This spring, Nina West is trading in the title of Miss Congeniality for the role of Mrs. Turnblad. The iconic “Rupaul’s Drag Race” contestant, also known as Andrew Levitt, is currently touring the country in a splashy new production of “Hairspray,” the beloved musical adaptation of John Waters’ classic film. Stepping into the shoes of Divine and Harvey Fierstein, among others, Levitt is putting his own unique spin on the role of Edna Turnblad, the sheltered, agoraphobic mother of heroine Tracy, who leads a revolution of self-love in 1960s Baltimore. The tour stops off in Philadelphia for a week of performances at the Miller Theater this May.
PGN recently spoke with Levitt about his connection to the material, his take on the character and what it’s like to perform as part of an ensemble. Some responses have been condensed and lightly edited.
“Hairspray” is such a classic, iconic work, both as a movie and a stage musical. What was your personal relationship with the piece before joining the tour?
I grew up in the ‘80s, and I have a sister who’s a few years older than me. I was 10 years old in 1988, and my sister brought the VHS of “Hairspray” home. That was the first time I saw the film. It was just so different. I loved it so much that my sister gave me the cassette of all the music that was in the film. Then I went to college and graduated in 2001, and the musical opened in 2002. I was a server after college, saving up money to move to New York, and then 9/11 happened and I didn’t end up moving. But I had a little money and went to New York in the summer of 2002, when “Hairspray” was in previews, and I got to see it then. I’ll never forget [composer] Marc Shaiman pacing out in front of the house during intermission! I fell in love with the musical. For many years, I produced these big drag shows that started around 2003, and I performed almost the entirety of the “Hairspray” score with other drag queens. My time with the show has been long, even though it’s been from a fan’s perspective.
There’s also so much history with people like Divine, Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch playing this role. When it comes down to you being the current Edna, did you feel any trepidation in taking on the part and making it your own?
Hell yes! [laughs] Are you kidding me? Yes! As a lover of history and a lover specifically of Divine and Harvey — and Bruce, who’s such a brilliant writer and personality — it was a daunting ask. These are huge shoes to fill, and I wanted to honor every creative person who put their heart and soul into Edna before I got the chance. That also includes Tom Meehan, who helped write the book, and Marc and Scott Whitman, Jack O’Brien and John Waters, of course. I wanted to honor everyone whom Edna has grown from, from the Divine film to now. And my Edna is very different, and I had to be okay with that. That wasn’t always easy, because these people are titans in our community.
What’s the process like for creating your own spin on the part?
Literally in rehearsals, the thing that was holding me back was the idea that people were going to compare me to Harvey. It scared the hell out of me. My biggest fear was that people were not going to give me the opportunity to do her in my own way. And Harvey is actually the one who helped me work through that, along with [original director] Jack O’Brien and [original choreographer] Jerry Mitchell. That’s the magic of this family and the magic of this piece.
How do you see Edna as a character, and as a person?
My Edna is carrying on the story of really, actually being Tracy’s mom. I’m very maternal — or paternal — and I have a need to nurture. I think that is really evident in my performance of Edna. I’m very aware of my body and my size, which is part of the story. Every evening I’m confronting my own issues with my body, and every night, I get to be loved for who I am. My Edna is full of heart, and there’s some things I’m not playing for laughs. Actually, I’m not playing any of it for laughs. I’m playing the reality of it, and sometimes reality is funny.
I know you’ve performed all over the country, but I believe this is your first time touring as part of a musical ensemble. What is that experience like specifically?
It’s so different! With drag, I get to be a very heightened version of myself, and I’m only really responsible for me. If I make a mistake, it’s kind of like, “Whatever! Another round of shots!” [laughs] It’s not that here. But what’s similar is that they’re both really celebratory. I get to go around in my professional life as Nina West and bring joy. In “Hairspray,” I get to go around with a cast of incredible actors, band members and technicians, and we bring this story to life. We spread joy. I’m really lucky.
The national tour of “Hairspray” performs at the Miller Theater (formerly the Merriam Theater) from May 17-22.
For tickets and information, including COVID-19 protocols, visit https://www.kimmelculturalcampus.org/.