Nick Cortazzo Links ‘Hairspray’ to Pittsburgh

Baldwin High alum and Point Park’s Annie Gagen join Nina West in touring show

By Sharon Eberson

There are cast albums that you turn to when you need a lift, and if you’re like me, Hairspray is high on the raise-my-spirits playlist.

Just talking with cast members of the touring show is enough to start feeling the beat, even without the music. 

Nick Cortazzo as Link Larkin sings It Takes Two in Hairspray. (Jeremy Daniel)

When Hairspray launches the new year at the Benedum Center, it will be a homecoming for Pittsburgh native Nick Cortazzo and Point Park alumna Annie Gagen. They play, respectively, slick and smitten Link Larkin and Lou Ann, a student council member on a Baltimore-based, American Bandstand-inspired television show. 

The PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh presentation that opens January 3 also stars Andrew Levitt – aka Nina West of RuPaul’s Drag Race – as Edna Turnblad, the role originated by Tony-winner Harvey FiersteinHairspray won eight Tonys, including best musicall.

For Cortazzo, the Benedum stage is becoming a comfort zone. The Baldwin High School and Baldwin Wallace University grad was a two-time Kelly Award finalist and a scholarship winner, whose recent Pittsburgh CLO credits include the ensembles of Sister Act and Kinky Boots this past summer.

The grueling pace of a CLO season helped Cortazzo to be prepared to jump into this current role. He had all but given up on Hairspray and was in the final weekend of Sister Act when he heard from the tour’s executive producer, saying they had let go of the actor originally signed to play Link.

“He was like, ‘The team wants you. If you want it, it’s yours.’ I was supposed to start a different show 48 hours later, in Long Island, New York.”

Cortazzo was allowed to leave that show and had four days of rehearsal before starting tech for Hairspray

“The first act of the show, I learned in three hours in front of Jack O’Brien [who directed the original Broadway production in 2002]. That was the day he came to sit in on rehearsal, and I’ve never been more nervous in my entire life,” the actor says.

Talking before a holiday break from touring, Cortazzo had some time in the role to calm his nerves and was “incredibly excited” to be coming home to perform again. 

“Pittsburgh is the city that raised me. Even before I knew what Broadway was or anything like that, I grew up going to see the national tours in Pittsburgh. And now that that’s gonna be me is like the wildest, coolest, full-circle thing that has happened in my career so far.”

The company of Hairspray performs Welcome to the ’60s, led by Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) as Edna Turnblad and Niki Metcalf as Tracy Turnblad. (Jeremy Daniel)

Back at Baldwin High School, working with musical director Jason Coll, Cortazzo starred in productions of Big Fish and Zorro: The Musical. What, you didn’t know there was a Zorro musical? Maybe we can get a rumor started about an upcoming tour, starring Nick Cortazzo …

“I’m ready,” he says with a laugh. 

Cortazzo notes that he had stage experience in middle school and at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, but it was Coll who believed in him as a leading man.

“He taught me that I could do it even when I didn’t think I could,” Cortazzo said. “Now as an adult, thinking back, I’m very fortunate and very thankful that I had him as my director for my last two years of high school. It’s people like Jason and Billy Mason, who is now the associate producer at CLO and was my voice teacher all through high school – I’m lucky enough to call him one of my very best friends now – and Jen Lybarger, who was my acting teacher and director at Pittsburgh Musical Theater … I’m very lucky.”

Lessons learned from Baldwin High to Baldwin Wallace Wallace have helped the actor bond with his character. Hee says he has a lot in common with Link, the teen dream who finds love and purpose with heroine Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf).

It can’t be that Cortazzo relates to Link because he’s always fixing his hair …

“No, I always am,” he says, laughing again. “I think I’m a little more mature than he is, so it’s definitely playing a younger version of myself, but I think I relate to him in trying to find your place in the world.”

Growing up, that meant being a musical theater kid in a family of athletes. 

Link sees himself as a star waiting to be discovered, a shining light among A-list, shallow teens, who treat racism and body shaming as de rigueur. Soul-searching is not on Link’s agenda – until Tracy comes along and turns his world upside down.  

Digging below the surface, Cortazzo has found a way to bond with his character.  

“I wanted to do theater and just, you know, navigating that and personal relationships, and ultimately, I think it’s about finding your voice and using it for good,” Cortazzo says. “That is kind of the journey that Link takes throughout the show.”

