The dirt on John Waters (who brings his one-man show to Aspen)
Ryan Summerlin January 17, 2013
ASPEN – For four decades, since emerging in 1974 with the ultra-cult film “Pink Flamingos,” John Waters has trumpeted his distinctive traits loud and clear: his affection for Baltimore and soiled, C-grade celebrities; alliterative names for the characters in his films (Corny Collins, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders); his own homosexuality and pencil mustache; and especially, his fetish for all things trashy. Which makes Waters ripe for parody. A 1997 episode of “The Simpsons” walked that line; Waters voiced a character that was essentially himself: John, the flamboyant owner of the campy Cockamamie’s Collectibles Shop, who befriends Homer and ultimately causes Homer to question Bart’s sexuality.
But Waters believes that he moves too fast for easy parody. Even at 66, he is unwilling to settle comfortably into the well-paying role of the Maryland-centric purveyor of good bad taste – or as William Burroughs has called him, the Pope of Trash. “I keep reinventing myself,” Waters said by phone, and then began detailing the ways.
Waters, along with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, had just debuted a concert version of “Hairspray,” the mega-hit 2002 Broadway musical adapted from Waters’ 1988 film. The concert version featured Waters himself on stage as the narrator; featured in the cast, as Wilbur Turnblad, was Mickey Dolenz – the former Monkee, and the sort of marginal celebrity that Waters favors. Next week, the concert version heads to the promised land: Waters will team with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for performances in Baltimore of “Hairspray,” the story of a girl in the early ’60s who takes on racism and prejudice against the overweight to chase her dream of appearing on a TV dance show.
In between those performances, Waters makes a stop in Aspen. He appears Friday at 8 p.m. at Belly Up to perform “This Filthy World.” It is a monologue he has been doing for decades, though he says it has grown and changed over time, been presented under different names, and over the years has attracted a younger and younger audience. “You can’t buy that,” he said.
Waters questioned the timing of the event. “Isn’t it Gay Ski Week then?” he asked. “I love that.”
Waters had an idea that he thought could spice up Gay Ski Week. He had recently heard about nude square dancing, an activity which apparently is becoming trendy in homosexual circles.
“Gay men and women dancing together – which is really odd,” he said. “It takes a lot to surprise me. But that surprised me. Maybe we should introduce that to Gay Ski Week. I’m not going to do it, by maybe I’d get booked as the guy who announces nude square dancing.”
If you think Waters is surprised by the sight of gays and lesbians do-si-do-ing, imagine what motorists in middle America thought of seeing a 66-year-old thumbing for a ride along the interstates. This past summer, Waters caught 21 rides over nine days of hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco. Waters, whose six published works include “Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters” and “Art: A Sex Book,” is writing a book, “Carsick,” about the adventure.
“I looked like a homeless guy, In fact, at that point, I was a homeless guy. Only I had credit cards,” he said. “But I ended up very optimistic about America – how kind people were and how different people were. Of course, people who pick up hitchhikers tend to be very nice. And they want to hear you talk. That’s your job as a hitchhiker, to talk. And sometimes, the longer you talk, the longer they take you.”
Waters learned some valuable lessons along the road: “How to find cardboard. How to dry off,” he said. But one of the things he wanted to discover was, How far can fame go? Or more specifically, how far does his particular fame go?
“Am I recognized on an exit ramp in Kansas?” Waters wondered. “Well, they did. They drove five exits debating whether it was me, and when they decided it was, they drove back five exits to pick me up.” Waters understood the confusion. “Why would it be me? Why would I be standing there?”
The majority of Americans – those who didn’t warm to, say, Divine, the late Baltimore-born drag queen who was a regular in Waters’ early films, and, in “Pink Flamingos” ate dog poop – know Waters through “Hairspray.” It was a departure from Waters’ earlier work – it was rated PG, a shocking thing for a Waters product. Starring Ricki Lake as the plump, determined Tracy, and with a cast that included Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry, the film earned a modest gross of $8 million and seemed destined, like most of Waters’ output, to be relegated to cult status.
But in 2002, the story – with Harvey Fierstein playing Tracy’s mother, Edna – was reborn as a Broadway show and became a hit, running for over 2,500 performances and winning eight Tony Awards. A second film version, this one a musical and staring John Travolta as Edna, was released in 2007. With a gross of over $200 million, it is the fourth-highest earning musical film ever.
John Waters being a success on Broadway back when Broadway had plenty of dirt under its nails was easy to picture. Waters having a presence in the current cleaned-up Broadway is harder to see, and you could imagine Waters himself being ambivalent about having a family-friendly Broadway hit. But no.
“I love it. Are you kidding? It brought me an apartment in San Francisco!” he said. Apart from the financial haul, Waters loves the message “Hairspray” sends. “Finally, the fat girl wins.”
Waters looked forward to the show becoming a staple of high school theater – which it has, though there has been a downside. “Because of political correctness, there are laws against casting by weight or by race,” he said. “A skinny girl playing Tracy? The plot really doesn’t work like that.”
Part of the John Waters persona is to remain upbeat. When I phoned him, the first thing he told me was that he had a nasty cold – and then, proclaiming himself “fine,” dived into the interview in perfect form. Waters said that the success of “Hairspray” was more than he could have asked for – the fact that he was making movies at all, and appearing on stage and publishing books, was more than he could have imagined back when he was a kid, reading Variety magazine.
“My dream came true years ago,” he said. “This is all gravy. I’m still telling stories, and that’s what I wanted to do from the beginning.”
Consistently, the stories, whether they have been proper for family viewing or been banned in certain countries, have had a sweetness and earnestness to them; that might be the ultimate Waters trademark, even more than his high-pitched laugh.
“Most reality TV asks you to feel superior to your subject matter,” Waters said. “I try to look up to the people I parody. I’m amazed by those people.”