An Interview with Director Jack O’Brien: Hairspray To San Diego July 6th

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O’Brien proud to bring his Tony-winner home to San Diego
North County Times
By: PAM KRAGEN – Staff Writer

Seated in the opening-night audience for “Hairspray” at the San Diego Civic Theatre July 6 will be the tour’s proud papa, Jack O’Brien.

O’Brien won a Tony Award last year for directing the effervescent musical, and he also cast and directed the national tour, which opens a 13-day run in San Diego on Tuesday. But O’Brien’s presence in the audience won’t be just for show. The longtime artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre wants to make sure the “Hairspray” tour is in fine fettle for his fellow San Diegans. “This is my hometown and I want it to be really good.”

Except for Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” there hasn’t been a musical on Broadway as beloved as “Hairspray” in more than a decade. “Hairspray’s” staying power was proven again last week when New York critics returned for a second look and proclaimed it, once again, the best ticket in town.

O’Brien said his goal in directing the tour production was to re-create the spirit and energy of the Broadway show, even if he didn’t have the same stars (like Tony winners Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur).

“What you have to do is figure out the essence of what worked and use that as a template,” O’Brien said. “One of the secrets to this show is that it has an engaging, almost irresistible score. Probably one of the best knockout scores of the past 10 years. And the other secret is that we took the story very seriously instead of dismissing it.”

Based on the camp film classic by John Waters, the 1962-era musical is about chubby Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad, who wants to integrate the town’s dance party TV show. O’Brien said Waters set the plot in the “Camelot” era of Kennedy for a reason.

“That moment in time, in the spring of 1962, was the last gasp of an innocence we may never know again. The purity of that time, when anything was possible, is what we were trying to create with this show.”

In the film version of “Hairspray,” drag queen Divine played Tracy’s supportive mother, Edna. On Broadway, Fierstein won a Tony for his performance of the role. And in the touring production, writer/comedian Bruce Vilanch steps into the part.

“When I went to cast the part of Edna, I knew we needed a certain kind of transgender comic, because let’s face it, it’s much easier to have a good time laughing at an unattractive man playing a woman than to laugh at a woman like that. When I heard that Bruce wanted to come in and read for it, I wasn’t sure, because I didn’t know he’d ever done theater. But at his audition he sang extremely well and I found his audition very sincere. He’s a writer and I think he found his way to the honesty of the writing. He played straight into it.”

And how is Vilanch at playing a woman?

“He’s the most appalling-looking woman you’ve ever seen in your life,” O’Brien said, “but by the end he’s rather strangely attractive. I think it comes down to how we all feel about our mothers.”

While winning the Tony Award for directing “Hairspray” last year was a thrill, O’Brien said he was even more honored to pick up his second Tony last month for directing Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” at Lincoln Center.

“It was a shock,” he recalled of winning the Tony on June 6. “I had this Irish premonition that I wouldn’t win. I felt like the world had shrugged a month earlier and moved on to other things … and I kept telling people ‘we’re a classic and we’re closed,’ so I’d taken myself out of the running.”

But win he did, and O’Brien’s acceptance speech was filled with praise for his colleagues at the Old Globe and for a lifetime spent in regional theater.

“I was very proud and very excited to win for ‘Henry IV,’ even more so than last year (for ‘Hairspray’) because this play was emblematic of my career here, and it’s what San Diego has known me best for — my take on Shakespeare.”

Winning back to back directing Tonys for two very different projects —- a comic musical and a classic play —- is also typical of the versatility needed in regional theater. O’Brien’s split-personality was even more evident in 2001, when he earned simultaneous Tony nominations both for his direction of “The Full Monty” musical and Tom Stoppard’s drama “The Invention of Love.”

“Having San Diego as my home base has made all the difference. It’s made me something of an interesting renegade because I’ve never been a member of that club. I’ve steadily done work in both areas and I’ve been able to diversify. People were amazed that I could do two things that are so different, but that’s what can happen when you hang out at the Old Globe for 20 years.”

Next on O’Brien’s plate is yet another musical —- the world premiere of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which will open Sept. 15 at the Old Globe with John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, and transfer to Broadway on Valentine’s Day 2005. The musical, based on the 1988 Michael Caine/Steve Martin film, features a score by David Yazbek, who wrote the songs and lyrics for “The Full Monty.”

O’Brien said he’s eager to get started on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

“I think it’s the funniest single score I have ever heard in my life,” he said. “‘The Full Monty’ was funny, but this score eclipses it. And it has such an inspired cast. I can’t wait to begin.”