Stanford students draw parallels between civil rights movements in the 1960s and today in "Hairspray" musical production

A Stanford student-run theatrical society explores racial integration – then and now – against the background of an inventive LED set in the musical Hairspray. The performance aims to spark civil rights dialogue for students and the audience.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

The Ram’s Head Theatrical Society, Stanford’s student-run drama group, explores racial integration in the musical “Hairspray” with five performances during April.

Stanford’s oldest and largest theatrical organization, the Ram’s Head Theatrical Society, explores civil rights and today’s world in its upcoming Hairspray production.

Hairspray will take the spotlight in Memorial Auditorium for five performances: April 10­–11 and 16­–18.

The theatrical society sets the scene for the production: Tracy Turnblad is a high school student in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of being a dancer on the Corny Collins Show.

When the host offers her a spot on the show after falling for her dance moves, she is immediately thrust into stardom as a candidate for the Miss Teenage Hairspray competition. But Tracy’s got bigger dreams. On top of beating the competition for Miss Teenage Hairspray and winning the heart of teen king Link Larkin, she plans to bring the civil rights movement to the studio by integrating the network.

It wasn’t a stretch for many of the Stanford cast and crew of Hairspray to get inside the heads of the characters and imagine this 50-year-old scene. The parallels between the early 1960s and present day are easy to spot. Civil rights are a bubbling issue. Check. Mainstream media define beauty. Check. Race riots and reality TV celebrity are all over the news. Double check.

Hairspray mirrors the times, whether it is 1962 or 2002 when the musical was on Broadway, or 1988 and 2007 when it was adapted for the screen, or now. You can’t stop this beat.

Sophomore James Sherwood is producing one of the largest shows ever at Stanford in terms of the size of the cast and crew, but what excites him the most is that this production of Hairspray sets up a civil rights dialogue for students and the audience.

“The themes in Hairspray resonate with us now as young people in solidarity with movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and they allow audiences to engage in meaningful conversations about race, art and activism,” Sherwood said.

Ram’s Head’s executive producer Nisha Masharani, a senior,  added, “The characters in Hairspray are so relatable. Everyone has a character with whom they can empathize, and everyone has felt, to some degree, some of the emotions that the characters deal with over the course of the show.”

Much of the 2015 reboot of Hairspray at MemAud is the responsibility of the director, graduate student Ken Savage.

“As an Asian American director, I have always been drawn to narratives that foreground how art empowers people of color, and Hairspray is the perfect synergy of art and activism,” Savage said.

Last year, he directed a production of My Fair Lady that featured Asians in both the lead roles to address issues of race, language and social class. 

Savage cultivated a collaborative, family atmosphere on the Hairspray set with what he calls “the best musical theater talents on campus” and was delighted to train a new generation of Stanford triple threats – actors, singers, dancers.

Just as the heart of Hairspray lies in the bonds that are forged by different characters and communities, Savage and other members of the cast and crew cite friendships developed during this production as one of the most satisfying aspects of making the musical.

“This experience has made me a better director, friend and global citizen not only because of the racial themes of the musical but also because this collective of artists has used Hairspray as a vehicle to bridge the dialogues of the past and present,” he said.

Just like Tracy

Hairspray was the first show junior Alison Valentine saw on Broadway. She was 11 years old and has wanted to play mean girl Amber von Tussle ever since. Just as Tracy Turnblad’s dream came true, so did Valentine’s when she was cast as Amber. The performance is the capstone project for her TAPS (theater and performance studies) major.

One of Valentine’s biggest challenges was making a nasty character seem real.

“Most of the things Amber says I completely disagree with as a person, but were the reality of some people during that time period, and even today, so how do I bring reality to this character, without becoming a cartoon character?” she said.

Senior Jessia Hoffman performs the lead role of lovable Tracy. Hoffman has been steeped in the musical theater world since she was a child.

“In elementary and middle school, before diving into the complex world of [Stephen] Sondheim, I listened nonstop to soundtracks of shows like Wicked, Mamma Mia and, of course, Hairspray,” Hoffman said.  “When the Hairspray movie came out I was a chubby sixth grader at theater camp and I played Tracy in our presentation of the finale, You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

Reprising the role was not something she dared dream, but here she is.

21st-century tech

Masharani knew from the beginning that Ram’s Head wanted to go big and flashy with this production, but she was still surprised by the achievement of the tech team. Hairspray features the largest lighting rig ever used by a student group (32 moving light fixtures) and the largest sound project ever attempted by Ram’s Head, with 24 radio mics and a full orchestra on stage. Between lighting and video there are over two miles of wire on stage.

And then there’s the LED (light-emitting diode) wall.

Junior Matt Lathrop, freshman Stephen Hitchcock, Sherwood and their student group L.I.T.E.S. (Lighting Innovation and Technology Education at Stanford) created an LED video wall that functions as the changing set. The floor-to-ceiling, wing-to-wing wall of lights can be programmed to represent, among other sets, the Baltimore skyline, the candy-colored set of the Corny Collins Show or a starry night.

The members of the tech team used 20,000 independently controllable RGB LEDs and put in 2,000 hours to construct the 20-x-40-foot wall. Their goal was to make the video wall as cheaply as possible, and then correct for its inadequacies using software written by Lathrop as a part of his computer science capstone project. The wall was built for about one-tenth of the price of a commercially available video wall.

Media Contacts

Robin Wander, University Communications: (650) 724-6184, robin.wander@stanford.edu
Nisha Masharani, Ram's Head: nisham@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu