Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1996

Jack’s back. The peripatetic artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, Jack O’Brien, is back in town — with a vengeance. Flush from the Broadway opening of “Getting Away with Murder”, the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth comedy thriller, O’Brien has taken on the biggest project of his life, and that’s saying a lot. Having directed 50 productions at the Old Globe since he arrived in 1969, he’s also made quite a name for himself in New York, and was listed among Theater Week’s 100 Most Important People in the Theater in 1994 and 1995.

He garnered Tony nominations for “Damn Yankees” (1994) and “Two Shakespearean Actors” (1992), and after last year’s Lincoln Center production of “Hapgood”, he won the Lucille Lortel Award for Directing.   He’s directed Shakespearean comedies and tragedies and a bevy of operas nationwide. But he considers this world premiere musical, “Time and Again” (at the Old Globe Theatre, through June 9), to be his hugest undertaking ever.

“There’s no bigger piece in theater than Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”,” says the expansive director, a great fan of hyperbole. “But beyond that, this has the largest cast, budget, scope and ambition.   It’s a very daunting piece. People know it and have great affection for it.”

The novel “Time and Again,” published in 1970, has a virtual cult following.   Written by science fiction author Jack Finney, who also penned “The Body Snatchers” and “Good Neighbor Sam,” the time-travel romance concerns a modern, Manhattan advertising illustrator who gets sucked into a shady government operation that sends him hurtling back to 1880s New York, where he haplessly, hopelessly falls in love.

The music and lyrics for the stage version are written by Walter Edgar “Skip” Kennon, and the book is by Jack Viertel (creative director of Jujamcyn Theatres). Jujamcyn is part of a large backers’ group that has the production scheduled into Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre in the fall. Meanwhile, Robert Redford has a film option on the book, which probably won’t come to the screen for another year or two.

O’Brien was floored when he first heard the music; he says it’s “conceivably the best score I’ve ever heard…. passionate, lyrical, witty, sophisticated, and really well written…   At first, I thought it was just too big for the Globe.   But the creators thought that was just the discipline they’d need to rein it in. It is huge, with a cast of 23 and a full, very string-oriented orchestra.

“It’s a big American project.   All done by American artists. That was very important to me. I’m very quietly nationalistic. I’m tired of American theater being considered an underdog in terms of Shakespeare and big-ticket musicals.”

Instead of opulent stairways, chandeliers and helicopters, the creative team is aiming for a “non-traditional approach, not all about scenery… theatrically evocative rather than literal.” Actors play multiple roles. As for the cast, O’Brien avows, “I’ve never heard voices like this in my entire life.” The stars, Howard McGillin and Rebecca Luker, have performed in many Broadway musicals.

“It’s a grown-up romance,” says O’Brien.   “And we haven’t had too many of those. It’s not a rock opera, and we’re not pretending it is. It’s a big, rich, unique and special story. The time travel, the romance that takes place in two different centuries — it appeals to the mystical quality in all of us. It’s very lush and romantic… I don’t have to have to reach too far for that.”

©1996 Patté Productions Inc.