After a few unexpected pivots, Nina West is set to follow in the nimble footsteps of drag icons by taking on her dream role this fall.
The “RuPaul’s Drag Race” veteran will star as Edna Turnblad in the national tour of the musical “Hairspray,” which opens Nov. 17 in San Diego, California, and will visit more than 60 U.S. cities. West will be joined by Niki Metcalf and Toneisha Harris as Tracy Turnblad and Motormouth Maybelle, respectively, with additional casting to be announced later.
“This is the role I’ve always wanted,” said West, whose real name is Andrew Levitt. “Edna’s journey as a character is a journey I’ve been on ― not seeing how beautiful we are on the outside, not trusting we are worthy, being ashamed of ourselves. It’s a journey many of us go on, right?”
Based on John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name, “Hairspray” follows Tracy Turnblad, an energetic, fun-loving teen in 1960s Baltimore whose dream is to dance on the most popular variety show on TV. After landing a role, Tracy begins to campaign for the show to be desegregated so that she can share the spotlight with performers of color.
Edna Turnblad, the protagonist’s mother, was played in the 1988 movie by drag icon Divine and in the original 2003 Broadway production of the musical by Harvey Fierstein. (The less said about John Travolta’s portrayal in the 2007 movie adaptation of the musical, the better.)
West’s “Hairspray” journey dates back to 2019, when she received a phone call from Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed the original Broadway staging, to audition for the new production. She formally landed the role of Edna in March of last year, just one week before theaters across the U.S. closed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The experience of being cast in a dream role, only to have it ripped away indefinitely before rehearsals commenced, was “humbling,” West said. “As an artist, you’re like, ‘God, how do I prepare for this? What am I going to do next?’ Everyone was saying, ‘Pivot, pivot, pivot!’ So the pandemic, for me, has been a quick learning tool on how to regroup and how to constantly stay aware, awake and energized.”
And to her credit, West has spent most of the past 16 months boosting her profile in major ways. Last year, she partnered with Dolly Parton for a clothing line called “Kindness is Queen” and, later, with actor Patricia Clarkson on a musical tribute to Kamala Harris, then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, before election night. In June, she hosted the livestreamed Disney+ concert “This Is Me: Pride Celebration Spectacular,” where she duetted with Kermit the Frog.
Collectively, West views those experiences her on-the-ground training for “Hairspray,” which she considers one of the best musicals ever written.
“We are at an impasse in our country,” she said. “People in our country are scared and unsure if it’s even safe to leave our homes. We’ve politicized getting a shot that will take care of people and allow them to be healthy. … I think a show like ‘Hairspray’ is going to allow us to celebrate, reconnect and refocus.”
“The role allows me to bring Nina, a drag character I’ve been cultivating for 20 years,” she added. “It also allows me to be Andrew and celebrate that part of myself as an actor doing the work. I’ve really leaned into being very vulnerable with people and allowing myself to be pretty honest.”
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