Producer has atypical hit

June 06, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

NEW YORK — New York

She's one of "Angels' " chief angels.

In layman's terms, that means Baltimore-born Margo Lion is a major co-producer of Broadway's biggest new hit play, "Angels in America."

Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," this seven-hour epic by Tony Kushner examines AIDS, politics, religion, loneliness, love and our country's conscience. The plot interweaves the stories of two fictitious couples -- one gay, the other Mormon -- with the real-life character of lawyer Roy Cohn and the supernatural character of an angel.

At least that's what happens in the first 3 1/2 -hour installment, which is titled "Millennium Approaches" and is the only part to open on Broadway so far. (The second half, "Perestroika," is scheduled to join it in repertory this fall.)

This is not typical Broadway fare, yet "Millennium Approaches" is widely regarded as the front-runner for best play in tonight's 47th annual Tony Awards ceremony (9 p.m., WBAL-Channel 11).

And in an important sense, it is typical of the kind of work that has characterized Margo Lion's career. "I see myself as someone who's really interested in pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable commercial theater," the 48-year-old producer said recently at her office in the heart of the theater district. As if to create a contrast with her colorful line of work, she is dressed mostly in black and white; a stickpin of her namesake animal decorates her blazer lapel.

Last year Lion pushed the boundaries of commercial theater with "Jelly's Last Jam," a musical she originated that dared to tackle the controversial subject of a black musician, Jelly Roll Morton, who was prejudiced against his own race. Before that, a $H sampling of her off-Broadway credits included "Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune" and "The Garden of Earthly Delights," a dance-theater work created by her cousin -- acclaimed dancer, director and choreographer Martha Clarke.

When Lion became a producer of "Angels in America," she won a piece of one of the most fiercely pursued plays in years. In retrospect, the bidding frenzy is easy to understand. After all, at this point the play has won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Drama Desk and the Drama Critics Circle awards as well as generating more national publicity than any drama in recent memory.

The essence of theater

But Lion's interest wasn't merely a desire to be part of the throng competing for a hot property. She prefers to initiate projects, and by the time she became one of "Angels' " angels, "Millennium Approaches" had been staged in San Francisco, London and Los Angeles.

Lion saw "Millennium Approaches" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles last fall; after the first of its three acts, she knew she wanted to produce it on Broadway. "The thing that's so remarkable about it is it deals with the biggest of themes -- the future of this nation -- but it deals with them through very personal stories. So I think that you are able to engage a very broad audience, because you're able to move those people who are just gripped by the story and the characters, and to intellectually excite an audience that's looking for a more substantial debate," she says. "To me that is the essence of great theater."

But it took more than enthusiasm to beat out the competition and get her name above the title; Lion is the first individual listed after the producing group, Jujamcyn Theaters, and the Mark Taper Forum.

Playwright Kushner has been quoted as saying the determining factor was her ability to bring in director George C. Wolfe, who wrote and directed "Jelly's Last Jam" and was recently named producer of the prestigious New York Shakespeare Festival. Lion will only comment modestly, "I'm sure there were many determining factors." However, her relationship with Wolfe has clearly been a major factor in both their careers. "The lion and the wolf have done well together," she kids.

As it happens, this particular Friday is primarily a "Jelly's Last Jam" day for Lion. After chatting about her career, she hails a cab and heads for the Virginia Theatre, where the musical is now in its second year. On stage, Wolfe and most of the rest of the show's creative team -- including composer Luther Henderson and lyricist Susan Birkenhead -- are holding auditions for replacement cast members. In front of them, a half-dozen actresses are dancing and singing their hearts out in hopes of winning a role as one of the Hunnies, the trio that serves as the show's Greek chorus.

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