Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

A softer, gentler Edna Turnblad



John Pinette (left) in the Hairspray role Divine made famous: Edna Turnblad, stage mom extraordinaire to plucky Tracy Turnblad.

Comedian John Pinette puts on the curves for one of Broadway's hottest roles

"You can't stop my happiness, because I like the way I am. You just can't stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham ..."

So sings Edna Turnblad in the grand finale of Hairspray, when she makes her stunning transformation from a dieting, slightly agoraphobic housewife to the self-actualized stage mother of rising star Tracy Turnblad.

Ever since the original John Waters film (1988), audiences have loved Hairspray for the same reasons they love Edna: It has a lot of heart, it's funny, and it has a great message - oh yes, and a fabulous soundtrack. It stays with people.

The film character Edna was created as a vehicle for Divine, who played her as gruff but doting. On Broadway the role originated with Harvey Fierstein, who was described as having the voice of "Beelzebub of Brooklyn." In the national tour of the musical, opening at the Majestic Theatre this week, the role is performed by Boston stand-up comedian and film actor John Pinette. Here, he shares with the Current some of the hard work of becoming not only Edna, but a stage actor.

Susan Pagani: How does your Edna compare to Divine's or Harvey Fierstein's?

John Pinette: All the Ednas are very different. You can't go into Hairspray and copy Harvey Fierstein. It would pale in comparison. I would say my Edna's like a softer, sweeter Edna, an Edna with a cherub-like demeanor.

SP: Not unlike your own?

JP: There you go!

SP: How is it to dress up like a woman every night?

8pm Tue-Fri,
2pm & 8pm Sat,
2pm & 7:30pm Sun
Through Dec 5
Majestic Theatre
208 E. Houston
JP: Well, it's part of the character - you don't feel like a woman and then you look in the mirror and you are ready to do it. Thank God I have somebody with me - What? You don't think they let me dress myself! I have Byron Batista with me through the whole show.

SP: A man to help you dress like a woman?

JP: He has done some drag queen work. He used to do Liza. He's the one that gave me some hints about the way I was walking and stuff. I was dressed like a woman, and delivering the lines in a soft, sweet way, but I was walking like a lumberjack.

SP: Edna is kind of a curvy dish. How is that achieved?

JP: It's kind of a fat suit; a onesy I guess they call it. Obviously, I'm a big guy; I didn't think I would ever need a fat suit, but it gives me the Edna curves that we need, the Edna butt and breasts. It all just slips right on.

SP: Was that the biggest learning curve?

JP: At some point, there is so much to learn that you don't panic. I said, the dancing is gonna kill me. They told me, oh, don't worry, you'll learn it. And there's just no not learning it. Every day there would be acting, singing, and dancing. At the end of the day, we put it all together - and then cry like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.

SP: From the stress?

JP: As stressful as it was, there were always aspects of your performance that led you to believe you should keep going. I'm not getting notes anymore on my dancing, but I'm still at the stage where I want to make things better. Even though eight shows a week can be tough, I still get excited about it like it's the first time, although I am not as nervous.

SP: Would you do it again?

JP: I would like to. Some people might wonder why a Hugh Jackman would go to Broadway after making films. I get it now: It's the greatest learning experience of my life. I mean, where else do you have that intensity of rehearsal?

SP: Will Hairspray turn up in your stand-up act?

JP: Oh, without question. They made me shave my eyebrows! I have no eyebrows, OK? I look like, "Powder the fat ears!" People don't know what's wrong, but they know something's not right; that's when you have no eyebrows. It's Uncle Fester with the cherubic ears.

By Susan Pagani

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.