Director Jack O'Brien’s resume reads like the stuff of theatre legend. A three-time Tony winner (and eight-time nominee), he’s become a fixture in the Broadway community. He’s maintained one of the most active careers in the business, and this season will be no different.
“I’m going pillar to post, one project to another,” he says. “I’m at my best when I do that.”
Fresh from staging a successful North American tour of The Sound of Music, O’Brien gears up to unveil a Broadway revival this fall of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s comedy, The Front Page. The cast features a star-studded lineup, including Nathan Lane, John Slattery, Holland Taylor, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays and Sherie Rene Scott. Come spring, he’ll be back in the director’s seat for yet another Broadway extravaganza, an almost entirely revised transfer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
You’ve been a hired gun as a director for a number of years, however you were the artistic director at The Old Globe for years prior. Do you miss the presence of an institution?
JO: Not a bit. I don’t have a rear view mirror of any kind. I never look back. I had nearly 25 years at The Old Globe, and it flew by. When I got there in 1981, the regional market was just finding its sea legs. By the time I left, fundraising was the most important thing. Boards of directors were no longer really interested in an artistic director. They were interested in a managing director with the power to bring in money, which was not my strong suit. What turned me on was that I had my own laboratory. I could bring all my friends there and do what I wanted to. Since that time, it’s coincided with extremely rich opportunities here [in New York] for me.
You’ve collaborated with Nathan Lane before (The Nance and It’s Only a Play). How did the two of you come together for The Front Page?
JO: It all had to do with Scott Rudin’s interest in Nathan. Scott has an eye for talent. He dares big. He likes the big theatrical gesture. He was very interested in Nathan, so I think when he and Scott were talking about projects, Nathan said he’d always wanted to do The Front Page. And I was still “in favor” as it were. One never knows how long favor is going to last, but for the moment, all is well.
What is your favorite thing about working with Nathan?
JO: It’s hard to categorize him. He’s a kind of genius. He’s amongst the most accomplished actors of our generation. He comes so unbelievably prepared. On the first day of rehearsal, he’s off-book. He knows the script. He sets an incredible standard, does a great deal of homework and reads everything he can get his hands on. It’s not like directing an actor so much as forming a kind of creative partnership.
The entire cast for The Front Page is booming with talent. What dynamics within that cast are you most excited to play with?
JO: It’s an ensemble. It has glorious bits. It has turns. It’s powered by two extraordinary performances, with a lot of fireworks going off. Literally and figuratively. But having all of these disparate people occupy the same world…that’s the challenge. I don’t mean this in a critical way, but they’re not used to playing ensemble. They’re used to being the stars. One of the great pleasures of doing this has been watching them watch each other act because they’re not usually in a company this rich.
What are you hoping audiences will take away after seeing it?
JO: I think they’re going to be astonished by how prescient, how modern the play is. Unfortunately, prejudice, bigotry and public shenanigans are the same now as they were in 1928. It’s appalling how modern this play feels when you hear it. Haven’t we progressed any since 1928? Apparently we haven’t. It’s an extraordinary x-ray of how the journalistic profession has run its course as papers are now disappearing. It’s all done on the net now.
With The Sound of Music, the stage version of the musical can exist in the shadow of the film. How do you navigate that? Did you use the film as a reference at all, or did you steer completely clear of it?
JO: I haven’t seen the film since we’ve been working on the show. The film isn’t the show. Richard Rogers hated the film because they took such liberties with what he’d created. It is one of the great films of all time, no question. But it’s a very ’60s film. They took most of the Nazis out of the film, which is a hugely political thing in the show.
Are there any plans for the tour to make the move to Broadway?
JO: Everybody wants it to. It’s awkward and difficult. The road has it’s commitments. Working out the schedule has been a real thorn in everyone’s side.
Regarding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: usually when a show transfers from London, the creative team comes attached. What can we expect from YOUR Charlie and Chocolate Factory?
JO: There was no way the London production could come over. It was conceived for the Drury Lane which is the largest theatre in London. There is no comparable space, except for the Metropolitan Opera, here in the city. And Sam Mendes, who did the London production, wasn’t coming with it. I had a very strong feeling about the piece. When I went to see the show in London, it was very dark. I didn’t get it. I thought, “Gee, I don’t know if this interpretation would speak to an American audience.” I’m doing my version of that piece with some of the same people, the book writer and the designer.
Were you involved in the development of the script?
JO: I have been since then, yes. I wanted the audience to be involved with the dilemma between Willy and Charlie. Why is Willy giving up? Why is he stopping? That was never explained. There were a lot of dramatic questions left on deck that were worth discussing. We found the answers together in a way we were all excited about and away we went.
Christian Borle is your Willy Wonka. What can you tell us about casting him in this role?
JO: I’ve admired him for a long time. He has the essential impishness and the childlike wonder. He has phenomenal energy and extraordinary technical facility. He has some of the whimsical magic that I think Gene Wilder had in the film. You want to follow Willy. You’re not only a little nervous about him, but also fascinating by him. It’s a curious mix.