'fast forward' song. No one's making a favorites playlist from HAIRSPRAY, you just play the entire show. Every song is a showstopper. Every single song. And, just as when I was a teenager we were all wanting to do "Grease" because it's about teenagers, today every school wants to do HAIRSPRAY. And the music is inspirational and tells the story and it teaches you about segregation. You can put a whole lesson plan together using this show!
You've had the opportunity to meet Maddie Baillio who will take on the role of Tracy in NBC's HAIRSPRAY LIVE. What advice did you share with her?
Well Maddie and I cannot be more different. She's super laid back and cool. When I met her I was like, 'you're the coolest Tracy we've ever had.' She just seems so nice and kind and wonderful that I think she's gonna be great. I just told her whatever they see in you, don't try to be like me or Rikki Lake, just be you! Because look, Tracy is all of us. I believe that every single person can play Tracy Turnblad, skinny or fat, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with your spirit and your soul and bringing your best foot forward.
What she does with the character will be so different than what Rikki or I would ever have done with it because she's Maddie, you know what I mean? So basically I just told her, 'Do you! Do what you do best.' And I told her to do what they tell you to do with the direction and then bring your own charm because she's such a charming, sweet, genuine girl. I hear her voice is amazing. She's gonna sing the s--t out of it and I'm so excited to hear her.
It was recently announced that you will make a cameo appearance in HAIRSPRAY LIVE on NBC.
Well I said to everybody, look I know the show better than anybody and I know that I don't just fit into another part. I mean I'm not gonna play Velma, I'm not gonna play Prudy. So if we find something that we can slip in for like a benign moment then I'm in! I want to be a part of it because it's been a part of my life, my whole life. I
feel like it's the gift that keeps on giving. I just love the show so much. Truly, Jerry Mitchell and Marc Shaiman and Harvey are, I would say, my closest friends. They are my family. If I wasn't a part of it, it would be like having Thanksgiving dinner and I can't be there! They really are my family. You know my first phone calls I make, whether it's about something good or bad, are to Harvey and Jerry and Marc. So they really are my family.
It really seems like the show is just intrinsically woven into your life.
Yeah. I always say that no matter where I am, no matter what I do someone is always like, 'Oh my God, you're that girl from HAIRSPRAY!' And I'm always like, 'I didn't do the movie, I did the Broadway show!' It's such a funny thing. I think people literally confuse Nikki, Ricki, and me. We've all really become one character in Tracy. And for any other thing I probably would hate that. But because it's Tracy I love it. I love that Tracy lives on!@CarynRobbins
Headshot photo: Photo by Jim Smeal / BEImages
HAIRSPRAY at The Hollywood Bowl photo credit: Lily Lim