By the time Margo Lion’s production of “Hairspray” won the Tony Award for best Broadway musical, I had done dozens and dozens of interviews with the Baltimore-born producer. The earliest took place in 1993 at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, home to “Angels in America.” Margo was a rare female producer in a field dominated by men, and she then had not one, but two hit shows running concurrently on Broadway — “Angels in America” and “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
Earlier this month, I returned to the Walter Kerr to celebrate the life of this intrepid producer — the woman who dared to turn a John Waters movie into a Broadway musical. Margo Lion died of a brain aneurysm on January 24; she was 75.
During his remarks at the memorial celebration, filmmaker John Waters said Margo “got out of Baltimore early and never looked back.” Maybe. But Baltimore influenced her life and she left her influence on Baltimore — and beyond.
This widespread influence stemmed primarily from her most successful show, “Hairspray.” The musical was adapted from Mr. Waters’ 1988 movie, which was in turn inspired by “The Buddy Deane Show” — WJZ’s popular mid-20th century teen dance program. The Broadway musical was subsequently transformed into both a feature film and a live TV broadcast.
To date, the musical has been translated into eight languages and performed on stages from South Africa to Peru. Because of this, audiences throughout the world see Baltimore as a place where a fictitious outcast — a hefty teen-aged girl — can open hearts and change minds about such tough issues as racism, prejudice and bullying.
Through her support of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, where she served on the advisory board, Margo provided real-life teenage girls with a role model who proved that if you follow your heart, you can make a difference.
Many Broadway stars performed at her memorial —Tonya Pinkins, Betty Buckley, LaChanze and more. But one of the highlights was a performance by a dozen high school students who’d never been on Broadway — Lethal Ladies, the Baltimore school’s step team. At the end of their percussive, precision performance, they proclaimed in unison: “We are her legacy!”
Margo liked to say that one reason she was so taken with “Hairspray” was because it was “about something.” Whether she was producing a Broadway show, teaching at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, serving as co-chair of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities or taking her young granddaughters to the theater, Margo was always about something. One of those things was supporting shows, theater artists and young people she believed in.
She was a visionary who gave a major Broadway boost to songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, playwright Tony Kushner and playwright/director George C. Wolfe. They all paid tribute to Margo. So did many others –— via video — including Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ron Chernow and first lady Michelle Obama, who praised Margo for “honoring the experiences of people on whom the light rarely settled.”
In her eulogy, Susan Birkenhead, who wrote the lyrics for two of Margo’s Broadway musicals, claimed that “Triumph of Love” was the show closest to Margo’s spirit. The musical played its world premiere at Baltimore Center Stage in 1996. Ms. Birkenhead said Margo identified with its protagonist — a tomboy princess who lets nothing keep her from her goal.
For Margo, achieving the goal of producing risky Broadway shows often involved mortgaging her New York apartment and signing over ownership of her most valuable possession — a Matisse sculpture. She had inherited the sculpture at age 18, after her parents were killed in a plane crash in Egypt.
At the start of Monday’s celebration, the original Broadway cast of “Hairspray” sang the musical’s opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” a song that could be Baltimore’s anthem. At the end of the celebration, they were joined on stage by dozens of subsequent “Hairspray” cast members, all singing the show’s rousing, concluding number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
The last show Margo worked on, a musical adaptation of the novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” premiered off-Broadway this past June. A few days before the celebration of her life, a number of Broadway theaters, including the Walter Kerr, dimmed their lights in her memory. And yet, Margo Lion’s “beat” will remain unstoppable. It’s there in the shows she produced, the people she nurtured and the examples she set.
J. Wynn Rousuck (firstname.lastname@example.org) was The Sun’s theater critic from 1984-2007. She is now the theater critic for WYPR-FM.