Cinderella of Baltimore

NEW YORK - The elements all are there: A ball gown, a lost glass object, even a fairy godfather.

Most of all, this real-life fairy tale has, at its center, a beautiful woman who worked very hard for a very long time before her dream - one she never believed would come true - was fulfilled.

Her name is Margo Lion, and she is the Baltimore-born producer of Hairspray, the Broadway show that racked up a whopping eight Tony Awards, including best musical, last Sunday at Radio City Music Hall. In one night - just a matter of hours - she was transformed from someone whose shows generally receive critical acclaim but don't always make money into this season's most successful producer.

It was a glorious night and its shimmer will cling to her, like fairy dust, forever.

  • Lion lives in a spacious, sun-drenched Upper West Side apartment. There is no clutter. The hardwood floors are bare. The living room windows are curtain-less. This is the home of a woman blessed with clear vision.

    Tucked discreetly in one corner is a nude sculpted by Matisse, which she inherited at 18 when her parents died in a plane crash in Egypt. It is a treasure, but one she was willing to sacrifice. In 1992, when Lion produced her first Broadway musical, Jelly's Last Jam , she used the artwork as collateral. She also mortgaged her apartment, and has taken out loans many times since. Hairspray's unbridled success suggests she can finally abandon this pattern, though she says cautiously, "You never know."

    Four hours before the Tony Awards are to be broadcast live, the producer is padding around in fuzzy lion slippers and a white terrycloth robe embroidered with the Hairspray logo, an opening night gift from the musical's songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Her short, thick, black hair is freshly washed in preparation for the arrival of Madison Avenue hairstylist Richard Stein.

    For the 58-year-old Hairspray producer - who will be seen by nearly eight million television viewers before the night is over - this simply cannot be a bad hair day.

    It's also a day Lion never expected to see. Not that she doesn't want her shows to be hits. But a few years ago, when The Producers won 12 Tony Awards, more than any other show in history, Lion thought, "This will never happen to me."

    It wasn't a painful realization. Lion, whose theatrical career spans three decades, is a strong woman - you have to be, to play in this league - but she's not one to deliberately chase wealth or fame.

    Lion's shows, like Angels in America and the short-lived musical Triumph of Love, have been satisfying to her, but haven't always found a wide audience. "I've chosen another path and that path is to nurture young artists and try new things that have cultural relevance, and those probably aren't going to be big box office successes," she says.

    "I had really come to terms with it. I thought, 'Well, I'll just stay in this as long as I can afford to.' "

    So it's with a sense of unreality that she's dressing for the Tonys, theater's most visible awards ceremony and one in which she is predicted to be the big winner. Already she has weathered a dress disaster. The first gown she bought - off the rack at Saks Fifth Avenue - was a blue-gray silk shantung with a full skirt and scoop neckline. She loved the style, but not the color, and was planning to ask Hairspray costume designer William Ivey Long to copy it in a different hue when Stein persuaded her to wear black.

    That led to dress No. 2, a black chiffon purchased at Emilio Pucci and altered by Hairspray's costume shop. But on Tuesday, Lion went to a fitting with her assistant, who took one look and declared, "You can't wear that!"

    Fortunately, Lion hadn't returned the blue-gray shantung. An inspired costume maker named Warner Kulovits set a fuchsia band into the neckline, and the drab-colored dress was transformed into a ball gown fit for the limelight, and far more in sync with Hairspray's Necco wafer-to-neon color scheme.

    Just past 4 p.m., hairstylist Stein bustles in wearing a white T-shirt with black letters proclaiming: "Save the drama for your mama." He's the first in a small parade of people who will play a role in Lion's preparation this afternoon.

    As Stein (whose clientele has included Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman) fluffs and feathers, Lion muses aloud, "I really identify with Marissa."

    In the stage adaptation of John Waters' 1988 movie, actress Marissa Jaret Winokur stars as Tracy Turnblad, a tubby Bawlamer teen who not only wins a place on a 1962 TV dance show, but also wins the heart of the show's heartthrob and introduces integration to the Baltimore airwaves.

    "We're very unlikely candidates for this sort of success," Lion continues. "For obvious reasons for Marissa, and for me because I've been doing all this artful work that has been acknowledged critically, but I've never been someone who's done a big popular show, and I didn't set out to. John Waters called me Friday. He said, 'I don't know what to do with this. I've never been a front-runner.' He said, 'I'm so nervous.'

    "That's sort of the way I feel. I think that's true of all of us. It's a Cinderella story for John, his parents. I mean, look at this: Did they ever think their son would have anything to do with a big Broadway hit?"

  • Now makeup artist Seven Chaperon enters the scene. She covers Lion's dressing table with powders, brushes, blushes, sponges, eyeliners, lipstick pencils, eyelash curlers and waterproof mascara - "in case there are any 'moments' along the way."

    "This is the part I really like - makeup," Lion says in the early going. An hour into the procedure, she admits, "I don't know how stars can stand going through all this. Vanity is so boring."

