Monday, July 7, 2014

Good Morning Baltimore

The Summer Youth Conservatory is hard at work on this summer's production of Hairspray. This week we're  featuring "Timeless to Me: A Charm City Chronicle," a three-part series by PlayMakers dramaturg Gregory Kable.

(Scene: The Baltimore Railroad Terminal.) 
First Girl Dancer. Why do we always leave in the morning? 
Boy Dancer. Don’t complain—it’s Baltimore we’re leaving! 
--Funny Girl (1964)

In my youth growing up in suburban Baltimore, I had only the vaguest notions surrounding Broadway musicals. While the prominent cast albums of the age enjoyed regular rotation on our stereo console—My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Mame, Funny Girl, and Cabaret all became permanent fixtures of my teens—as in the culture at large, change was in the air, reflected in as decisive a way as events play out in Hairspray itself and in a domestic-scaled battle of the bands in my own world with the music favored by my folks and that of my generation vying for space on the living room hi-fi: their Sinatra and Streisand to my Simon and Garfunkel, their Jack Jones and Lana Cantrell to my Jackson 5 and The Cowsills. In the case of a Tom Jones, James Bond soundtracks, or that seismic anomaly of Hair, we’d split the difference. As I would shortly discover, that same shift was happening everywhere. Truly, the tunes they were a-changin'.
Fifty years ago, in the  final flowering of the ubiquitous showtune, the latter day Beatles were memorably in combat with Louis Armstrong’s cover of Hello, Dolly!, and for a time the A.M. airwaves valiantly strove to honor the full spectrum of American music, as standards and new sounds jockeyed for position on the Top-40 charts like rearranged guests at a dinner party with diminishing chairs. But the writing was clearly on the wall, and as Broadway ceded to the rock era, and I gravitated away from shared space to the inner sanctum of a bedroom with my groovy mass market turntable, I wasn’t all that invested in what was imperiled. I liked all of those records well enough but, so often with exposure to the scores alone, I was none too sure of how they added up to a coherent experience.

Still, the very word Broadway conjured up a heady mix of maturity, sophistication, and glamor, an elusive trinity all recognizably lacking in my corseted, angsty, teenage cosmos. And something about musicals amplified that adventurous alternative. Musicals were those jazzy mean streets and overwhelming emotions of West Side Story or the chivalrous bygone dream of Camelot. In my wildest imaginings I could never envision that a musical might someday land on Baltimore as its setting. My hometown seemed strikingly, unrelentingly Kansas with Oz potentially anywhere else.
John Waters, director of the movie Hairspray.
So it was poetic justice that John Waters, who was notorious locally before making his name nationally and internationally, would be key to shocking me out of that longstanding, humbling, and wrongheaded view. In those days, when network television and electric typewriters were the last words in technological progress, both reputations and supporting evidence accumulated gradually. As we all do, I heard from older kids about the newest groups, the hottest movies, the latest fashions, the redefinitions and refinements of cool. And somewhere amid that gossipy pipeline was mention of a radically unusual, underground filmmaker shooting lunatic movies on a micro-budget with a recurrent cast and crew of locals in parts of town I’d actually heard of, if not always yet visited. Adventure awaited.

Hairspray, presented by the PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory, runs July 16 - 21, 2014. Get tickets and info at