We talk with the man playing EDNA as he hits Houston in HAIRSPRAY!

By: Jun. 04, 2024
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HAIRSPRAY comes to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts from June 4th through June 9th. This is a tour brought in by BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER. It's one of those shows you should know because since debuting on Broadway in 2002, it has spread around the world like wildfire.

The show is based on a 1988 film from John Waters, and was turned into a musical by Marc Shamain, Mark O'Donnell, Scott Wittman, and Thomas Meehan. The lead of this show is traditionally a man in drag in the spirit of Divine, who originated the role in the film. In 2003, HAIRSPRAY swept the Tony Awards, grabbing Best Musical and an accolade for Harvey Fierstein as Best Leading Actor in a Musical. Broadway World writer Brett Cullum got to interview the actor coming into town with this tour. 

Brett Cullum: Greg Kalafatas is an actor coming through Houston with HAIRSPRAY, and he plays the wonderful character of Edna! In the original 1988 John Waters Film, the part was played by Divine, and Harvey Fierstein originated the Broadway version 20 years later in 2002. It’s a huge role in many ways and has an intimidating legacy. We're talking about Divine Harvey Fierstein; even John Travolta threw his hat in the ring. So, how do you approach this part?

Greg Kalafatas: I think it's really the approach to the character. I feel that she is a woman. So, I think the most important thing when approaching Edna is that you're approaching it from an angle of reality.

There's this obvious fantasy of the character in that we're in mid-century pinks and blues and teals and aquamarines and this whole color palette and it's a musical, and it's songs, and it's a man dressed up as a woman. But the thing the reality is that Edna turns out as a woman, and you're playing a mom, and she's and that's what she is. And I think that if you can find it, that makes it successful. And I think that made Divine successful in all of his roles. I think that's what made Harvey Fierstein successful in playing this role. I think that's what made anyone successful playing Edna! 

When I was in college, I saw the original cast, and you believed Harvey was a woman, which is unbelievable because I mean that voice! When Harvey was leaving, a music director once said, “Who's gonna replace him? Carol Channing?”

There's always has to be the element of truth. There's a bit of my mom in there. There's a bit of my grandmother in there. I'm sure there's a bit of Harvey and a bit of Divine, but I think that's a part of playing these roles. These are part of the canon of theater history at this point.

Brett Cullum: Did you go back to the movie at all? I know that Harvey was a big influence on you, and you saw his original conception of the character. But what do you think about the differences between his portrayal and Divine’s and even the tone of the two pieces?


Greg Kalafatas: Well, you know the tone is… I mean, Divine has…  I mean, it's kind of hard to describe. Her Edna is, or his, cause I know that Divine referred to himself as he/him. She was very on that brink of constant frustration! And I think that's what all of Divine's characters had. It's that frustration with the world. Why can't the world let me be how I am? Harvey is warmer, maybe. Those tender moments were more tender. I think Divine always had a bit of an edge.

That's the little camp, that John Waters aspect of it, a queer subtext that was stuck into the film in 1988 that you get away with. And even in 2003, the code was there. That's the code; Edna and Wilbur are in a queer-coded relationship.

Brett Cullum: That's right. You know, this musical has been around. It's almost now a legacy show. I mean, they do it on cruise ships. They do it in schools and have a school edition of HAIRSPRAY, which I cannot imagine. But there you are. Do you have a favorite musical number? 

Greg Kalafatas: The great thing about Hairspray is there are no skips, I think when listening to the album. It's hit after hit, after hit, after hit, after hit from beginning to end. I saw the show when I was 22 years old. And I listened to the recording over and over again! I grew up listening to all this music. My parents were big into it. In the car, we listened to the Oldies station in Boston, so I loved the score. The whole score is really great. I mean Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman. It's amazing.

But I would say “Timeless to Me” because it's my song and so charming. I think this charming musical theater vaudevillian number is a little bit out of place from the rest of the show, but on purpose, because Edna and Wilbur are a little bit out of place for the show. They're not opposed to rock and roll like Penny's mom is. But it's not their thing. 

It's 1962, and Tracy is sixteen. I'm sure they were falling in love in the forties. So they're in that musical theater, big band sort of era. And that's the style of “Timeless to Me.” So that's their music!  

I would say “Without Love” if I had to pick a song that wasn't mine. 

Brett Cullum: Greg, it seems like you've been on this tour for a while. How long have you been on this tour?

Greg Kalafatas: This is year three for me. We started rehearsals pretty much when the theater opened up in 2021. My initial audition for the show was in March 2020; we all know what happened in March 2020.

I was on a cruise ship, actually, and I was submitting a tape because they had asked me to come to New York to be in person, and I said, “Well, I'm on a boat. Unfortunately, I can't, but if you would like me to send a tape, I would love to.” And they said, “Oh, yeah, that'll be fine.”

So I get a little email that says, “You know, we're probably gonna see how this upcoming Coronavirus problem goes. We'll give you guys a few extra days to submit your tape because it might be hard to find a rehearsal space in New York.”

A few weeks later, I got an email. “Hey, we love your audition. You're definitely called back. But of course, we know it's not happening right now. We will aim for hopefully callbacks in the fall of 2020. So this is not happening yet.” 

So then, I think auditions really started in earnest in 2021. And then it was all through Zoom. I mean, it was so interesting because rather than being in a room with the director and the producers and the choreographer and a pianist, and the reader who is, you know, usually someone from the creative team who is in there to read with you. It's all online. I just log on to Zoom, and I see all their little rectangles at the top of my screen and it was sort of weird because you're reading with people, and there's a slight delay because it's Zoom. 

I got the offer over the summer, and we started rehearsals in New York City. We were in Queens, and it was on October 21. We did a tech rehearsal in November. And then we opened that month! 

The tour wraps up for good after Dallas at the end of June of this year. So it's been a journey! 

It's been a long one. But I also wasn't playing Edna the whole time. We had Nina West from RuPaul's Drag Race, who's on All Stars Season 9 right now. Andrew Levitt is his name, so he was our Edna for two years, and so I was Mr. Pinky, Mr. Spitzer, and I was the cover for Edna, and I covered Wilbur as well. 

So that's what I did for two years, and then, when Andrew decided not to return, I reached out to our creative staff and said, “You know, I really love doing the show! I'd be interested in taking over. If that's something that you would be interested in as well. I don't know what the vision is gonna be.”

And maybe a month or so later, I got the call to do it, which was exciting. And so, so here I am. So it's great.

Brett Cullum: Here you are! Well, that's amazing. You replaced a RuPaul girl! You took her job! 

Greg Kalafatas: Yeah, pretty much. No, I mean, and I mean, and I love Andrew. We got along so well. And it's really kind of exciting because, you know, he's back in the spotlight. I know that we're all rooting for him to win All-Stars! 

Brett Cullum: It's easy to root for Nina West; I mean, absolutely just such a lovely, warm kind of person and persona in the drag world. Don't hate me for being team Gottmik though! 

HAIRSPRAY is at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts from June 4th through June 9th. This is the final month for this long-running tour and a chance to see the company in its final stretch. 


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