Growing up, it was Nick’s grandmother who took him to see shows in the Pittsburgh Cultural District, and she recently reminded him that at age 6, after seeing Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan, he turned to her and said, “This is what I want to do.”

“Theater is not something that anyone [in his family] had done or really known. So I think it was kind of a surprise to everyone, but I’m so thankful that they never asked questions about it, and they’ve been nothing but supportive since I started,” Cortazzo says.

When Hairspray played in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this year, he was able to link his love of theater with his athletic family.

“My mom’s sister [Pittsburgher Jen Flynn Oldenburg] is the head coach of Ohio State women’s volleyball. So I went in and I talked with her team and just, seeing how many similarities there were between her team and what I do, we had a really great dialogue about it. And then they all got to come and see the show”

He can’t wait to perform for Pittsburgh audiences, and also for his hometown to see his co-stars.

“[Andrew Levitt] is Edna, and he is incredible, and the kindest human being,” Cortazzo says. “And Nicki Metcalf is our Tracy, and she was born to play this role. She’s incredible. Falling in love with her on stage every night is so easy. I’m so happy that I get to do the show with both of them.”

Annie Gagen

The Cleveland native and Point Park alumna is making her national tour debut in Hairspray

She says you can easily spot her among the “council girls” on The Corny Collins Show – she’s literally head and shoulders above the rest, which has helped her find her Hairspray groove.

“Each council girl has a little bit of a different vibe,” Gagen explains. “We all kind of play with our characters a bit and establish what relationships we have to each other, and that’s one of the fun things about being in an ensemble – you have a little bit more freedom to kind of create your own background, because it’s not explicitly written into the book.”

Being the tallest girl in her group has helped her find a way into her character.

“In rehearsal, our director, Matt Lenz, called me ‘statuesque.’ And so I was like, OK, that’s kind of fun. So I try to put that into my character,  make her a little bit regal, almost,” Gagen says.

She initially sent an audition tape for the role of Amber back in 2020, before the tour was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic shutdown.

“So it wasn’t until, gosh, I want to say this past summer when they were doing the next round for this leg that I got submitted for the ensemble and covering the role of Amber.”

Within the cast of more than 30, “everyone has some sort of connection” to the Shaiman-Wittman Hairspray musical, based on the John Waters movie, and then adapted as a movie musical. 

Gagen’s relationship to the film goes back a decade, when she thought of herself mostly as a dancer. (Check out her dance reels on YouTube here and here.)

“I had actually done a production of Hairspray back home in Lakewood, Ohio, in 2012 – 10 years ago pretty much to the day that I got my offer for this show, which was a little wild,” she recalls. “It was actually one of the experiences that kind of pulled me back into musical theater.”

When the movie musical starring John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Zac Efrom and Nikki Blonsky came out in 2007, she saw it twice – in one day.

Her Hairspray destiny was sealed.

For Gagen, living out of a suitcase is something new, compared to life as a performer in more than 15 productions for Norwegian Cruise Line.

On the ship, the main difference, she says, is going back to the same cabin every night and cell-phone service – WiFi on the seas can be iffy, or very expensive.

With Hairspray, traveling from city to city includes getting an insider’s view of some postmodern venues and grand older ones, like the Benedum Center, which she has seen only as an audience member.

Gagen has been back to Pittsburgh just once since graduating from Point Park in 2015, so she may have some sightseeing to do, including the relatively new Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Point Park alum Annie Gagen

When she is onstage, in any venue, her favorite moments come as cast members are taking their bows and the energetic You Can’t Stop the Beat is playing.

“It’s when the audience is all standing up, dancing and singing along,” Gagen says. “And it’s the point in a show where we kind of break that Fourth Wall a little bit. There’s no more council kids playing to the camera. We’re just the cast on stage, engaging with the audience. And it’s one of the few times I feel like we are able to like, lock eyes with someone and really get them, really pull them into the show and into the energy and the excitement. So that is my favorite part, getting to finally really pull them in and be really excited that they’re there for us and that we’re there for them.”

‘Uplifting, infectious’ 

Getting back to where we started, Hairspray is a joyride, but also packs lessons about individualism, rebellion, along with how far we’ve come and how far there still is to go across racial divides.

And then there’s that toe-tapping pop score. 

“The story is so uplifting and the music is infectious,” Cortazzo agrees. “You know, your worst day really could turn into the best just by investing in the story and investing in the music.”

Hairspray, part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh 2022-23 season presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, January 3-8, 2023. Tickets and details: https://trustarts.org/production/81540/hairspray or 412-456-4800.

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