Margo Lion, the producer who shepherded the musical adaptation of Hairspray from initial idea to Tony-winning smash, died January 24 at age 75. The cause was a brain aneurysm, her son Matthew Nemeth told The New York Times.
An independent producer who supported an eclectic array of projects, from revivals to original plays to new musicals, Lion was known for her commitment to projects. Among the shows she nurtured from the start was Jelly’s Last Jam, which would go on to win three Tony Awards. But it was her work on Hairspray that cemented her reputation.
“When Hairspray happened—it was just a miracle,” she told Playbill. In a funk after the quick closing of the musical Triumph of Love in 1997, Lion began work on bringing the John Waters film the stage. “The first reading of Hairspray was at New York Theatre Workshop. And I thought it would take the kind of journey of Rent, because it was John Waters and I wanted to retain his voice. But when I heard that first reading, I said, ‘This is not for New York Theatre Workshop.'”
The show, with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, direction by Jack O’Brien and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, went on to run for 2,642 performances and win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Ms. Lion was born October 13, 1944, in Baltimore. She swore off a planned career in politics after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, for whom she worked, and rediscovered a passion for the theatre while her husband was enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop. After their divorce, she turned to the theatre, becoming a producing director of Music-Theater Group alongside Lyn Austin.
Among her other producing credits were the original Broadway production of Angels in America (she brought George C. Wolfe on board to direct after they worked together on Jelly’s Last Jam), Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Caroline, or Change, and August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Seven Guitars.
“I go with the voice,” she said. “I like material that has a personality, that has some kind of contemporary resonance. I’m kind of bemused when people say, ‘Hairspray is an old-fashioned musical.’ I’m saying to myself, ‘Really? When was the last musical where a man played a woman, a fat girl was the lead, black and white kids are kissing on stage?’ I don’t know that musical.”
She is survived by her son and two grandchildren.