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Music and messages from the ’60s still resonate in ‘Hairspray’ at the Kimmel

KYW Radio Philadelphia logo KYW Radio Philadelphia 5/18/2022 Sabrina Boyd Surka
Actress Sandie Lee as Motormouth Maybelle © Provided by KYW Radio Philadelphia Actress Sandie Lee as Motormouth Maybelle

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Kimmel Cultural Campus heads back in time to the 1960s this week with the musical “Hairspray.”

The 2003 Tony winner for Best New Musical is all about big hairdos, flashy dresses, catchy songs, and big dance numbers — but beneath the glitz and glamor lie important messages about race and body image.

“It is kind of wrapped in this cute little bow with confetti popping out everywhere,” actress Sandie Lee says. “But you know, I still can see how this story is needed, how it can change lives, and how it can enlighten people.”

“Hairspray” is about 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad, who lives in Baltimore in the ’60s and dreams of dancing on the "The Corny Collins Show" — very similar to “American Bandstand.” But her body type doesn’t match the image of the other TV teens, and she doesn’t like that the dance floor is separated into Black and white.

Lee plays Motormouth Maybelle, the bold and brassy mother of one of the Black dancers and the host of the show’s “Negro Day.” Her big number is “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a ballad reminiscent of a civil rights anthem and a song that brings up a lot of emotions for her.

“Some of the things that were said to me as a child — it wounded me so bad that my mom withdrew me from the school,” Lee says. “And it was because those things were taught to them by their parents. And their parents were taught by their parents.”

The theater community, just like every other industry, has had to reckon with the way it addresses race in recent years. Lee acknowledges that “Hairspray” could be seen as oversimplifying the civil rights movement, but she says some people haven’t been exposed to even this much of the story — especially younger audiences.

“I don't think that my little cousin understands the severity of it. So for her to see it painted up like that — she has been talking about it ever since she came to see it. So you know, I think that is what needs to be heard.”

Lee says she hopes that any little girl who comes to the show sees that she can achieve her dreams regardless of her race or size — or hairstyle.

“If you believe in yourself and you go for it, it doesn't matter what anybody says. What you're supposed to have, you're going to have it.”

“Hairspray” is on stage at the Miller Theater through Sunday, May 22. You can find more information and tickets at kimmelculturalcampus.org.

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