    All in all, the producer's holding up well - much better than yesterday. Her throat was sore, and she thought she was coming down with the flu. She suffered similar symptoms during the final run-through of Jelly's Last Jam. In that case, the flu turned to be last-minute jitters. Still, to be on the safe side, she stayed in yesterday, and that seems to have done the trick. "I woke up this morning, I felt great," she says.

    The doorbell rings; the diamonds are here. Lion selected them on Friday at the House of Harry Winston, the Fifth Avenue shop that lends jewelry to stars for high-profile events. With her dress in tow, she chose a wreath necklace and a pair of pear-shaped drop earrings - total weight: 57 carats; total value: $1 million. The bearer of the jewels is a guard named Steve Conlon, a retired New York police officer who works full-time for Winston's, escorting diamonds - and their wearers - anywhere in the world.

    Tonight Conlon will remain by Lion's side, or close behind (or, during the award ceremony at Radio City, on one of the aisles) until she takes off the gems at evening's end.

    This will be Conlon's fourth Tony ceremony and his second awards show with a Hairspray connection. In February, he guarded lead actor Harvey Fierstein at the Grammys. Fierstein, who plays the cross-dressing role of Tracy's mother, appeared in full costume topped off by a resplendent 86-carat yellow diamond pendant.

    At 6 o'clock, a gaggle of Lion's closest friends drop in for a quick champagne toast, joining the divorced producer's 28-year-old son, Matthew Nemeth, who made a quiet entrance earlier. Lion hurriedly dons her dress, slips into matching sling-backs and tucks a good-luck charm - her late father's 1929 Park School yearbook entry, complete with a Shakespeare quotation - into her evening bag. She raises a glass with her well-wishers then heads to the black stretch limo parked outside.

  • Lion is stuck in traffic. She had hoped to be in her seat by 7:15, when the first six awards will be presented before the 8 o'clock broadcast. But at 7:10, the limo is still trapped in a bumper-to-bumper logjam. One block from Radio City, Lion asks to be dropped off. With her hemline brushing the New York pavement, she sprints up the street - accompanied by her bodyguard and son - to the red carpet, where reporters, photographers and fans are packed tightly behind police barricades.

    Ahead of her is the evening's host, Australian actor Hugh Jackman; two Tony-nominated Hairspray cast members, Corey Reynolds and Winokur; and Elizabeth McCann, herself a Tony Award-winning producer as well as the managing producer of tonight's ceremony. "I couldn't be happier for you - well, I'd be happier if it were me," she says to Lion.

    "I wish it were you," Lion replies. "You could give the speech."

    By the time Lion and her son reach their row, filmmaker Waters and his longtime friend and casting director, Pat Moran, are waiting in their seats. Some of the special, or honorary, Tonys have already been presented, but Lion has made it in time for the competitive categories.

    The first two Tonys go to other shows. When it's time for the winner of the costume award to be announced, Lion anxiously grips Nemeth's knee, then leaps in her seat when Hairspray designer William Ivey Long's name is called.

    Halfway into the show, she slips into the ladies' room to touch up her makeup. She returns clutching a little plastic bag containing her powder, blush and lipstick. Moments later, she realizes she has lost her eyeglasses. She and Nemeth peer under and around their seats.

    At a commercial break, Conlon, the Harry Winston guard, shows up. "I'm just checking," he says. "Earrings?" Lion displays the pear-shaped diamonds, and he disappears back into the shadows.

    As the evening progresses, Lion's enthusiasm grows exponentially. When songwriters Shaiman and Wittman win best score, she springs to her feet. When Winokur is named best actress (in a tight race that pitted her against Broadway veteran Bernadette Peters), she jumps up and down in the aisle.

    "Fairy tales do come true," Winokur says in her acceptance speech. "Oh my God, if a 4-foot-11 chubby New York girl can be a leading lady in a Broadway show and win a Tony, then anything can happen!"

    At last, it is time for the best musical Tony - the big award of the night. Musicals are what Broadway is known for and what it does best. The show that is chosen will join the ranks of South Pacific, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line, Cats, Les Miserables and, more recently, The Producers. But there are no guarantees.

    Of Hairspray's three competitors, two - Amour, which closed in November, and A Year with Frog and Toad, which is about to close - pose no threat, but the Twyla Tharp-Billy Joel collaboration, Movin' Out, cannot be dismissed.

    Though Hairspray already has won seven Tonys tonight, including best book and best score, this is not a surefire indication of victory. Just last year, Urinetown won best book and score, then lost to Thoroughly Modern Millie. The same thing happened in 1998 when Ragtime lost to The Lion King.

    And yet, during the last commercial break, Lion abandons her usual caution and suggests that Waters move closer so they can reach the stage quickly - if Hairspray wins. He doesn't budge. "That's being too optimistic," he says.

    Jackman, the ceremony's host, introduces the presenters of the final award - Jason Alexander and Martin Short on a live feed from Los Angeles where they are appearing in a touring production of The Producers. Lion covers her eyes, then her mouth. Her son slowly rubs his palms together, wiping off sweat. The tension flowing between Waters and Lion is palpable.

