Jack O'Brien was nominated for two Tony Awards this year—for his direction of the big-hearted David Yazbek-Terrence McNally musical The Full Monty and the heady Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love—and though he didn't win in either category (there's little stopping the twin dramatic locomotives called The Producers and Proof), both his shows have proved critical and popular hits, making the 2000-01 season one of the most notable and successful in the long and varied career of the man whose day job is running the Globe Theatre in San Diego. Between preparing the U.S. tour of The Full Monty and readying for the Globe production of Twelfth Night, O'Brien spoke to Playbill On-Line
Playbill On-Line: This has been a great year for you, but also probably an exhausting one. Do you ever regret having booked so much Broadway work in the season?
Jack O'Brien: Yeah, I'm more at home in airports these days than in any location. There's no point in regretting it, is there? I'm blessed with an enormous amount of energy. You can't take credit for that. That's genetic and I'm very grateful to my genes. Actually, I love a lot of activity and I find I do better when I am, in a sense, backed up. It makes me focused. It makes the decision-making process visceral, which is good. I don't have time to fool around most the time, so I tend to mean what I say.
PBOL: Were you surprised that a feel-good book musical like The Full Monty succeeded so well?
JO: I guess my great fear was not to screw it up. I knew implicitly that it was a great idea for a musical. Primarily, because it was so engaging in terms of the audience's sense of identification. You rarely see a musical about us. It's usually more rarified people who are the subject of a musical. But this is a musical about the common man, who is neither particularly gifted or beautiful or in any way really exceptional, except that their spirit is engaged. That's an enormously winning idea. I felt if we didn't condescend to it and if we didn't play safe—and by that I mean just translate the movie onto the stage—we had every possibility of getting it over. I thought that the components, the people who were working on it, were really classy, and the worst thing you could do is not ask them to contribute. We all got deeply involved with our culture, our own senses of humor, I think with our own fears and what came out of it I think surprised a lot of people, because even now it's not the piece people think they're going to see.
PBOL: What do they think they're going to see?
JO: I think they think there's something slightly prurient about it. And when they get there, they get so involved with these goofy guys, the audience forgets that they're supposed to take their clothes off until the end of the show. Because it's a musical, because you spend more dimensional time with them than you're allowed to in the film, you get to know them better. There's somebody in that musical for you, whether it's the executive or the heavy guy or the black man or the older guy. There's somebody in there with your name on it and if the right one doesn't get you than the left one will.
PBOL: Invention of Love seems like it would be an incredibly hard play to stage.
JO: I guess it was. It didn't feel like it. First of all, I was incredibly blessed by the whole collaborative association with [designer] Bob Crowley, whose sense of participation is individual. We spent an enormous amount of time thinking about how to tell the story. And I have such respect for Tom and we have a great rapport, that I sensed that both visually and intellectually I was tremendously supported. So all I had to do was focus on the emotional integrity of the piece and how it felt. I knew it was going to look spectacular. And I knew that Tom's skill in handling words is rivalled by probably no one in the world today. But I thought maybe if I can supply the heart to this piece, all these elements will come together. PBOL: Did you ever stop and say, "Hey, even I don't understand some of the stuff they're talking about up there"?
JO: No. No, no. First on all, Tom explained everything to me. Number two: There is extant on the internet a 43-page glossary to all that's gone on in this play. You can log on and get it. And in the third place, when I had done [Stoppard's] Hapgood [at Lincoln Center Theater], which was about quantum physics, I was really out of my depth. But Tom was extremely patient with me and very careful at explaining over and over and over again what these concepts were about. [Laughs] Well, if you've gotten through Hapgood unscathed, anything else, as Sondheim said, is a laugh.
PBOL: Much has been written about how The Full Monty and Invention are as different from eachother as two plays can be. Do you consider yourself a jack of all genres?
JO: Well, the "Jack" part is certainly right. Look, I've spent almost my entire professional life connected to a company one way or another, staring with Ellis Rabb's company, Andre Bishop's, my own, John Houseman's acting company, Bill Ball. I'm a company man. As far as that's concerned, you get a lot of assignments. Some of them you choose, some are ones that choose you and some are ones that you have to do. That's a very stretching process. I've had great opportunities, but I certainly haven't tended to repeat myself very often.
PBOL: Are you prouder of your work on one of these season's projects more than the other?
JO: Not really. I love them both but in very different ways. It feels more unusual to other people than to me that I've done these two back to back. This is the kind of work I've been doing all my life. It's just that I haven't done them consecutively and in New York. And the truth of the matter is I'm just older and more experienced than I was. I've done a ton of work and I have virtually no rear view mirror. I don't remember what the year was and I usually don't remember much about the event except that I did it, because I'm almost inevitably looking at the next one down the pike. That's what happens when you run a company. There is no luxury to sit in a bathtub and muse.
PBOL: And the next one down the pike is...
JO: Twelfth Night at the Globe. Paxton Whitehead is Malvolio and Harry Groener is Festes. And after that, I'm going to put my feet up a little bit.
—By Robert Simonson