Copious laughter, instead of tears, could be heard throughout the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Monday, November 12 as hundreds of colleagues and friends gathered to remember the life of Tony Award-winning playwright Mark O'Donnell, who died suddenly on August 6 at the age of 58.
Throughout the nearly two-hour memorial, a variety of speakers—both in person and through tributes -- emphasized O'Donnell's unusual kindness and generosity, including Emmy Award-winning Daily Show host Jon Stewart, film director John Waters, Tony Award-winning actor Bill Irwin, Tony Award-winning director Jack O'Brien, and Tony Award-winning producer Margo Lion.
Mark's identical twin brother, Steve O'Donnell, spoke of his "inordinate nicetude." Writer Patricia Marx, a classmate from Harvard University, recalled that when O'Donnell once sent her a letter with an extreme amount of extra postage, he commented that it was "a token of his love for her." Drama Desk Award-winning director Mark Brokaw, who collaborated with O'Donnell on the Broadway musical Cry-Baby, emphasized that O'Donnell was the only person he ever worked with who never said an unkind word about another person.
Above all, the wit and comic genius of O'Donnell was celebrated throughout the proceedings, beginning with a hilarious slideshow of the writer's cartoons, which were published in such magazines as The New Yorker. They elicited constant guffaws from the star-studded crowd. ("The Guest Towels of Turin" and a poster proclaiming "Jumbo in Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck" were prime example of his sharp, off-center humor).
Later on, actors Christopher Evan Welch, Jay O. Sanders, Mia Barron, and David Greenspan performed O'Donnell's sidesplitting short play, There Shall Be No Bottom, and Tony Award winner David Hyde Pierce, who starred in O'Donnell's early play That's It, Folks!, read his wonderfully wry essay, "The 9 Laws of Cartoon Motion."
After a career of critical acclaim, O'Donnell finally achieved commercial success when he co-wrote the book of the musical Hairspray with Thomas Meehan, which earned the pair the 2003 Tony Award. In a rousing tribute, the show's composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman led over two dozen Hairspray alumni -- including Tony Award winners Harvey Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur, and Dick Latessa, along with Darlene Love, Kerry Butler, Linda Hart, and Jackie Hoffman – in a selection of the musical's songs, including the anthem "I Know Where I've Been," which O'Donnell fought to keep in the show.
The memorial drew to a close with an eloquent, heartfelt eulogy by one of O'Donnell's oldest friends, Tony Award-winning director Doug Hughes, followed by a photomontage set to O'Donnell's favorite song, Dinah Washington's "A Stranger on Earth" – a phrase that many said was a perfect summation of how the late writer viewed himself.