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Ten Questions for Jack O'Brien

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Jack O'Brien won the Tony Award in June for best direction of a musical for Hairspray, currently playing at the Neil Simon theatre. On October 28th, his production of Henry IV will begin previews at Lincoln Center.

Mr. O'Brien has directed some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed hits on Broadway, including the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees, The Full Monty, and Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love and Hapgood for Lincoln Center. He was awarded the prestigious Mr. Abbott Award in 2002 by the SDCF, and this year earned the Casting Society of America's Apple Award.

 

1. What draws you to the projects you direct? What do you look for in a show?

My attraction to any piece of dramatic material must be, in some sense, visceral. I have to feel that I understand the play on some very personal, almost emotional level. I realized that both HAPGOOD and THE INVENTION OF LOVE by Tom Stoppard were dense and complicated plays, but I felt on a personal level that I understood something in them that wasn't necessarily on the page. My favorite professional mantra has always been, "there is nothing worse than a failure you didn't believe in!" Good advice.

 

2. What are some of the inherent differences in directing a play and directing a musical?

Musicals are studies in collaborations. You have a ton of professional people all of whom must be listened to, accommodated, and worked into one cohesive whole. A librettist, a composer and/or lyricist, choreographers, designers, musical directors, orchestrators, assistants, and each has his or her opinion, all of which may be of vital concern to the well being of the show -- to say nothing of a traditionally large cast. Plays, of course, are more contained. You, the script, the author, and the actors are primary. The design elements seem calmer, easier to contain in plays than in the "moving world" of musicals. But I approach that material with the same personal investment whether it sings or not.

 

3. At least twice in very recent memory, you've directed a play and a musical in the same season. How do you divide attention between two projects that are so very different?

I'm an odd duck, and I admit it. I have inherited from my parents a phenomenal energy, which I can scarcely take credit for, but which makes the double challenge of a play and a musical, sometimes at the same time, exhilarating to me. They have, of course, very different profiles, so one feels somehow refreshed by switching gears.

4. How are you tackling the challenges of HENRY IV?

HENRY IV is a production, although this one I hasten to add is far different from the first version, I have done before -- in the early '90's at the Globe. So I have a firm understanding not only of the material, but also of its demands for the stage. There is perhaps no other dramatic piece like it -- four separate leading men, many different stories, the necessity to do political drama and slapstick comedy as well as a song in Welsh and a full-scale battle. It's the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA of plays. One can only wish the person who attempts it good luck, and stand back!

5. Do you think that, with the success of HENRY V in Central Park and the buzz about HENRY IV at LCT, audiences today are feeling a kinship with Prince Hal/ King Henry and his difficult decisions?

Clearly we identify with these great characters, these challenged leaders, these truly "imperfect" people who must lead nations. I think it is always revelatory when we place our context alongside another nation and another time.

6. You've worked recently with established playwrights and composers (Stoppard, McNally, Hamlisch) and newcomers to the stage (Ephron, Yazbek)... How does a show progress depending on the experience of the creative team? Is it easier to work with experienced writers or people who are creating a play for the first time?

Well, the nice thing about beginners as that they know they are beginners and are eager to get advice and learn from more experienced pros. The veterans, of course, have been around the block a few times, have been singed and burned and disappointed, and are warier, but the truth is the truth, no matter who says it, and one can only strive to be as kindly candid and direct as possible so everyone gets the same message and the same impression.

7. What do you think will be the future of the American play, and of the American musical, artistically and politically?

I confess I don't think about the future of either the American play or the American musical in terms of its relevance or its continuity. I look only for what speaks to myself and my generation, and leave speculation to the academics and the critics. It's safer that way.

8. What would you like your influence on that future to be?

I don't think much about my "influence." I think one must be very careful about positioning oneself in the landscape, you begin to think about externals too much, and the values get skewed. The best thing about my career is that there has been so much of it; it doesn't afford me the time to be self-conscious. I hope!

9. Which project has been the most meaningful to you, or the most challenging? How and why?

I'm a "father." I love all my "children," and the one I'm working on at the moment is always my favorite. I see certain wonderful events over the past decades, PORGY AND BESS, the Campbell Scott HAMLET, THE INVENTION OF LOVE, THE FULL MONTY, and of course, the uncontainable joy of HAIRSPRAY, but I also leave evaluation to others. I'm moving on.

10. What has been the most rewarding moment of your career?

It's hard to pin point any specific current in a river so vital and energetic, but I can remember few moments as telling as getting the George Abbott Award from Tom Stoppard in front of nearly our entire industry, my family, and my closest friends. That was pretty damn good!

(Many thanks to Lorraine Boyd for all her help!)


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