x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Teen life: Classical case of prejudice resolved in Hairspray

In the UAE, where racial discrimination is present though not obvious, Hairspray is the most relevant stage musical that could have been chosen.

The spotlight swivelled. "Well, isn't she a lovely slim girl!" The buxom lady remarked at the TV set in a nasal alto, fluffing up her bouffant and pursing scarlet lips. From the side of the stage, I watched the lady's daughter, Tracy Turnblad, sniffily counter that the girl on the telly might be pretty but couldn't dance. I continued watching, enraptured, for a bit too long, before receiving a rather painful poke by means of a cue. Hurriedly assuming an expression of utmost concentration, I began to strum the guitar guiltily.

Not that the audience cared, having eyes for no one but Mia, giving an admirable performance as Tracy. Tracy's mum, the buxom lady in question, meanwhile, was being played by Sam – a boy, for the record – although it could be easy to be convinced otherwise, considering his coy flirting with his character's misfit husband, played by a spectacularly loopy Matt.

This was our school production, transporting us to the swinging sixties in a wild extravaganza of singing, dancing and one-liners positively dripping with mozzarella. It was, in the words of Rory's greased up Corny Collins, "What gets a gal asked out to lunch?" Not brains, not dough, but "Hairspray!"

The musical tells the story of a plus-sized teenager in Baltimore who successfully auditions for the prime time Corny Collins show. On the way, she must get around the catty producer, the producer's airheaded daughter and her own knack for getting into detention. Hairspray seems on the surface to be as stereotypical an example of musical theatre as any, full of larger-than-life characters with gleaming smiles who burst into song in unison at the drop of a hair-gel can.

The plot follows the classic fairy tale structure: a beginning throbbing with anticipation, conflict, a momentary victory, a shattering of the wonderful dream that was beginning to form, the climax, and a nauseatingly happy ending. The villainesses – Flo and Ambre as Velma and Amber von Tussle – are characteristically golden-headed, beautiful and evil through and through. The heroine is an underdog who is destined to triumph in the end. Adam, as the male lead, Link, eventually realises that he's wasting his time with the blondie and his soulmate is that plucky, if slightly plump, revolutionary with plenty of moral fibre. Completely at odds with what would occur in the real world, of course, where the beautiful people usually, if not always, have the upper hand.

However, it does address some very real issues: at the heart of the musical lie undercurrents – well, very obvious currents – of tension between the white people running the television shows and the black people with the talent who are allowed to dance for the camera only one day a month. Tracy leads protests against segregation and ends up in jail. She gets banned from the show and then gatecrashes it in a flurry of foot tapping music. The racist producer is carried away kicking and screaming, the show is integrated with black and white people dancing together and more singing ensues. The audience go wild and cheer themselves hoarse. A nice, satisfactory finish to months of trying not to sing flat and to keep in time with the conductor. In a country of expatriates such as the UAE, where racial discrimination is not as obvious but nevertheless present, there couldn't have been a more relevant production to be performed.

As part of the 20-strong orchestra, I found practices were not a smooth ride; the saxophonist, for one, kept playing the same phrase from Careless Whisper between Hairspray songs, making us slowly and steadily edgier. It wasn't uncommon to encounter classmates wandering around, whistling jazzy numbers under their breath and sporadically bellowing out things like "Good Morning Baltimore!"

In the end, though, Mr Zambonini, our head of music, did a wonderful job of whittling a slick, well-prepared band out of a bunch of tantrum-prone teenagers with what he'd describe as "a little gentle encouragement".

As a classical guitarist, I did not take kindly to playing an electric one initially. Don't ask – there is simply a mutual dislike between classical and electric guitarists as a rule of nature. This meant I floated about snobbishly, looking down upon what we like to consider an inferior instrument, before being brought back to earth with an unpleasant bump after realising I could play hardly any of the music and would need to work – a lot – at it.

Practice may have chewed into free evenings and inspired rants about never wanting to hear "Welcome to the 60s" again. They clashed with events such as Jacqueline Wilson holding court at the Emirates Airline Literary Festival, or Roger Federer winning the Dubai Tennis Championship. The applause on the big night, though, made it a L'Oréal moment – all worth it.

And I probably feel a tad more sympathetic to electric guitarists – in the spirit of Tracy Turnblad, it is all about accepting and embracing our differences, after all.


Lavanya Malhotra is a 16-year-old student in Dubai