Diversity issues plague colourful production

Hairspray the Musical still has racial inclusion issues 20-years on from its Broadway debut, diversity experts say.

The first professional Australian production opened at the Regent Theatre on Monday but questions about the portrayal of its message remain.

Diversity Arts Australia patron James Arvanitakis said the production’s efforts to ‘listen’ to the concerns raised by people of colour is not enough in 2022.

“The way that the show is structured only captures a very one-dimensional experience of racism,” he said.

“You won’t be able to capture the Civil Rights Movement from the complexity.”


Professional productions have been criticised since it first opened in 2002 because of its all-white creative team.

Mr Arvanitakis said the show lacks “powerful forms that you can’t capture unless it is through lived experience”.

“It’s probably in need of a good edit now to get a different perspective included,” he said.

Hairspray the Musical director Matt Lenz said the way issues such as race are explored in theatre have changed in 20 years.

“We’re all taking big steps to try to understand where there may have been implicit bias,” he said.

“We made more of an effort to all sit down together at the beginning of this process and share thoughts.”

A culture diversity report into Australian theatre in 2017 found only four of 95 productions produced by Australia’s 10 main theatre companies were both written and directed by artists of colour.

Mr Lenz said discussions ahead of the Australian premier led to “tone deaf” lines being altered and removed. 

“It’s just been a process of listening, speaking to each other and opening up the dialogue,” he said.

“Whereas in that original production we just sort of dove in”

Hairspray’s storyline follows the life of an overweight teenager whose journey to fame is interrupted when she becomes a victim of racial discrimination and decides to fight back.

Local and school productions of Hairspray have come under fire, accused of “whitewashing” black history.

A year 11 student at Brunswick Secondary College launched a petition in 2016 against her school’s decision to adapt the musical to suit a mostly white cast.

Licenses agreements have been changed to prevent it from occurring.

Mr Lenz said the production doesn’t shy away from the serious themes but uses music and humour to counterbalance it.

“We go on to do these amazing dance numbers and sing this awesome, fun score,” he said.

“It’s subversively powerful in that way.”

Mr Arvanitakis said there is always a place for something like Hairspray that simplifies dark themes despite his criticism. 

“I don’t want to just criticize a production because it doesn’t want to be too confrontational,” he said.

“There are places for different stories to be told.”

Mr Arvanitakis said the focus needs to be on the cast and creative employment processes off the stage.

“Having someone of colour on cast because you want to try to tick a box is not the answer,” he said.

“We need to think about our hiring practices and how they may exclude or may bring out unconscious biases.

“There’s a lot of talent, Hamilton’s a perfect example, and we just need to tap into it and take advantage of it.”

Hairspray the Musical is now opened at the Regent Theatre until mid-October. 

If you experience racism, you can contact Victoria’s racial discrimination hotline on 1800 722 476. In an emergency, contact emergency services on 000.

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