Peerless Wit of Mark O'Donnell Is Remembered at Broadway Gathering; Doug Hughes, Jack O'Brien, Margo Lion Speak

By Robert Simonson
November 13, 2012

One day, Steve O'Donnell was walking around the Village with his brother, Mark O'Donnell, the Tony Award-winning bookwriter of Hairspray and Cry-Baby, when a tourist came up to them and asked, "Where is Bleecker?"



"Without missing a beat," Steve O'Donnell remembered, "Mark said, 'Between bleak and bleakest.'"

The story was one of many examples of the late writer's mordant, yet impish humor that were shared at a Nov. 12 memorial at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Mark O'Donnell died suddenly on Aug. 6, 2012. He was 58.

The speakers — who including members of the Hairspray team, colleagues from O'Donnell's days at Harvard, and artists who worked on his early playwriting efforts produced at Playwrights Horizons — told of a man collectively remembered as a peerless wit, one of the cleverest people they'd ever met; and a man who was, somewhat paradoxically, also one of the nicest and more generous souls imaginable.

"He had a Beckett mind and led a Beckett life," said Patricia Marx, who worked with O'Donnell on the Harvard Lampoon, "but his presentation was feelgood Disney." She added, "His might have been the first instance of success not eliciting any envy or bitterness." She then read a short play by O'Donnell titled Exploration of Mars. Its single line: "Yoo-hoo!"

Steve O'Donnell, who was Mark's twin, and is a writer himself (he created the top ten list on the David Letterman show) recalled growing up with a brother who was "a zen master with a puppy mind." He would know the names and biographies of every bit Hollywood character actor, and, when still young, began writing his own book series for made-up characters like "Mousey." At the back of each book, he would write, "Have you read these other Mousey books by Mark O'Donnell?"

When Mark O'Donnell grew up and published actual books, at book singings he would scribble quirky private messages in each volume's end pages, like "Don't tell the others, but you're my favorite reader," or "Look for a veiled reference to you on page 8." "He didn't have to do that," said Steve, "but he did." When going through Mark's apartment, Steve found more bizarre comic detritus, like a blank matchbook on which Mark has scrawled "Le Club Stupid."

"Who was this all for?" asked Steve O'Donnell.

Doug Hughes
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

O'Donnell was at Harvard at the same time director Doug Hughes attended. Hughes remembered the writer's fearsome reputation as the campus' subtlest wit. Yet, when he approached him to collaborate on a project, "I was met by encouragement and enthusiasm," recalled Hughes.

Hughes later directed an early O'Donnell play, Fables for Friends, at Playwrights Horizons in 1980. Andre Bishop was artistic director of the theatre at that time. Bishop recalled, in a letter that was read aloud, that O'Donnell liked to sing and whistle, and "considered these activities suitable pastimes." At times, when spending time in the writer's apartment, O'Donnell would sometimes say, "Let's sing."

Halfway through the memorial, a short absurdist play by O'Donnell, called There Shall Be No Bottom — "a bad play by worse actors" — was performed by Christopher Even Welch, Jay O. Sanders, Mia Barron and David Greenspan.

Later, Welch recalled how O'Donnell got around New York City on a bicycle. He described this activity as akin to being a "low-flying pedestrian." "After that, I was hooked," said Welch. "Now I ride a bicycle everywhere. Welch then read a tribute by Bill Irwin, with whom O'Donnell penned an adaptation of Moliere's Scapin that was an Off-Broadway hit in 1997. "The dependably funny lines in the script are Mark's," wrote Irwin, mentioning one zinger that never fails to get a laugh whenever the play is done. Hearing his master is in love, a servant congratulates him, saying "I hear it's not so bad at first." "Some directors have toyed with putting a comma before 'at first,'" wrote Irwin. "It doesn't quite work. Trust the line and lose the comma, and it's always funny."

Producer Margo Lion told how, when searching for a librettist for Hairspray who could understand John Waters' voice but not imitate it, New Yorker critic John Lahr recommended O'Donnell. At some point in the process, Lion decided to bring in veteran bookwriter Thomas Meehan to collaborate on the book. She called O'Donnell to tell him, expecting a bad reaction, and she got it. But then, "One minute later, he called me back. He said, 'I don't know how I could have spoken to you like that. You have given me the chance of a lifetime, and I am so grateful. I'll be happy to meet with Tom anytime.'"

Both directors Jack O'Brien and Doug Hughes recalled O'Donnell as someone who remained sunny no matter how good or how bad rehearsals were going, a man who never feared the point in rehearsal when notes were given.

A number of video tributes were shown, including ones by John Waters, who remembered that O'Donnell "made my characters funnier and more charming that they were, and was the only person connected to Hairspray who didn't seem to spend the money he made on it"; and Jon Stewart, who, as a young comic, took a sketch class with O'Donnell. "He was a nice guy," said Stewart. "He was a smart guy. He was a funny guy. There aren't many like him anymore."

O'Donnell wrote short comic poems about life in New York City which he called "Manhattan Zen"; "The fourteenth floor is dishonest, but lucky," ran one. He also drew hundreds of cartoons, some of which were published in the New Yorker. (His brother said Mark suggested a published compilation could be titled "If Only He Could Draw.") Images of a couple dozen of these were shown before the memorial got underway. In one, some fish climbing out of the sea onto land are met by another returning, who says, "I going back. Have you seen the prices?" A final cartoon, shown at the end, depicted a series of headstones. Carved on each one was at the kind of ecstatic blurb one sees on Broadway marquees.

Mark was always "paddling on his own underground river," said Hughes, who gave the closing remarks. "Mark O'Donnell may have thought himself a stranger on this earth, but his stay here was an incredibly productive one. Joy, happiness, laughter — Mark produced those in ample amount."