Because the original production of this show was so dependent on its stars that it didn’t travel well, the mediocre film version of this musical is now far more well-known than the version seen on Broadway, which is a damn shame.
The book, completely eschewing the sourness of John Waters’ original movie, struck the same perfect balance between sunny musical-comedy zaniness and sincerely heartfelt warmth that co-author Thomas Meehan had achieved with his long-ago classic Annie. The show is wildly hilarious and clearly takes place in a musical-comedy fantasy world, but it still manages to make you care deeply about its civil rights plot.
Composer Marc Shaiman wrote his first, and to date best, Broadway score for the show. It isn’t perfect: the score has its duds (“Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “The Big Dollhouse”), and its filler numbers (“The Nicest Kids In Town”, “It Takes Two”). But when the score _is_ good, it is amazing. Highlights include “Good Morning, Baltimore”, one of the best opening numbers of the decade; the gorgeous “I Can Hear the Bells”; the monumental showstopper “You’re Timeless To Me”; the moving eleven-o’clock anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been”; and the truly epic finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.
Most of all, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein (here in a hilarious drag role) provided two of the finest star performances of the decade as mother and daughter team Tracy and Edna Turnblad. The supporting cast was also stellar, as it launched the careers of such future stars as Matthew Morrison, Kerry Butler and Laura Bell Bundy.
This was one of the most spectacularly entertaining shows of the decade, and the fact that it has been largely supplanted by that stupid movie is one of my greatest personal heartbreaks as a musical-theater fan.