The trio that helped create The Full Monty has returned with the broad-strokes Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a genuine comic musical that pauses only a moment to suggest the title characters actually have hearts.
O'Brien talked to Playbill.com about his loyalty to Yazbek, the tricky road packing your show with too many jokes and the 1988 Hollywood source material.
Playbill.com: The characters in your Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are very self-referential. They know they're in a show, and they break the fourth wall.
Jack O'Brien: Theatre is a con, so why shouldn't they, embodying that world, use everything at their disposal to have a good time?
Playbill.com: It's shameless, and the audience loves it.
JO: I know it's naughty and I know it's a little bit dicey, but I thought, the hell with it. Let's push the envelope and see what happens.
Playbill.com: Was that idea in librettist Jeffrey Lane's script? Or did you arrive at it in rehearsal?
JO: I was stunned because in the first draft he had Norbert [Leo Butz as con man Freddy] coming out into the house and watching the action, and I thought, I can't do that! I can't do that! Then I thought, wait a minute, what a fun thing if all of them at some time were able to slyly play that game. I had more of it in San Diego [in the tryout] and had to feather a lot of it out, because you can entertain yourself too much. Playbill.com: When somebody first said Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — the Musical to you, what did you say?
JO: You know what? The truth is, I remember liking the film, enjoying it. All films can't be made into musicals. They just can't. Shakespeare never wrote an original plot so far as we know, so borrowing a structure from somebody else does not appall me in the least. There has to be the element of performance involved, I think, to make the leap from screenplay to a musical. It certainly was true in Full Monty, it's certainly true in Hairspray, it's true in this — [the characters] are performers. Part of what they're doing is using artifice and so you are encouraged to think…maybe there's a number here. A number that isn't straining credulity too much.
I went back and looked at [the film]. I liked it, but I didn't flip over it. I didn't think it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen in my entire life, although I thought the situations had enormous promise. I thought, I'll see what the boys come up with. They certainly brought home the bacon.
Playbill.com: It's an out-and-out comic musical, but it does invite you to feel something for these guys in the end. After their caper, the air has gone out of them, somehow. John Lithgow's character [Lawrence Jameson] gets attached to one of his marks.
JO: He plays a great beat at the end of his last scene, where he finds himself trying very hard not to become sentimental — and we've tried very hard not to let him, or any of them, become sentimental. Yet, they are fighting something that's tugging at them. I think that's very much the secret of what we're trying to accomplish here. He sort of doesn't know quite how to express himself, if you'll notice. I mean, he's trying not to slip down that bank into the water, and yet he's aware ironically that that's sort of happening to him. It's quite fascinating, I think.
Playbill.com: And it's the first time it's happened to him — first time he's melted.
JO: And probably the only time it will ever happen! Freddy smells that, and that's the vulnerability. The one thing you're not allowed to be if you're a con: You can't show your fleshy underside.
Playbill.com: There's a showbiz cliché about show folk being only happen when they're "on." These guys are sad when they are not performing the con.
JO: Yeah, I think it's true.
Playbill.com: After the de-facto title number, in which Lawrence and Freddy look back on adventures and sum themselves up, the audience goes wild. The crowd seems to want an encore. Was there talk of adding an encore tag?
JO: We prepared for it. We did build into [the run in] San Diego — the possibility that they could reprise it. Then we realized, we had the finale and the curtain call coming. Aren't we just clubbing everybody over the head? We thought, give it up go home, already.
I think it's one of the great 11 o'clock numbers I've ever heard, certainly in modern times. You just never get a song that good at the end of a show. I was at David for an entire calendar year saying, "You gotta write the guys a number." He pointed to what we call the trio [the climax of the con plot], and he said, "Well, there it is." [Laughing.] I said, "No, no that isn't it! You gotta write a number in which they revel in their badness." He came up with that number [called "Dirty Rotten Number"] and I can't wait every night for that song to happen. I think it's just a spectacular song. At the end of the evening you're not prepared that you're gonna get anything that good.
Playbill.com: Who brought the project to you?
JO: Jerry Mitchell and I love David [Yazbek] and loved the experience of The Full Monty, and we felt privately and personally crushed that he was not somehow vindicated in his maiden score. It was a very good score. We had staved off all the opposition [in 2000-01] until the tsunami of The Producers came roaring in from Chicago. Jerry and I felt so loyal to David, we said, basically, "Look, when you get a project you like, call us, and we'll stand behind you." This is the project they came up with. We sort of said, almost sight unseen, "Yeah, we'll do it."
Playbill.com: Will the team of Yazbek, O'Brien and Mitchell work together again?
JO: Oh, hope so! I believe in David, and so does Jerry. He's immensely gifted. This is a very original voice. We haven't had one as vivid as this in a very long time. And with the recent loss of talent like Cy Coleman, you think, oh gosh, we're down a quart. I'm thrilled that whatever sadness [David] felt by being trounced by The Producers was not sufficient to discourage him from getting back up on the horse.