Jack O'Brien, who has been a Broadway director for over 50 years, is currently represented on the Main Stem with the surprise hit of the 2022-2023 Broadway season, the new musical comedy Shucked, which recently picked up nine 2023 Tony nominations, including Best Musical.
O'Brien, also currently nominated for Best Direction of a Musical, helmed his first Broadway production, Sean O'Casey's Cock-A-Doodle Dandy, which played the Lyceum, in 1969. In the five decades that followed, he has won three Tonys, for his direction of the Tony-winning musical Hairspray (2003), the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Henry IV (2004), and Tom Stoppard's epic, three-part The Coast of Utopia (2007). The former, long-time artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe also earned Tony nominations for his direction of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005), The Full Monty and The Invention of Love (both in 2001), Two Shakespearean Actors (1992) and Porgy and Bess (1997).
When the current list of Tony nominees were announced in May, O'Brien said, "As someone whose first nomination dates to 1977, which was Porgy and Bess, you can imagine how proud and thrilled I am to be included in this raft of ravishing young talent. We had one of the great collective community experiences I have ever known, and that must have been evident from the amount of joy every night in our theatre. Since, for me, it can’t be called a competition, because our work is all so varied and different. This is the best gift I could have asked for."
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—O'Brien shares the directors who impacted his career and why he considers Porgy and Bess his big break.
Where did you train/study?
As Catherine Sloper states in The Heiress, “I was taught by masters.“ I was an English major at the University of Michigan, clueless about my future when I fell under the spell of the late Ellis Rabb’s wonderful APA Repertory Company, which was in residence at the University. I stalked, pursued, cajoled, and entertained until Ellis finally offered me to be his assistant during the New York season. For the next five or six years, I took notes for him, John Houseman, Eva Le Gallienne, Alan Schneider, and Stephen Porter—learning the styles, the insights, the attack of these virtual giants, as the only assistant the little company could afford. It changed my life.
Did you ever have a teacher/instructor who was particularly impactful? What made this person stand out?
Several. Principally, there was Ellis, my North Star, with his extremely sophisticated and highly theatrical approach to the most mundane of scripts. But as well, William Ball, out at A.C.T. in San Francisco, and the late Craig Noel, who created the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, which he finally turned over to me—all were individual, iconoclastic, and enormously sophisticated interpreters of drama.
What made you decide to become a director? Was there some event or person that made you think this was something you wanted to do?
Probably. But it’s lost in the mists of time by now. When I look back, what on earth could’ve been the alternative? Probably a mediocre law degree and a life unquestionably marked for alcoholism. It seems very clear to me. The theatre saved my life. (And no, I’m not an alcoholic, thank God!)
Tell me about a time you almost gave up but didn’t.
At the University of Michigan in the late '50s and early '60s, I began writing a musical and became very friendly with jazz great Bob James, who was equally fascinated by the form. Filled with our excitement and outrageous confidence, we produced a musical comedy very loosely based on Columbus‘ discovery of the New World, called Land Ho!, which he conducted, and I played the lead, and which won the 1961 Best Collegiate Musical award given across the country.
As a result, I began my career pretty much as a lyricist, and we were accorded property for our Broadway debut that became The Selling of the President in the early '70s. It lasted five performances at the Shubert Theatre and was branded by critic Clive Barnes as “a Sargasso Sea of mediocrity.” I suppose I might’ve stopped everything after that humiliating experience, but I was hired by Craig Noel that summer to direct the Merry Wives of Windsor at the Old Globe in San Diego, and Shakespeare put me back on my feet. This time as a director.
What do you consider your big break?
In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera was committed to doing a revival of Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess, but uncut and complete, an experience even Gershwin himself never had. I happened to be directing a very odd little Italian contemporary opera at the American Opera Center at Juilliard, and the musical conductor was John DeMain, who was, at that time, the musical director for HGO.
Naturally, they were desperate to get Hal Prince to do this phenomenal revival, but Hal was long promised elsewhere in his schedule, and couldn’t accommodate it. It was the last minute, and I mean the last minute. Desperate for somebody who could communicate this great score to an all-Black cast and taking a huge leap of faith, they gave it to me, who, at that time, was virtually unknown and untried. It won every award possible, including the Best Revival of a Musical in the subsequent Tony season, and was my first of at least eight Tony nominations to follow.
It literally made my career.
What was the biggest challenge and/or surprise about directing Shucked?
I presume protecting its innocence and grounding it in an emotional reality that would not smack of condescension. We all loved these characters and found their idiosyncrasies charming and most believable.
Is there a person or people you most respect in your field and why?
I have always been attracted by the men and women with tremendous appetites for theatricality: Peter Brook, Eva Le Gallienne, Tyrone Guthrie, Giorgio Strehler, and, as mentioned, Ellis, Bill Ball, the ones who swing for the fences.
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
I’ve published two volumes on this subject. The first, Jack Be Nimble, with all the references to how it all began, and the second, Jack in the Box: or, How to Goddam Direct, which are the lessons I’ve learned from the likes of George Abbott, Tom Stoppard, Mike Nichols, Neil Simon, and others. I don’t think I can possibly crowd them all into a paragraph here. But the books are fun by themselves.
What do you wish you knew starting out that you know now?
Probably nothing. I just loved the astonishing discoveries that these decades have revealed to me and think surprise was a major part part of the gift.
What is your proudest achievement as a director?
Well, I wasn’t at all that certain I would make it through this interview...Just kidding!