    Then it happens. Short announces the winner: Hairspray.

    Lion bounds up the aisle, grabbing the hand of the musical's choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, and leading a score of co-producers, the entire Hairspray creative team and some of the cast.

    She has given a Tony acceptance speech once before - in 1994 when Perestroika, the second part of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, won best play, but she wasn't the lead producer. Back in high school at Park School, she suffered a bout of "incredible stage fright" while performing in Ionesco's The Chairs at Park School, and she has never forgotten it.

    As late as this afternoon, she hadn't settled on an acceptance speech. "I've got five, 10, 20 things. You never know till you get up there," she explained.

    Now she's there. She focuses on the advice of a friend who told her: Speak slowly and from the heart.

    "This is the Hairspray family," she begins, gesturing at the crowded stage. She thanks the Tony voters, the musical's songwriters, librettists, designers, director, choreographer and "the big-hearted imagination of Mr. John Waters, my fellow Baltimorean and our patron saint."

    Hairspray and its three competitors, she says, "are the results of the passionate determination of one person's, or a few people's, belief. If that's your dream, go for it."

  • Afterwards, Lion is whisked across the street to Rockefeller Center, where a cadre of reporters and photographers are camped out. As soon as the brief press conference is over, she rushes back to Radio City to continue the search for her missing glasses.

    Accompanied by the ever-present Conlon, the top Tony winner winds through the bowels of the music hall. In the auditorium, janitors are tossing litter into plastic trash bags. An usher produces two pairs of abandoned eyeglasses. Neither is Lion's.

    The limo drops Lion at the Marriott Marquis for an obligatory stop at the Tony Awards Gala, but the party she is most eager to attend is the Hairspray bash at the Bryant Park Grill. There, while the Tony broadcast replays on large screens in the corners of the room, Lion finally sits down to a meal - roast beef, salmon and salad. It's 1 a.m., and this is the first food she's eaten since breakfast.

    At 1:20, she's ready to part with her borrowed jewels. She and Conlon step to one side. He unhooks the necklace and slips it into its leather case. "Cinderella loses her diamonds," Lion says.

  • Most fairy tales would end here, but real-life stories have a tomorrow. By 9 a.m. on Monday - after about four hours sleep - the producer of this season's best musical is attending auditions for replacement actors and the cast of the touring production that will open in September at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre.

    At 2 p.m., she's sitting at a huge conference table at the theatrical ad agency, Serino Coyne. The room overflows with co-producers, ad people and press agents. In less than 90 minutes, they decide to spend $750,000 on one week's worth of print ads proclaiming Hairspray's victory and announcing a new block of tickets on sale.

    There's much discussion and occasional disagreement, but the tone in the room is marked by quiet respect that Lion has worked hard to earn. It's too early to know the day's box office tally, but sales are already at $350,000; the final figure will turn out to be almost $500,000, five times the typical Monday amount.

    When the meeting breaks up, Lion makes one more foray to Radio City in search of her elusive eyeglasses. This time it pays off. A guard places six pairs of glasses on a counter, and with a whoop, Cinderella and her glasses are reunited.

    The day holds one more event - a benefit for the New York Theatre Workshop, the off-Broadway theater that launched the musical Rent and was the site of Hairspray's first staged reading three years ago. Dubbed "The Ladies Baltimore" and held at the Central Park Boathouse, the benefit honors Lion and her cousin, choreographer and director Martha Clarke, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient.

    The accomplished cousins, who spent every weekend together when they were girls, make a storybook entrance in a gondola. When the boat glides up to the dock, they're greeted by a crowd that includes the Hairspray creative team, actress Marian Seldes and playwright Arthur Miller.

    Later, Waters - introduced by Shaiman as "our very special fairy godfather" - describes Lion as "the ultimate New Yorker in a way. You might not even know she was from Baltimore."

    "But," he continues, "just when she thought she was safe, eight Tony Awards are going to force her back to her roots for the rest of her life. She had to escape Baltimore to learn to embrace it."

    Then Lion and Clarke take the stage. They joke about clashes, from childhood on, caused by their dominant personalities. But standing so close that they're practically leaning on each other, their bond is unmistakable.

    As Clarke begins a story about a swim meet they once competed in, Lion says, "I thought we weren't going to tell that."

    "We are now," Clarke says, barreling ahead. "Anyway, I was a faster swimmer and she grabbed my bottom in the swimming pool, and she tried to push me under. After last night, she doesn't have to anymore."

    Shortly past 10 p.m., the event winds down, and Lion and some friends spill out into the moonlight. As they amble through the park on their way home, they break off into twosomes and threesomes, holding hands, singing softly, even dancing a bit. The air is balmy, the greenery lush and the flowers so fragrant that Central Park seems magical - a setting so ideal, even a cautious Broadway producer can believe in happily-ever-after.
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