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Margo Lion

Hairspray Producer Margo Lion

Margo Lion is one of a rare breed—the independent Broadway producer. In a field that big companies such as Disney have come to dominate, Lion, 58, has toughed it out for 25 years, working to bring such promising plays as Jelly's Last Jam, Tony Kushner's Angels in America and this year's hit musical Hairspray to the stage. A few years ago, in bed nursing a cold, Lion watched a video of John Waters' 1988 film Hairspray and realized that its Cinderella story—about plus-size Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad, who aspires to appear on a local dance show—offered ideal material for a musical. She raised the money and assembled the creative team to undertake that task and has seen her efforts pay off in spades; when the play opened in August 2002, it was an immediate hit with critics and audiences. This spring the awards began pouring in: 10 Drama Desk Awards and eight Tonys, including "Best Musical."

How has Hairspray changed your life?
I find it easier to get dinner reservations in the theater district, and Harry Winston is lending me diamonds for the Tonys.

How does having an award-winning hit feel after all the years of struggle?
Each time you work on a project, you give it your all and hope for the best; this time out, that miracle of talent and timing came to pass. For that I am grateful and feel incredibly blessed.

What was it about Hairspray that spoke to you and inspired you to bring it to the stage? What do you think makes it so appealing to Broadway audiences?
The movie of Hairspray has all the ingredients for a successful musical comedy: a larger-than-life heroine who overcomes obstacles to achieve her dream; a very particular voice; and a myriad of opportunities for song and dance. I think audiences respond to the outsider's victory, the joyous score and the megawatt energy of the cast.

What was your early life like, growing up in Baltimore?
I had a comfortable, German-Jewish upbringing, more refined than Goodbye Columbus, but certainly not The Warburgs...probably closest to Liberty Heights. I went to a very WASP school, which I loved, but where I also felt like an outsider. I thought I'd marry, have four children and drive a station wagon. I used to sing along with all the show albums I could get my hands on and had a secret desire to be an actress; my father called me Sarah Bernhardt—but I think that had more to do with my personality than my talent. I guess I was a risk taker, because I spent a lot of Saturdays working off demerits.

What inspired you to seek out the theater as a career?
My former husband was an aspiring playwright, and after a stint at the University of Iowa's Playwrights' Workshop, I decided to learn how to produce. Whatever talent I have seems to be as a catalyst; I love working with artists and being part of making something new.

Being an independent producer isn't for the risk-averse. What drives you? How have you been able to stick it out for 25 years?
It's definitely the company I keep: the community of writers and directors, fellow producers and other theater artists. To be in a room with Tony Kushner, George Wolfe, August Wilson, Marc Shaman, Jack O'Brien, to mention just a few, is a privilege; sometimes I have to pinch myself to believe that I'm there. And of course, there is nothing quite as thrilling as standing in the back of a theater and hearing an audience respond to a show you've been working on from the beginning. I worry a lot about every possible thing that can go wrong; in fact, I've been dubbed Miss Worst-Case Scenario. But somehow I always come back for more—maybe that's my Jewish DNA.

Did your instincts tell you that Hairspray would be as big as it has become?
I never imagined that Hairspray would be the phenomenon that it is. I hoped wed recoup the investment and have a good stock and amateur income. Anyone who claims to know the secret of success in the theater is either delusional or a tyro.

Jewish women are known for fighting for social change. Is Tracy Turnblad, the main character of Hairspray, Jewish?
As far as I know, nobody was Jewish in 1962 East Baltimore. In fact, John Waters said he never knew anyone Jewish until he was out of high school.

What's next?
I'm not sure yet. But I have two companies of Hairspray to get out in the next year, so I don't think I'll be at loose ends.