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Interview: Drew Frady, the “He” in the “She” in Hairspray

Drew Frady is playing Edna Turnblad in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Production of Hairspray, which opened last weekend in Colorado Springs. An energetic and (mostly) uplifting look at youngsters who defy stereotypes in the 1960’s, Edna Turnblad is the stay-at-home mom of the central character, Tracy Turnblad. A large, but timid woman, Edna is a role for a man in drag, but as Frady makes clear, the character is all woman.

What is it like being a ‘he’ playing a ‘she’?
Its a lot more work than I expected it to be. I certainly have a greater respect for women who can walk well in heels. and applying THAT much makeup, eyelashes and hair is time consuming. Now I know why every woman I’ve ever dated is late. Primping and looking good takes time!

Have you played women’s roles before?
I played Kim from Miss Saigon in a production of Forbidden Broadway in NYC (one of our female cast members played Chris.). But it was nothing like this. That show moves so fast I basically threw on a long  red Asian gown, a long black wig and  stuck some lipstick on, ran on stage, sang a song and ran off to  get into my next character.

Do you think of gender, gender roles, or gender stereotypes when you’re playing the role, or do you just play a character that happens to be a woman?
I definitely think of gender  when playing this role. I couldn’t walk around  in her hair, makeup and costume as if I was myself or any other male character I might play. Big as she is, there is  most certainly a feminine quality to her. Gender roles come in to play a little. She does laundry for a living and she is the one to really comfort and protect instead of encourage her daughter. But I try not to think of stereotypes because I don’t want her to be one dimensional.

What was your first exposure to Hairspray? Did you see either of the movies? What was your first impression?

I saw the John Waters film in the late 1980s (it was released in 1988) I remember thinking it was strange and a little dark. Divine (who played Edna) was a bit on the creepy side at first but she was easy to warm up to. I just don’t think I had ever seen a LARGE drag queen in that way. I had seen the musical as well and loved that it stayed pretty true to the original script and story. Ive also seen the film and  they do a pretty good job of staying true to the ideal. I liked John Travolta’s performance though I think he softened Edna up more than I would have. To me, she seemed less strong in the film of the musical  than in the original or in the musical itself. I actually believe  Edna is a very strong woman. She stands up for her daughter, her new found friends and herself in the end.  She realizes in the end she is in fact beautiful regardless of her size.

Did you connect with Edna the first time you saw (or heard of) the show? If you had to bet, would you have seen yourself as your character or another one? Have you played the role previously (even in high school or a community theater, or in the shower)?

I don’t believe I did connect with her right away the first time I saw the show or the films. I  thought she was great fun. To be honest I didn’t really connect with any of the characters when I first saw the film or the show. As a white male who grew up in a liberal home and has always held liberal views, none of it really hit me too hard. Clearly the early sixties was a different time and I was aware of the struggles and tribulations of the black community at that time. And the ongoing struggle of  overweight Americans is certainly current, but Ive never really been in that category either. So I really don’t feel that I was in anyway personally  represented in the story.

I came to terms years ago with the fact that I am more of a “character actor” than a “leading man” type but Edna Turnblad wasn’t even remotely close to my radar as a character Id ever play. I am so grateful to Scott RC Levy for seeing  the possibility before I did and offering me the role. Ive truly enjoyed getting to know Edna and grown tremendously in the role. Through the  entire process I’ve gained a much better understanding of the issues and trials of the minorities represented here as well as of  women and the obese.

What is your favorite moment to play in the show?

Tough  question. Ive actually found a great deal of joy in little moments that I initially felt had no real consequence but  have revealed themselves to show Edna’s deep care and concern for her daughter Tracy.

Obviously any time a comic actor can drop a laugh line on his audience is a favorite moment. Edna (and Wilbur) get  one great musical number in the show.  “Timeless to Me”. And that stands out  for me for sure. It’s a terrific, fun, vaudevillian type song and dance and that has always been one of my favorite things to do.

Hairspray takes place in the 60’s. What do you think makes this show current today? Do you see parallels to current racial tensions or even social inequities for other groups today?

It’s really a big over the top fun crazy musical- but I believe a lot of  the current political tensions today are mirrored in the story of this show. I believe that while great strides have been made, the African -American community  still struggles in a lot of ways. That can also be transferred to  the more recent  feelings many have about Muslims, Homosexuals, Jews and any other minorities people seem to oppress. And certainly as I said before weight is a major issue in  America today!  I don’t know if this show will right any wrongs. But if we can simultaneously entertain people and make them think then we’ve done our jobs correctly.

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