"You'd Make A Great Tracy Turnblad!" - Body Image in Musical Theatre

Sallie Bieterman

I’m sitting in The Music Box theatre on Broadway, halfway through Act 1 of Shuffle Along, and it suddenly strikes me that Audra McDonald (Godra McDonald, am I right?!) is clearly pregnant, but her character is not. We as characters and audience, haven’t talked about the fact that she’s pregnant because it has nothing to do with the plot of the show. My fellow audience members are suspending their disbelief, focusing on the personality, talent, and embodiment of Lottie Gee that Audra brings to the stage.

I grew up internalizing the mantra that actresses are supposed to find out The Size that the ladies on Broadway currently are, as a collective, and do whatever it takes to achieve it, because, as time and time again has shown, if you fit the costume, you get the part, especially when auditioning to replace someone. But Audra wasn’t this pregnant at the beginning of the run, so I have to assume that the costume designer accommodated her in some way. I thought about this the entire Greyhound bus trip back to Boston, especially after I opened my journal to write about the phenomenal piece of theatre I had just experienced. As I was flipping to the next blank page, i stumbled upon this drawing, and, in doing so, a conversation about body image and theatre.

The reality is simple:

“You’d make a great Tracy Turnblad” is never going to feel like a compliment.

For those uninitiated, Tracy Turnblad is the protagonist of the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, a “pleasantly plump” teenager (according to the libretto) who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show in 1960s Baltimore. She faces obstacles because of her outward appearance, but her plucky personality and positive perseverance land her a spot on the council. After dancing her way onto the show, however, she becomes aware of the inequalities faced by her African American friends as their “Negro Day” segment is cut and they are no longer allowed to dance on TV despite their obvious talent. Along the way, she attracts the romantic attentions of a boy, Link Larkin, and the antagonistic attentions of Velma and Amber Von Tussle, a skinny and blonde mother-daughter duo whose outward beauty barely masks their inner meanness. Tracy eventually becomes involved in an effort to integrate the show, all while balancing her love life and her shot at the crown in the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant. The show, which won Best Musical in 2003, is an adaptation of the John Waters film of the same name.

Hairspray itself, which is the iconic show centered on an actress larger than the average Broadway leading lady, is ultimately not “positive representation” for fat girls everywhere. Frankly, young me, who watched eagerly as Zac Efron eked out the patented ‘Link Wink’ and fell in love with the short and stout high schooler, would find that description a bit harsh. To this day, I love Hairspray. It makes me happy, and the positive, fun songs and upbeat spirit of the show are still something I often turn to when I’m feeling blue. Nonetheless, in terms of a positive movie about a plus-sized protagonist, it leaves something to be desired, and, given the media drought for those sorts of characters, this took me some time to notice and accept.

Taken with a pinch of salt due to the show’s larger-than-life, John Waters-esque heightened reality, it’s still difficult to ignore the way Tracy Turnblad is placed in the spotlight and is consistently made the butt of jokes:

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