Starring in Theatre Aspen’s ‘Hairspray,’ young actress finds more than a great role
June 28, 2017
The musical "Hairspray" changed Taylor Hartsfield's life, both professionally and personally. As the 23-year-old Los Angeles-based actress prepares to star in Theatre Aspen's summer production of the Broadway smash, she said, her long relationship with the show is coming full circle.
A recent graduate of California State University in Fullerton, Hartsfield is playing the lead role of the plump and plucky dance-show sensation Tracy Turnblad in Theatre Aspen's summer-long production of the endearingly upbeat tale of '60s nostalgia, racial integration and body-positivity. Previews begin today.
Last year, Hartsfield nearly landed the role on NBC's "Hairspray Live!" production, which aired in December. She went out for an open casting call in Los Angeles with 2,000 girls and made it all the way to the final callbacks. She didn't ultimately get the part. But NBC's loss ended up being Aspen's gain.
Though Aspen's national auditions had been completed, Hartsfield sent the company an e-mail with some tape of her from her NBC auditions. In April, she was named Theatre Aspen's Tracy.
Director and choreographer Mark Martino said Hartsfield's tireless work ethic and her infectiously sunny optimism were the key to making this "Hairspray" work.
"You can't do the show if you don't have your Tracy," he said.
The part, he noted, calls on the actor playing Tracy to sing and dance for two-and-a-half hours – and sing and dance more than anyone else across a total of 22 production numbers. It takes a rare talent to pull it off, Martino said, and Hartsfield has that talent.
"She's always on the money," he said. "I love her."
Hartsfield's history with "Hairspray" goes back to when she was 15 and was cast in a community theater production in Northern California as an ensemble member.
"Then I hit puberty and all of a sudden I was Tracy-typed," she said with a laugh.
Her first run as Tracy was in a 2015 production at Chance Theater in Anaheim. That stripped-down version, without big sets and technical flourishes, forced her to immerse herself in the character and the message of "Hairspray." It was a transformative experience.
"It gave me a lot of insight beyond the fluff of what we see," she said, "into the story and how important it is. That changed my life in theater, because it changed my view of myself as a performer. My relationship with my family and friends blossomed because I was able to stop feeling so self-deprecating in this world that's all about your appearance and how you fit in."
In February, she reprised the role at Performance Riverside in a big production using the national tour's sets.
With three productions and the "Hairspray Live!" auditions under her belt, Hartsfield knows the show and the part.
"It makes it easier and it makes it harder in some ways," she said.
The choreography is completely new for Aspen, and the thrust stage and intimate set-up of the Hurst — where the action spills into the aisles and nearly into the laps of audience members — is unlike anyplace else.
"Luckily, I've been able to put my brain into the movement of the show because, lines-wise, I know it," she said.
And she's proud to be taking the stage alongside the talented young performers and Broadway veterans that Theatre Aspen attracts. The scene-stealing role of Tracy's mother Edna — performed in drag by Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway production and by John Travolta in the film — is being played by Kevin Carolan, a theater veteran with Broadway credits including "Newsies" (Carolan also ran for governor of New Jersey earlier this year).
"Everyone I'm on stage with has a ton of experience," Hartsfield said. "I just graduated last year and this is my first really big contract. So I'm feeling that pressure, like, 'Oh my god, these people are on Broadway!'"
If she's stressing the big role in Aspen's big summer show, you wouldn't know it watching the cheerful professionalism she exudes in rehearsal. On a recent afternoon of rehearsals in a dance studio at the Aspen Business Center, Martino worked his young cast through the steps for the ensemble number "Without Love." Moving at a breakneck pace, he and musical director David Dyer made adjustments on singing parts and added new dance steps.
To an observer, it's an unimaginably high-pressure situation with the clock ticking toward opening night. For Hartsfield and the talented young actors surrounding her, it seems like a breeze. Between belting out their parts on "Without Love," Hartsfield and Christian Probst — a recent Yale School of Drama grad playing the heartthrob Link Larkin — goofed around and joked and dropped some impromptu dance moves between songs.
"We all get along so well and I think that happens with this show," Hartsfield said. "The best people come to do it, so it's always a great group."
Theatre Aspen's production of the Tony-winning Broadway musical smash begins previews today at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park and officially opens on Tuesday. It's limited run goes through Aug. 19.
Hartsfield arrived in Aspen in early June — a week before rehearsals began — to acclimate to the altitude.
"I've heard a lot about acclimating and altitude and how hard it is to breathe here," she said. "It's definitely all true, this is definitely the hardest thing I've ever done."
Of course, she's done it before. But the show's bizarre and brilliantly conceived creative demands still amaze her.
"The writers of this show were thinking something funny, to say, 'Let's write a huge musical where a chubby girl has to be really in shape, but not really, and she has to sing and dance her booty off eight times a week,'" she said. "'Oh, and we're going to put this man in drag because we can. And we're going to have a huge ensemble and every single dance number is going to have the entire ensemble involved. And it's going to be the best production ever — here we go!'"
Some argue its original Broadway run actually was the best production ever. The musical won eight Tonys in 2003, became an instant classic, a feature film and a live TV event.
And it's more than a piece of entertainment for Hartsfield.
"The idea of self-acceptance and acceptance of other people is huge for me because I found that being a part of this show," she said. "I realized that, actually, being different from everyone else is the best possible thing."
Set in 1962 Baltimore, those lessons remains vital in America.
"While hopefully we're not beating people over the head with a message, it's the driving force of the show," she said. "Whether you feel segregated because of religion, race or body type, it touches on all of that."