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Director Jack O'Brien on the stage musicalization of John Waters' Hairspray. logo
Jack O'Brien
(Photo: Broadway Beat)
Hairspray is without a doubt the most highly anticipated Broadway opening of the summer, if not the entire 2002-2003 season, and Jack O'Brien is the show's eminently talented director. His credits include The Full Monty (Tony nomination) as well as The Invention of Love (Tony nomination, Drama Desk Award), Pride's Crossing, The Little Foxes, and Hapgood (all for Lincoln Center Theater), not to mention the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees and an acclaimed production of Porgy and Bess for which he received another Tony nomination in 1977. Since 1982, he has been the director of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he has staged productions of everything from The Seagull to King Lear to How the Grinch Stole Christmas plus the world premieres of Terrence McNally's Up in Saratoga and A.R. Gurney's The Snow Ball. O'Brien has also directed a number of operas and several shows for PBS-TV's American Playhouse series. For our TheaterMania interview, I spoke with him in Seattle during the latter part of Hairspray's recent, sold out, pre-Broadway engagement at The Fifth Avenue Theatre.


THEATERMANIA: On Hairspray you have two book writers, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; a consultant, John Waters; a lyricist, Scott Wittman; a composer and co-lyricist, Marc Shaiman; a choreographer, Jerry Mitchell; and a design team. How do you achieve a unified voice?

JACK O'BRIEN: It's my greatest challenge. I'm a very inclusive kind of director of a lot of egos around me. I'm very secure; I know what I do well and I know why I do it well, but I also know that I can't cover all the bases. By giving everybody permission to contribute, I try very hard not to factionalize. So instead of people being divided into camps, I like to make it a big communal project. My tenet is that the best idea goes on stage; it doesn't have to be mine. I don't feel possessive and I don't have to be right all the time. I think that contributed a great deal to the pervasive sense of joy that you see on the stage, because everybody has had a say-so. We have not had any difficult fights. We've had problems to solve and still do, but I can't pretend that it hasn't been a terrific ride.

The Hairspray creators (l-r):
Scott Wittman, Jerry Mitchell, Jack O'Brien, and Marc Shaiman
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
TM: Do you want to talk about any of those problems?

JO'B: The transmogrification of film into a theater experience. You can't just put a screenplay on stage. A screenplay is designed primarily for the camera and, in many instances, a series of quick cuts to make your point. When you put a theatrical piece up on stage, the audience is an editor as well as you are. In a piece that is so individual, so iconoclastic as John Waters' work you have to maintain that delicate tone; you can't step too heavily on it. We've tried to find this rather zany, lighter-than-air atmosphere that you recognize as John Waters' world but that is still Hairspray, the musical. The assignment is, "How do I tell that story, and am I faithful to the spirit of the movie without replicating the movie?" It's harder than it looks. Casting is most of it.

TM: This is your second show with Jerry Mitchell. How did you find each other?

JO'B: Manny Azenberg called me many years ago and said, "There is a chorographer you've got to know," so [Jerry and I] had lunch. I remember it vividly: This buoyant, handsome, vital, extraordinarily positive guy comes in and we talk, but there was really no project for us to do together. When The Full Monty came along, I thought that there was nobody else in the business who knows as much about taking peoples clothes off on stage as Jerry Mitchell, because he's been doing Broadway Bares [the annual benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS] for over 10 years. I called him and he was eagerly available. It turns out that I was born in Saginaw, Michigan and he was born in Papaw, Michigan--and so, on some unbelievably weird level, we speak the same cultural language. When we did Monty, we bonded like brothers. We have this ability to sit together in the room and talk at the same time and edit and audit each other's words while we're doing so.

An ensemble moment from Hairspray
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
TM: How would you describe a typical rehearsal day?

JO'B: There is no typical rehearsal day. My first cautionary note to any director is to curb your expectations. You're in a river that's a placid backwater and whitewater at the same time, and your ability to move as the river moves is how well you guide your canoe to its destination. There are slow days when you have to give it over to technical things, days when you have to turn into a disciplinarian or an armchair psychologist, days when you have to make a fool of yourself because if you don't, they won't. There are days when you have to be Daddy, days when you have to be a writer, where you have to spur people on, When I first started directing, I would sit home with a ground plan and chess pieces and move the little chess pieces around. I thought, "It looks good, these are good pictures; he should cross here, she'll sit here." And then you meet somebody like Tammy Grimes, who says, "I don't want to come in over there, I don't want to carry the flowers, and I don't want to sit down." Your little plan is right out the window. So you learn that you're either going to cope by the seat of your pants and take advantage of what people bring or you're going to be very unhappy.

TM: How has the show changed since the first preview in Seattle?

JO'B: It hasn't changed as much as some do, although we've revised certain musical numbers. A lot of the numbers were dropped directly onto the stage as they were conceived; then we found that they needed lyric shifts and tone shifts. We have done a lot of shifts getting in and out of things. We button things differently. We're still throwing things out and starting all over again.

TM: What does it mean "to button?"

JO'B: Buttoning is how you end the numbers. Do you stop for applause? When you do, you want to make sure that you've really nailed it. We've been doing a lot of that kind of work.

TM: Do some jokes work in Seattle that won't work in New York, or visa versa?

JO'B: I've never found that to be true. I think that's an old fear; it just doesn't apply anymore. I've run the Old Globe Theater in San Diego for 20 years; we've sent a ton of work to New York and I've never received a laugh in San Diego that I didn't get in New York. With the Internet and with television over the last 15 years, America has become incredibly sophisticated. This is a musical for the rest of us. It's not about Manhattan; it's set in the blue-collar area of Baltimore so we can't get too high on our horses.

Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
TM: What are some of your favorite things about the show?

JO'B: There's Harvey Fierstein, ostensibly in drag. He hasn't been on the stage in 20 years and, when he made his reputation, he was playing a drag "queen": he was representative of both a man and a man performing as a woman. In this case, he plays a woman all night long with no concession to the convention whatsoever. We never tip our hand, we never apologize, we never even refer to it--and everybody goes along with it. Harvey is like one of those great French clown performers: He's larger than life, he grabs your heart. You believe utterly in his maternal instinct and his love for his family. As a very wise woman said to me, "I want Harvey as my mother." The show is sweetly subversive in the affectionate way that John Waters is. John loves his characters, warts and all. There's no nudge-nudge, wink-wink; we just do the piece. My other favorite moment is at the end of the curtain call when Dick Latessa and Harvey meet and exchange a sweet little married person's kiss and it never occurs to you that it's a couple of guys. I love the fact that this zonky little family gives permission to that little girl to believe she can do this. That family is the most functioning group on the stage. The conventional family is not doing so well.

TM: Are you optimistic about Hairspray's reception on Broadway?

JO'B: We're having a great time; it's a lovely experience. Audiences are eating it up and that's great, but I've been there before. Our job is not only to land it with the audiences but to make it completely acceptable to the critics as well. You know, I think it's really interesting that America would produce as it's major art form the musical theater piece because, of all the arts it is the most intensely collaborative. If you are an auteur, if you are an autocrat, don't go into the musical theater because there is you and your staff--there are the writers, the composers, the arrangers, the designers. Then there are the producers, the producers' in-laws, the producers' ex-wives, all of whom have--as far as they're concerned--valid opinions of not only what you are doing but also what should be done. And guess what? Every once in a while, they're right. So you have to keep alert because somebody may tell you something you've easily forgotten. That's an intensively American thing; it's evocative of a big, democratic society. We're generous people, and it's very interesting to me that our greatest art would be produced out of that generosity of spirit.

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