"Welcome to the '60s," where psychedelic fashions ruled and mini-skirts were everywhere. Soul music gained a strong voice while segregation separated the dance floors. John Waters' original 1988 film Hairspray displayed drag diva Divine as mother Edna Turnblad, and made Ricki Lake (who portrayed daughter Tracy) a star.
In 2002, a Broadway musical version premiered with Harvey Fierstein in the role of Edna. The show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for Fierstein.
Out performer Andrew Levitt now attempts to fill those high heels as iconic Edna while bringing a long history of drag artistry to Chicago's CIBC Theatre. Levitt is known for his drag persona of Nina West, who catapulted to fame on the eleventh season of RuPaul's Drag Race. She came in sixth place and won Miss Congeniality.
Levitt released three EPs and started The Nina West Fund at The Columbus Foundation to assist with a variety of charities. He took a break from his performance duties in Detroit to discuss Hairspray and an important cause that doesn't stop.
Windy City Times: You are originally from Ohio?
Andrew Levitt: Yes, from northeast Ohioa community called Canton. I was born in Detroit, grew up in Canton and moved to Columbus for college.
WCT: Did you always want to perform?
AL: Yes. I think the first production I ever saw was a national tour of Cats in 1984. At six years old I knew that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but not be a cat! [laughs]
It grew from there. Every experience with the arts changed me. It was always a reaffirmation that it was what I wanted to do. It is how I found my path.
WCT: Do you have a favorite musical?
AL: I love Sondheim, with Into the Woods and Company. I love the classics like Sound of Music. I am a Julie Andrews fanatic!
WCT: What was your journey to land the role in Hairspray?
AL: I always wanted to do theater, but fell into drag for 18 years as Nina West. My season of RuPaul's Drag Race aired in 2019. It changed my life and every opportunity was at my fingertips. I had done Harvey Fierstein for Snatch Game on Drag Race. Jerry Mitchell, who was the original choreographer on Hairspray, saw me play this and called me. He said that he had a dream about me where I played Edna.
I met with Jack O'Brien, who directed Hairspray on Broadway. I was cast as Edna and everything shut down due to the pandemic in March 2019. I thought it wouldn't happen but here we are on the road and doing our best. Last night we didn't have a show because a cast member caught COVID. The audiences are showing us such grace and patience as we navigate this world right now.
When the curtain goes up on this show, people will feel the energy of this music. I think this show is vital. We needed a shot in the arm of joy to go with our vaccinations!
WCT: How do you get to make the character of Edna Turnblad your own in the touring production?
AL: There have been so many great performances of her with Divine, Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch. My task is very simple with this iconic role. I need the audience to believe that I am a woman. It is all based in truth and reality. As a drag queen performer who is used to being over the top, I had to really hone it in and make it believable with my actions.
Edna is the heart of this production. The audience gets to see her transformation from beginning to end. My Edna is vulnerable, sensitive and emotional. She cares for her kid and her husband. Those are her greatest joys. I am fond of her and she has transformed my life in ways I never could have imagined.
WCT: In terms of preparing backstage, how does the Edna Turnblad character compare to the Nina West character?
AL: Edna is easy at the beginning of the show. I add dark circles under my eyes. Nina is such a bright character from the jump. The energy between the two is so different.
The audience may never know it, but there are subtle changes throughout the show as Edna. The makeup is more contoured at the beginning and then gets lighter.
It takes me 20 minutes to do Edna's makeup and Nina takes me two hours.
WCT: You dedicate this performance to Kathy Ringley. Was she your teacher?
AL: Yes, she was a teacher of mine who drove me to my first audition at a community theater in my hometown. She passed away in 2021, so I didn't have the chance to share the news about this show with her. She changed my life and embraced me as a queer kid who wasn't able to be out.
WCT: What are your thoughts on season 14 of RuPaul's Drag Race?
AL: I love what the show does for the art form and our community. The new season is fantastic and I am obsessed with Kornbread, like the rest of the world. I like how they keep the show fresh and have the new chocolate bar twist. I would have to eat that chocolate bar!
WCT: What if all the winners of Miss Congeniality competed with each other as a show?
AL: Let me tell you that would be the cattiest season ever! [Laughs] There would be me, Heidi N Closet, LaLa Ri, Pandora Boxx, Katya, Latrice Royale and Monet X Change. It would such a good season, but I wouldn't expect sunshine and lollipops!
WCT: Talk about The Nina West Fund.
AL: It is a charitable foundation that is a 501(c)(3) based in Columbus, Ohio. We give money to LGBTQIA+ causes. Sometimes it is voter activations for BIPOC communities, trans rights or LGBT youth suicide prevention. It all stems from me growing up and feeling alone as a queer kid. I don't want others to feel alone.
With Florida classrooms not being able to talk about gender identity or LGBTQ issues, they are basically throwing kids away. We have more work to do and it is never done. We have to pull together as a country and as queer people to have conversations together. The foundation is there to provide a voice and support with financial resources. If people can make a donation to my foundation that is great or find an organization in Chicago that needs help.
You can give your time, talent or money. I learned as a young drag queen to add a number at the end of my show and donate those tips to an organization.
Everyone's voice and actions matter. I hope everyone can band together and tackle these issues before our community is erased.
The beat doesn't stop Feb.1-13 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., with tickets at BroadwayinChicago.com .
To donate to The Nina West Fund, visit columbusfoundation.org .