Mark O'Donnell, Playwright and Novelist Who Won the Tony for Hairspray, Dead at 58

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06 Aug 2012

Mark O'Donnell
Mark O'Donnell
Aubrey Reuben

Mark O'Donnell, the playwright, novelist and librettist who shared the Tony Award for Best Book for the musical Hairspray, died on Aug. 6 after collapsing in Manhattan, his agent Jack Tantleff said. He was 58 years old. The cause of death and funeral details are to be announced.

Mr. O'Donnell adapted the 1960s Baltimore-set John Waters film — about a chubby girl fighting for integration — with librettist Thomas Meehan. The musical would go on to win the 2003 Tony as Best Musical, and became an international hit. The writers hoped lightning would strike twice when they adapted Waters' "Cry-Baby" for Broadway. It was short-lived in 2008, but they again received Tony nominations.

Hairspray co-songwriter Marc Shaiman told Playbill.com on Aug. 6, "Mark was a kind soul, a hysterical mind and the real hero of Hairspray. His passing is shocking, our great loss, but heaven's gain."

His plays include That's It, Folks!; Fables for Friends; The Nice and the Nasty; Strangers on Earth; Vertigo Park and the musical Tots in Tinseltown. He collaborated with Bill Irwin on an adaptation of Moliere's Scapin and co-authored a translation of Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear. He also adapted Feydeau's Private Fittings for the La Jolla Playhouse and a symphonic version of Pyramus and Thisbe for the Kennedy Center.

Mr. O'Donnell published two collections of comic stories "Elementary Education" and "Vertigo Park and Other Tales" (both Knopf) as well as two novels, "Getting Over Homer" and "Let Nothing You Dismay" (both in Vintage paperback). His humor, cartoons and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and Esquire. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the George S. Kaufman Award.



 

Mark O'Donnell (R) and Thomas Meehan (L) after their win for Hairspray at the 2003 Tony Awards.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Hairspray was hardly Hamlet, but Mr. O'Donnell told Playbill in 2003 that he and his collaborators nevertheless sought to dig deep and figure out who their characters were. He said the creative team discussed the off-stage histories of the script's Turnblad family — played by Tony winners Harvey Fierstein (Edna), Dick Latessa (Wilbur) and Marissa Jaret Winokur (Tracy).

"Tracy was a postwar baby," Mr. 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."

Mr. 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 daughters. This is a show about families."

Filmmaker John Waters invented the characters in his film of the same name, Mr. O'Donnell acknowledged. "We just played with it," he observed.

The writer said that he was attracted to the project because it was a satire with heart, and it had 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."

What was it like working as team, with Meehan and the Tony-nommed songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman?

"The nice part is that all of the collaborators seemed to not worry about boundaries," Mr. 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."