- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

NEW YORK Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Nathan Lane have already seen it. So has Bette Midler, but then she's an investor.
Danny DeVito and Yoko Ono are on tap for next Thursday, and we haven't even gotten to the musical-theater groupies who have bombarded Internet chat rooms with their opinions, most of which range from rave to rave to rave.
The buzz is building for "Hairspray," and although the $10.5 million musical is in previews and doesn't open at the Neil Simon Theatre until Aug. 15, it's already being talked about as "the next 'Producers,'" Broadway's hottest show. Critics won't see it until close to the opening.
"It's wild. I can't believe what's happening," says producer Margo Lion, who came up with the idea for a stage version of John Waters' campy movie about a pudgy teen's obsession with a TV dance show in 1960s Baltimore. "And most of it has been word of mouth."
At Friday's sold-out performance, you could hear a contented hum.
"The people were like little bees," says JoEllen Kitchen of Pasadena, Calif. "The audience walked in knowing they were going to have a good time and they did."
That contentment has translated into growing ticket sales. Before previews began July 18, the show which has a top ticket price of $95 was pulling in $40,000 to $50,000 a day, according to Miss Lion. A week later, the daily figures had climbed to more than $200,000. On Friday, the box office took in $330,000. Miss Lion says the musical has a $6 million advance ticket sale that could double by opening night.
Not bad for a musical with no stars except perhaps Harvey Fierstein, who has inherited the role of full-figured Edna Turnblad, played in the film by Divine. To portray Edna's daughter, perky Tracy Turnblad, Miss Lion chose Marissa Jaret Winokur, who achieved minor cult status by uttering one of the biggest laugh lines in the Academy Award-winning film "American Beauty": "You are so busted."
Out-of-town reviews in Seattle, where "Hairspray" played in June, were enthusiastic, setting the stage for chat-room frenzy and growing mainstream media interest, including an upcoming segment on NBC's "Today."
"This will be the longest theater piece they have ever done," chirps Richard Kornberg, the musical's relentless publicist.
Web sites have been exhausting in their comments. Log onto www.talkingbroadway.com, for example, and you will find review after review, with most of the self-appointed critics saying they can't wait to see it again.
Miss Lion and her army of other producers (they number more than a dozen) also initiated an innovative marketing campaign. They mailed 325,000 CD samplers containing three songs from the show to potential ticket buyers whose names had been culled from various mailing lists.
"We made the decision early on that the easiest promotional tool was the music," says Miss Lion, praising the pop-flavored score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The sampler also allowed recipients to purchase tickets at a discount. This direct-mail effort cost more than $200,000, but the return has been more than $1 million so far, she says.
There also are other promotions, according to Mr. Kornberg, who is more than just the show's press agent. Together with three friends, he invested $40,000 in the show.
Bloomingdale's will sell "Hairspray"-inspired clothing in five of its stores, including two in the New York area, he says, adding that this is the first time the store is promoting plus sizes.
The producers also invited 120 hairstylists to see the musical during its early previews. "If you wanted to build word of mouth, who else could spread the word more effectively?" Mr. Kornberg asks.
Even the show's cast recording will be pressed into service earlier than usual. It already has been recorded and will be released by Sony Classical on Aug. 13, two days before the opening.
Still, Miss Lion believes the show's universal appeal will be its biggest selling tool.
Early on, Miss Lion sent Nancy Coyne who runs Serino, Coyne (a theatrical ad agency) a copy of the songs. Miss Coyne told Miss Lion the show would be huge, appealing not only to those who grew up in the '60s, but to young people as well.
"And she's right," Miss Lion says. "There aren't that many shows parents and children, not to mention adolescents, can all enjoy."

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