PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Margo Lion

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Margo Lion In 2001, as she watched the runaway success of The Producers, Margo Lion—producer of such critical hits as Angels in America and Seven Guitars—was convinced that it was her fate never to foster a monster hit.
Margo Lion
Margo Lion

Two years later, as the force behind Hairspray, she is the most successful Broadway producer of the 2002-03 season. The fanciful, cotton-candy vision of early 1960s Baltimore opened on Broadway in August 2002 and has never really relinquished the title of Hit of the Season. It has won most every theatre honor and is poised to take home more than a few Tony Awards on June 8. Following that, there's a two-year national tour to attend to and the clamoring of two continents for more stagings of the tale of size-challenged Maryland dynamos Edna and Tracy Turnblad. Lion, who was born in Baltimore ("I never realized Baltimore had such a distinctive personality when I lived there," she says), took time, while decking out her house for a catered affair, to talk to Playbill On-Line about becoming the head of a little corporation called Hairspray.

Playbill On-Line: Has Hairspray taken over your life?
Margo Lion: Yeah. In a nice way. It consumes every hour of the day. It's the first time in my 25 years as a producer that I can concentrate on the business side of producing. Usually, I'm doing shows where I have concentrate on the day-to-day operations: Are they going to survive another month, another year? This is really running a corporation. And I enjoy that. And I count myself especially fortunate to have talented co-producers with whom to share the responsibilities.

PBOL: The information on the tour has emerged slowly.
ML: It opens in Baltimore on Sept. 9. We go into rehearsal the last week of July. We have confirmed dates for two years and I assume we'll be out longer than that. The cast is set, but there are no other names involved other than Bruce Vilanch. Jack [O'Brien, the director], Jerry [Mitchell, the choreographer], my co-producers and myself have taken the position that Hairspray is the star of Hairspray. It's more in line with The Lion King or Les Miz or Mamma Mia!. It's an entity. It's not a star-driven event. One of the things that we're very excited about with Hairspray, is it's a show that allows us to debut a lot of new talent. We can hire people 18 years old and up.

PBOL: I was talking to Dick Latessa and he mentioned how irreplaceable he thought Harvey Fierstein was as Edna Turnblad. Was it difficult deciding on Bruce Vilanch to play the role of Edna on the tour?
ML: No. He auditioned right off the top. Casting director Bernie Telsey has just done an extraordinary job of casting this show. When I was first working on this show, we had a reading and had to determine the casting. I had been so impressed with Bernie's casting of young people in Rent that I wanted to work with him. Bernie went out to L.A. 10 days before us and screened people for us. Bruce was one of those people. And he was fantastic. What he and Harvey share is they're both writers. Jack O'Brien particularly feels that this brings something to that role, an understanding and appreciation of that role. Whether or not we'll stay with that paradigm, who knows?

PBOL: There was some word about New Line Cinema being interested in a movie of Hairspray.
ML: New Line Cinema has the film rights. Of course, they did the original movie. And they are also an investing partner with us. There's an enormous amount of interest in the movie. However, there is a hold-back of several years [while the stage production continues]. PBOL: Has the success of Hairspray kept you from concentrating on new projects?
ML: I wouldn't say it's kept me from it; it's been a choice. I've been talking to a number of people about new ideas. But, to be really honest, I got some really good advice from Freddie Gershon. One of the things I did was, during the past year, I went out to lunch with people who had long experience in the business. Freddy Gershon runs Music Theater International and is very savvy about how to perpetuate the life of the show. He said, "Be very careful in the first year, because the mistakes you make in the first year are really, really hard, if not impossible, to correct." I've taken that advice to heart and am keeping my focus very tight on Hairspray. Jack O'Brien's nickname for me during the creation of Hairspary was "The Pneumatic Drill." Jim MacGruder once gave me a t-shirt that said "If it isn't broke, you haven't looked hard enough." I think there is that quality to my management style. Right now, I'm looking for all the things that could benefit this show. I want to keep my eye on that. Until we're off on the road, that's what I'm going to be doing.

PBOL: So far, it seems to be working.
ML: This really has been a blessed experience, since my first meeting with John Waters and my first phone call to [composer] Marc Shaiman. There really hasn't been—with the exception of Rob Marshall going off to do "Chicago"—a bump in the road. Let me share an anecdote. The musical Triumph of Love—which was a show I loved and worked incredibly hard on and believed in—closed in January 1998, and I went into this kind of funk. Then I came up with the idea of Hairspray—which was actually an idea suggested by Scott Rudin years before—and I decided, in my gloom, to do it. Flash forward to the spring of 2001. I went over to [producer and Jujamcyn Theaters head] Rocco Landesman—my offices are in their suite of offices—and there was all this jubilation about The Producers. I was watching it as if through the glass. I said, "God, Rocco, I'm really happy for you. This is the kind of thing producers dream of. A show comes along and it just works. No horrible moments." And I said, "This will never happen to me." And I really believed it. I said, "This will absolutely never happen to me, and I've come to terms with that. That isn't my role in this business. I have other roles." When Hairspray happened—it was just a miracle. You work hard on every single show, if you're a conscientious producer and you're in it for a lifetime. What makes one of them take off like this? I have no idea. Any producer that tells you they have the solution to this is either seriously deluded or a rank beginner. You can't predict it. The first reading of Hairspray was at New York Theatre Workshop. And I thought it would take the kind of journey of Rent, because it was John Waters and I wanted to retain his voice. But when I heard that first reading, I said, "This is not for New York Theatre Workshop."

PBOL: Your credits are rather eclectic: new musicals, revivals of classics, new plays, one-person shows.
ML: I go with the voice. I like material that has a personality, that has some kind of contemporary resonance. I'm kind of bemused when people say, "Hairspray is an old-fashioned musical." I'm saying to myself, "Really? When was the last musical where a man played a woman, a fat girl was the lead, black and white kids are kissing on stage?" I don't know that musical. One journalist said to me, "I think they mean, because it works." I think they mean because it has a book.

PBOL: Do you think it will do well in London?
ML: I don't know. I'm very skeptical about London. I've had a lot of people very interested about doing the show over there. To be honest, would I want to take there right now? No. I think it's a show that is nothing if not optimistic about the possibilities of transformation. And I don't think the English are feeling that way about themselves, about the world and especially about America. The English are very skeptical people. Americans are can-do. Tracy Turnblad can change the face of society. I think all of us feel that we want to wait. Interestingly enough, we have enormous interest among the Japanese. They're going to do it in Japanese as well as in English.

PBOL: You don't seem to be one of those producers who go over the London and bring shows over to New York.
ML: The sublime joy is having an idea and finding the creative team and being there right from the beginning, watching it unfold. Also rewarding is working with major voices in this culture. I did one revival, which was The Crucible last year, and I did that because I wanted to do an Arthur Miller play. But, it's not as much fun. If you transfer something from England, all you're basically doing is marketing.