Tony-Winning Director Jack O'Brien Looks Back on 10 Shows That Defined His Career
November 4th, 2014
by Josh Ferri
Three-time Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien is the genius behind such hits as Hairspray, The Coast of Utopia, The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and this season’s smash It’s Only a Play. On November 7 and 8, O’Brien goes from behind the scenes to center stage with his new 54 Below show I’ve Still Got My Health, What Do I Care?. The evening is billed as a Diamond Jubilee Celebration of O’Brien’s life on and off the stage (speaking of, his memoir Jack be Nimble is a great read for theatre fans) and will include surprise guest stars. Below, the former Artistic Director of The Old Globe (1981 through 2007) looks back on 10 plays and musicals that really shaped the course of his career and life in the theatre.
1. The Show That Brings Me the Most Joy to Look Back On:
I would guess this has to be Hairspray. The first few performances in our out of town tryout in Seattle we literally could NOT get the audience out of the theatre! Harvey Fierstein had to come back down to the stage in his bathrobe and without his wig and makeup to wave to them and tell them to go home. People were ecstatic. I remember Tom Stoppard calling me from the street (I was in San Diego at the time) saying he was “three feet off the ground!” It just doesn’t get any better.
2. The Show That Most Surprised Me with its Final Outcome:
That would be any one of the trio of The Coast of Utopia. We were “lost” in the Russian intellectuals, almost terrified that we’d screw it up, and with no assurance the audience would go with us: and it became one of the great runaway hits of my career. Who would have imagined?
3. The Show I Would Hope People Always Remember Me For:
I must almost restrain myself for writing “the last one I do!” not having any idea what that would be: Joe Iconis has written a lovely song I’m doing at 54 Below called “52” concerning two theatres on 52nd Street who are no longer called the Alvin or the Virginia: and the chorus keeps keening the lyric, “remember me!” Who doesn’t think about that? I’d be thrilled if any of my “hits” linger in the memory… that’s what we do it for.
4. The Show I Wish I Could Do Over:
Easy. Impressionism. It was a sweet, lovely, romantic play I thought needed an intermission, when it didn’t. When we finally figured that out, I “fixed” the problem in an afternoon, but it took ten days to reschedule the critics to come to a new opening, and in those ten days, we were “perceived” as being “in trouble,” when, in fact, we weren’t. You can’t beat City Hall sometimes! My bad!
5. The Last Minute or Surprise Casting That Really Worked Out for the Best:
I lost my leading actor for the revival of Damn Yankees literally as we arrived in New York. I was panicked, but my pal, Scott Ellis, told me about this fabulous guy, Jarrod Emick, who had mightily impressed him. Jarrod came in, nailed the job, and got himself a Tony for the effort. Talk about “hitting it out of the park!"
6. The Actor That Most Surprised Me When We Worked Together:
This sounds almost idiotic, but that nod goes to the great Nathan Lane. We met basically and initially on a professional level for The Nance. He was “word perfect” and off book with a brand new script on the very first day of rehearsal. It set a phenomenally high mark for the rest of the company, but his utter service to the material, to Douglas Carter Beane and me, and to the role was not what I thought this “make-it-look-so-easy” guy would do. No one pushes harder, and no one gives more. Along with the great John Lithgow, these men define the term “leading actor.” They LEAD!
7. The Show That Might Have Been Too Ahead of Its Time:
Bless it’s heart: The Selling of the President! Jazz great Bob James, my best friend from college, and I wrote the music and libretto for this disaster of a five-day wonder in 1972. It was based on the McGinness book of the same name about the Nixon campaign, and earned us a place, I was eventually told, on the “enemies list!” A groovy distinction, I still think. But the blend of satire and severity simply left everyone confused. And proved a turning point in both our lives: Bob went on the road with Sarah Vaughan and on to the singular career he’s created, and I, to directing!
8. My Favorite Old Globe Production During My Tenure:
That’s really hard: I loved the “regional” take we did on Kiss Me, Kate (which I wrote in my imagination for Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline, both of whom I’d nursed in their early Acting Company days), but finally, when I look back, the Campbell Scott Hamlet remains some of the best work all of us did, either separately, or together. Most of it was put on video — even the rehearsals, — but those tapes linger in the archives of the theatre with no “deal” ever able to compensate to have it all seen. What a shame!
9. My Dream Project Would Probably Be:
Anything that would unite, say, Ethan Hawke, and Bob Crowley, and Tom Stoppard, and Stockard Channing, and the other seventeen (???) of my favorite creative types. My cup runneth over!
10. The Work That Was Most Personal For Me Was:
This gig at 54 Below. Why on earth did I think I could “scare” myself at 75 to kick-start my adrenalin all over? But I’m going to throw myself out with no net beneath me, and trust to the good will of the universe! How personal can you get?
Don’t dare miss Jack O’Brien in ‘I’ve Still Got My health, So What Do I Care?’ at 54 Below on November 7 and 8.