Acclaimed director Jack O’Brien, on reinventing an American classic


Think you’re busy? Try being Jack O’Brien. A three-time Tony Award winner (for The Coast of Utopia, Henry IV and Hairspray), the acclaimed theater director has two shows opening in Dallas this week: The world premiere of the Jake Heggie-Terrence McNally opera Great Scott at the Winspear Opera House (see accompanying story) on Oct. 30, and the pre-Broadway run of his remounting of The Sound of Music at Fair Park Music Hall on Nov. 3. Oh, and O’Brien turned 76 years old this summer. You try keeping up with him if you’re half his age.

“I had to spend the late summer ingesting both of these scores sort of blindly,” says O’Brien from a rare break working on Great Scott. “It’s so fast, you get little time to do a lot much work, so you have to be completely organized. I wouldn’t have done Great Scott except Jake and Terrence are friends of mine and cornered me. I said of course I would direct it. And there it is — bigger’n Texas.”

Simultaneously, though, O’Brien was flying back from Los Angeles where he was in previews opening The Sound of Music; the official opening night for press occurred during his first week of rehearsals in Dallas. That’s quite a schedule.

But what drew O’Brien to tackle two such different shows — one a world premiere opera, the other a long-beloved “institution” of American musical theater — was the opportunity to rediscover a classic that, in his words, “no one had looked at in 60 years.”

“The movie is totally of the 1960s — it doesn’t tremble on the edge of World War II in the way the stage version was meant to,” he says. “I call it The Sleeping Beauty of Broadway — it’s always been done the same way, since it was written [as a vehicle] for Mary Martin. But really, it’s a political work of people struggling to come to terms with a world that is changing while pretending it isn’t. The decision to leave Austria [is the same as] the decision to leave Syria.”

He credits not only the composer-lyricist team of Rodgers & Hammerstein, but also book writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse with writing a show that was far deeper than it is often given respect for.

“They were fascinated by the grit, by the gristle,” he says. “[R&H] hardly ever wrote a bad song, but they were grounded in their own society. I tried to balance the ledger that way. I don’t think there are any villains — not even the Baroness.”

One of the big changes he made was to cast younger actors in the main roles (why can’t Mother Superior be in her 40s)? “Maria, was basically Nannygate,” he jokes. “Why not add a little sex?”

— A.W. J.

The Sound of Music at Fair Park Music Hall
901 First Ave. Nov. 3–22

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 30, 2015.