Backcombing HAIRSPRAY with Jack O’Brien

By Jack O’Brien

Eighteen years ago, HAIRSPRAY bowed for the first time on Broadway, earning a New York Times rave that called it “deliriously tuneful…as sweet as a show can be.” The original creative team was led by director Jack O’Brien and included choreography by Jerry Mitchell, set design by David Rockwell, costumes by William Ivey Long, with an unforgettable score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.  The show is going out on tour again next year, and original director Jack O’Brien recalls the birth of this smash hit.

Director JACK O’BRIEN is directing HENRY IV. He poses in front of Vivian Beaumont Theater stage. Lincoln Center, NYC. Newsday/ARI MINTZ 11/5/2003

How is it that the creation of certain theatrical events seems as unfeasible as mining uranium on Mars, and others rush by with the blitheness of an afternoon at Disneyland? And what distinguishes one event from the other?

I suppose if we knew the answer, all musicals would be as energized and filled with joy as HAIRSPRAY is. I know it must have happened. I was there when the balloon went up, but to define exactly what it was that produced the alchemy that has survived decades, of having been transferred onto film and yet remaining as one of the world’s most beloved musical works, is beyond my powers of analysis.

I do know that the chicken came before the egg; in other words, each of us–Jerry Mitchell, Tom Meehan and Mark O’Donnell, and that array of gifted designers — were all borne instantly aloft by the brilliance of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s breathtaking score. This was an instance when one listened to the very first musical cut offered for consideration, and before Tracy had finished her first “oh…oh…oh…” one was irretrievably hooked. If only the rest of the score could be anywhere near that good!

It wasn’t, of course. It was even better! And that template, that footprint for innocence, sass, and foot-tapping contained in this remarkable score suffused every single collaborator, every moment in the rehearsal hall, and finally permeated that out-of-body experience we later were able to identify as our Seattle try-out.

Oh yes. Alchemy, I believe, involves the perfect blend of secret ingredients, like the Coca-Cola formula, lost somewhere in the mists of time. In this case, the music, the lyrics, the book and the physical world created by the Messrs. Rockwell, Ivey Long and Posner were fueled by a secret weapon others would identify as perpetual motion. That element belonged to choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and the zip, the faster-than-light and lighter-than-fast stepping he created gave us the beat you can’t, according to Tracy and her gang, stop.

History hasn’t been able to stop it, either, and for that we are all grateful, all proud, and truly thrilled to have it back on stage, where it belongs.

About the Show
You Can’t Stop the Beat! HAIRSPRAY, Broadway’s Tony Award-winning musical comedy phenomenon that inspired the blockbuster film and live television event, is back on tour. Join 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad in 1960s Baltimore as she sets out to dance her way onto TV’s most popular show. Can a girl with big dreams (and even bigger hair) change the world?  Featuring the beloved score of hit songs including “Welcome to the 60s,” “Good Morning Baltimore,” “It Takes Two,” and incorporating “Ladies Choice” from the musical film adaption, HAIRSPRAY is “fresh, winning, and deliriously tuneful!” (The New York Times). This all-new touring production will reunite Broadway’s award-winning creative team led by director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell to bring HAIRSPRAY to a new generation of theater audiences. Don’t miss this “exhilaratingly funny and warmhearted musical comedy” (New Yorker).

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