For example, when putting Hairspray together, the creative team (including co-librettist Thomas Meehan) discussed the off-stage histories of the people who dwell in the candy-colored 1962 Baltimore of the show, which has been nommed for 13 Tony Awards.
"Tracy was postwar baby," O'Donnell said. "If she was 16 in 1962, that makes her born in 1946.We did a whole timeline, actually. I traced the characters from 1945 through the year 2000. Edna would have been a bobby soxer. She's probably born in 1922, her mother was a sufragette. We figure that Wilbur and Edna met at a postwar party celebrating the end of chocolate rationing."
Playwright and novelist O'Donnell said he didn't address the silly satire the way a Russian novelist would, and despite imagining backstory, the team "pretty much dwelled in the present."
But, O'Donnell said, "Everybody has parents. As a dramatist, whenever you write a character, you must write their parents as well, even if the parents aren't there. It's an interesting show because we've got four mothers and four daughter. This is a show about families." Filmmaker John Waters invented the characters in his film of the same name, O'Donnell acknowledges. "We just played with it," he observed.
The writer said he was attracted to the project because it's a satire with heart, and it has something to say.
"It's not Grease," he said. "It's Grease meets 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' It's worthy. If you do it in a high school, everyone's a little bit better for having done it, I hope."
"The nice part is that all of the collaborators seemed to not worry about boundaries," O'Donnell said. "I would suggest to the songwriters, 'Let's have the three girls in different places complaining about being stifled by their moms.' And they suggested stuff for the book. 'Whatever is best for baby' is the phrase we kept saying."