Cleveland native Mark O'Donnell jokes that he would have "slept with anyone" to write the script to the musical version of John Waters' Hairspray. He didn't have to; his prayers were answered when a New York theater critic recommended him to Broadway producer Margo Lion. "Talk about who you know," chuckles O'Donnell (pictured, inset). "I didn't know the critic, but at least he'd seen my work."
O'Donnell has written humor pieces for Esquire, The New Yorker, and other publications. He's penned novels, short stories, and plays that led to his earning the George S. Kaufman Award for playwrights. He's a nice fit with the show's other collaborators, including co-librettist Thomas Meehan, director Jack O'Brien, and Oscar-nominated songwriter Marc Shaiman. "If they were looking for people a little stranger than your normal Broadway types, they got a good team," says O'Donnell, whose Tony Award for Best Book was one of 13 that Hairspray snagged in 2003. "We're all John Waters fans who'd like to think our show is more perverse than, say, Oklahoma!"
Adapted from Waters' 1988 movie (which starred drag queen Divine and future talk-show host Ricki Lake), the story is set at the height of racial segregation in 1962 Baltimore. Chubby teen Tracy Turnblad wins a spot on a TV dance show and becomes an overnight celebrity. With big hair and an even bigger heart, she campaigns to ban the program's monthly Negro Day and have her African American pals dance in front of the cameras every afternoon. "It's the idea of inclusion," notes O'Donnell. "Fat people are human. Black people are human. Tracy doesn't see the barriers that would defeat other people, so she goes for it."
Kinda like O'Donnell did. He graduated from John Marshall High School in 1972 with his identical twin, Steve; both attended Harvard on scholarships to study comedy-writing. After getting their degrees, they chose parallel paths: Mark worked for Saturday Night Live; Steve wrote jokes for David Letterman (he's now head writer on Jimmy Kimmel Live). But Mark aimed to be an author and playwright. "I was at a party one Christmas in the late '80s, and the editor of The New York Times Magazine says, 'Boy, I love your stuff. I wish you would send us some of it,'" he recalls. "I said, 'I've been sending it to you for years.'"
Exactly 10 years later, during Christmas of 1999, producer Lion hired O'Donnell. For the next year and a half, he toiled on the Hairspray rewrite, right up to the show's New York opening. And as with that night on Broadway a few years ago, O'Donnell's not going to miss the musical's Cleveland premiere, to which he'll bring 4 siblings and 44 nephews, nieces, and their spouses. "I've never had a family reunion and an opening night at the same time," says O'Donnell. "They just don't know how my family can pack away the hors d'oeuvres."