While getai was getting an '881' makeover in the '60s in S'pore, over on the other side of the world America was waking up to a rebellion of music and dance against the white-dominated conservative values of a decade before. Welcome to Baltimore, Maryland, a nondescript town in one of the tiniest of the US States, and the setting for 'Hairspray'.
'881' was a nostalgic reflection on Hokkien music which has not really grown out of its niche and is currently being kept alive primarily as entertainment for the Dead (no, I don't mean Deadheads, duh. I do literally mean our dearly departed during the annual 7th month summer break from the afterlife). The story focuses on the divisiveness of the music, and how rival getai singers compete with one another through music, dance and costume as they backstab, badmouth and brawl their way to the top of their circuit.
'Hairspray' looks at rock & roll, the springboard for the kind of music heard around the world today, and the common ancestor of black music and white music as we know them today. In the US, rock & roll underscores some major changes in the lives of the American people. Some changes were frivolous and transient (fashion, hairstyle, dance moves), but others impacted on the values of society as a part of a fundamental shift in the way people lived (e.g., racial integration, the idea that "being different" is no longer an obstacle to achieving one's dreams).
Both movies say a lot about our two very different cultures. Over here, we see threats and competition all over the place. For us, the only way to the top is through tooth and claw and the sweat of our brows. Over in 'Hairspray', change centres around plus-sized Tracy Turnblad, whose irrepressible optimism and talent for turning adversity into opportunity makes her a natural stereotype breaker in modest-town Baltimore.
As in '881', Tracy aims to win a contest -- a real one with crown and contract, compared to '881's totally imaginary self-imposed one -- but the contest becomes secondary for her as she embraces a cause even larger than herself. Determined as she is to break into TV as a dancer despite her non-TV friendly proportions ("this show isn't broadcast in Cinemascope," is one of the nastier comments she receives from fellow dancer, Amber Von Tussle, her biggest critic on the show), she jeopardises her dreams to march in a demonstration advocating racial integration because "it's the right thing to do."
Both musicals are highly entertaining, employing captivating vocals, choreography, and particularly in 'Hairspray', colour scheme. Both are very down-to-earth in their character portrayals and concerns, from the point of view of very ordinary people and their dreams to transcend their ordinariness. But '881' has a particular sense of urgency, to make change now because an individual's life is short. 'Hairspray' is more patient, recognizing the quiet strength of a united people (as in Motormouth Maybelle's anthem, 'I know where I've been'), whose resoluteness brings about a slower but more inevitable change for everyone.
Compared to 'Hairspray', '881' is a kancheong spider. If you want to get to know a culture, listen to their stories, or watch their movies, and learn how the people think. I dunno. With '881', I'm like, yeah, that's how it was... interesting. But with 'Hairspray', I feel more like singing along with Tracy, "Good morning, Siiiiingapore...!"*
*Hear this song for free at the 'Hairspray' Broadway musical site -- just activate the 1st song on the jukebox.