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Jack of all genres

Published November 13, 2006


Stage director Jack O'Brien is on a roll. In musical theater, he has racked up three straight hits: The Full Monty, Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which comes to Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

But O'Brien is more than a song and dance man. He is currently directing Tom Stoppard's mammoth trilogy on Russian intellectual history, The Coast of Utopia, at Lincoln Center in New York.

It seems almost inconceivable that a director can go from bouncy, cotton-candy musical comedies to the complex drama of Stoppard. What's the secret?

"The secret is that I had 25 years as artistic director at the Old Globe Theatre (in San Diego) where Shakespeare was the resident playwright," O'Brien said in a recent phone interview. "I've done most of the great plays at least twice if not three times. For a long, long time New York didn't know anything about my classical work, and San Diego didn't know anything about my musicals. I was the quintessential Gemini, which, of course, I am. Twins, two distinct personalities that are contained in the same person.

"If you are an artistic director of a major regional house, you have to pick up whatever falls on the floor. Inevitably, over 25 years you do a lot of comedies, a lot of new plays, a lot of classics, a lot of revivals. I had my own laboratory where I spent 25 years of my life perfecting my craft, and that craft was all inclusive."

Composer-lyricist David Yazbek has worked with O'Brien on two musicals, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

"I think Jack is a sort of titan, especially in the last six or seven years," Yazbek said. "There's a reason for that, and the reason is that he just gets everything."

The Coast of Utopia, whose first part is now in previews and opens Nov. 27, is a much-anticipated project. The three plays that make up Stoppard's epic- Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage - chronicle the lives and ideas of five artists and thinkers who laid the groundwork of the Russian Revolution: socialist writer Alexander Herzen, anarchist Michael Bakunin, novelist Ivan Turgenev, poet Nicholas Ogarev and critic Vissarion Belinsky.

"Tom never writes a play about one thing," O'Brien said. "He writes a play about a lot of stuff. This play is historical. All of these things actually happened to these people. It's very witty. It has to do with philosophy. It has to do with the evolution of independent thinking in Europe and Russia in the 19th century."

O'Brien previously directed Stoppard's Hapgood and The Invention of Love, but they didn't really prepare him for The Coast of Utopia, which the director called "the theatrical equivalent" of Wagner's Ring cycle. "It's some sort of experience," he said. "It's like watching a novel."

The cast of 44 includes Billy Crudup, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brian O'Byrne and Martha Plimpton, an unusually starry group for a long run with a nonprofit theater company.

Part Two of the trilogy begins in December and will play in repertory with Part One as Part Three is being rehearsed. By Valentine's Day, all three will be up and running in tandem and continue through mid-March. The last three Saturdays of the run in February and March are marathons when all three plays - a total of 81/2 hours - can be seen in one day. The marathons are already sold out.

O'Brien thinks a marathon could be too much. For out-of-towners, he suggests catching consecutive performances of the three plays over two days by taking advantage of the Wednesday and Saturday matinees.

"So in an overnight, you can see all three plays, but you're not sitting there for an entire day and you have a little time to think and absorb it. I think that's the best way of doing it."

When it comes to musical theater, O'Brien's perennial partner is choreographer Jerry Mitchell. They collaborated on The Full Monty, Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and will be back together next year for Catch Me If You Can, a new musical from the Steven Spielberg movie. They have a seamless, fluid style of staging that is extremely effective.

"I think what Jack likes about Jerry is the fact that Jerry knows how to keep things moving," Yazbek said. "It's not so much about choreography. It's about knowing how to keep the whole boat of the musical physically moving onstage. How it flows; the ins and the outs and the exits and the blackouts."

Asked about the key to his teamwork with Mitchell, O'Brien joked, "We're two Michigan boys, for one thing." The director was born in Saginaw, Mich., in 1940.

"We have managed to erase any lines of demarcation between the directing and the choreography," he said. "When we work together, we never, ever let the ball drop. Whether it's Hairspray or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it just keeps flowing. We are able somehow to keep ahead of you, which is really important in light entertainment."

O'Brien makes no apologies for all the hit musicals he has directed having been adapted from movies. He argues that success trumps originality on Broadway.

"Theater is an empirical science," he said. "If it works, it works, and if it doesn't, no amount of good will or theory is going to help it.

"Now that musicals cost upwards of $10-million to get on, I understand that a producer would like to know that the story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that it may have some appeal."

Of course, not all movies can be made to sing and dance. Exhibit A for O'Brien is Sweet Smell of Success, a great movie that flopped as a musical a few years ago. He looks for an element of music in a movie as a clue to its adaptability.

"Is there something in the property that asks to be a musical?" he said. "In the case of Hairspray, you have a little fat girl who wants to be on a dance show. Well, that's cool. But the subtle thing about Scoundrels is that it's about conning, and conning is a kind of performance. It's two pros performing for each other. And that has a kind of theatrical spin to it that asks for music and lyrics."

Yazbek's pop-rock score for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has the same inventiveness that made The Full Monty such a pleasure. Some of the songs in both shows have a similar sound, which, to O'Brien, is a telling sign.

"You know Debussy the minute you hear him, you know Shostakovich, you know Copland four measures into a piece," the director said. "I think there is a noise that a composer makes, not unlike a poet, in the groove they work in. I think there are bound to be similarities, but I like that. That sounds like an authentic composer to me."

O'Brien thinks that Yazbek, a onetime writer for David Letterman, came into his own as a lyricist with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. "His lyric writing is as erudite and witty as anybody I've read, outside of (Stephen) Sondheim, in the last 10 or 12 years."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or


[Last modified November 13, 2006, 12:28:21]

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