Actress Niki Metcalf always knew she wanted to perform on stage, and her performance at a County Fair in upstate New York seemed to seal that deal. Entering into the competition through an ode to Shirley Temple (curls and all), it was during a performance of ‘At The Codfish Ball’ that the music stopped altogether, and Metcalf had to improvise. So, she did, and the audience began to clap along as she continued the performance a cappella. She ended up winning the competition at only six years old.
That dream continued to evolve into more when in the sixth grade, she entered into another competition performing ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ from the hit musical ‘Hairspray.’ It was there that she connected with the lead of the show, Tracy Turnblad. As Metcalf puts it: “It goes to show me that theater is the thing I was meant to do,” and Philly audiences can see that fact for themselves when the New York native hits the stage later this month in the 20th Anniversary Tour of ‘Hairspray’ in the leading role.
The musical has always been popular since its inception, resulting in two movies, stints on Broadway, plus eight Tony Awards— including Best Musical. It could be the music (‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ is a cornerstone of many musical theater ensemble pieces), or the story (the themes of inclusiveness are still timely even two decades later) or, it could be the fact that for Metcalf, it was the first time she had seen a leading lady who looked like her hit the spotlight.
Whatever it is, the magic of the colorful and energetic show has lived on, and Philadelphia is the next stop to witness it all unfold on stage for themselves.
To delve deeper, Metcalf sat down to discuss more on why she loves the show and how she knew she was always meant to play Tracy Turnblad.
Why audition for ‘Hairspray?’
There are a bunch of reasons. I always connected to Tracy more than a lot of leading ladies in shows—it’s very rare that you get to see someone who looks like me leading a show on stage. I saw the movie from the ’80s, the 2007 musical and [the show] on Broadway, and Tracy has always felt like not just someone I look up to, but someone who truly has been a part of me. I always felt like I needed to play her and step into her shoes because I could so relate to her love and joy for what her dream is, and also her heart and her strength to listen and learn how to stand up for what’s right.
The themes of ‘Hairspray’—and not just the joy and the dancing—has so much heart. Its message of community and respect for one another is something that I truly believe in and something we could all use.
What unfolds throughout the show? How would you describe the plot?
‘Hairspray’ starts with me playing Tracy Turnblad… she has a big heart, big dreams and even bigger hair. It takes place in 1962 Baltimore, and we start the show with Tracy wanting to be on ‘The Corny Collins Show’, and it’s not a place where you see someone who looks like her on that screen. Through following her dream, she meets a community of people that show her how to stand up for what is right in the world. It’s a story about acceptance and change and being inspired to lead with respect. So, it encompasses everything and everyone’s dreams, but also, the overarching theme of acceptance and change.
What do you love about your character, Tracy?
[Tracy] comes into the world with open arms. She starts the show with a song called ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ and she’s saying hello to everyone from the bum on the barroom stool to the rats on the street. Her world is one where everyone is welcome and everyone is worthy of following their dreams. That’s something that I relate to playing her. She is ready to stand up for what’s right even when that is difficult, and even when everyone is against her. Tracy is authentically who she is, and you see her experience a lot of her firsts. She’s a 16-year-old girl so you see her experience those changes and see how they influence her in the show. But, at the heart of it, she is a girl that is unapologetic in who she is and her dream is to dance.
Do you have some favorite moments from the show that you get to perform?
I can give you a little list—it’s hard to pick. I know for me, at the top of ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ I start the show in bed and my eyes are closed…there are some nights where the curtain opens, the lights flash on me and I hear a roar of applause for the beginning of the show and I haven’t even opened my eyes yet, and I’m trying so hard to keep my smile in because I’m so excited to share this story.
The song, ‘I Can Hear The Bells’ is another moment for me where we see Tracy create her fantasy world and fantasy life. It’s set in the audition sequence of ‘The Corny Collins Show,’ but it’s her dream sequence and everyone comes alive to make that fantasy happen. I love performing ‘Without Love’ in the second act, that’s always a lot of fun. And of course, the ending number ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat,’ it’s impossible to not want to get up and dance with us—and we do have people every night get up and dance and learn the moves.
How does it feel to get to tour with this production that’s been so close to your heart, especially during its 20th anniversary?
It’s unbelievable. I only hope that I am bringing audiences what I was brought when I saw the show: It totally changed my perception for what I am able to do with my life and my dreams. This influenced me so much as a show and I only hope for audiences I am bringing the same thing…You can follow your dream, you can be kind to one another, you can respect one another and welcome each other with open arms.
Everything that ‘Hairspray’ stands for, especially 20 years later, [I know] that we still need these messages and we still need what ‘Hairspray’ is about. To be able to bring it in a touring setting around the country, it’s truly an honor and I’m so thankful to be doing it. I really am.
‘Hairspray’ will be at the Miller Theater (formerly the Merriam Theater) on the Kimmel Cultural Campus for a limited time with a one-week engagement from Tuesday, May 17 to Sunday, May 22. For information and tickets, visit kimmelculturalcampus.org