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Margo Lion, producer of Hairspray and more, dies at 75

Margo Lion (centre), the lead producer of the Broadway musical Hairspray, with the show's stars Harvey Fierstein (far left), and Marissa Jaret Winokur in 2002. The show, which ran for more than six years, won eight Tony awards including best musical.

New York

MARGO Lion, a theatre producer who was largely responsible for bringing Jelly's Last Jam and Hairspray to Broadway and played a major role in other important shows, including Angels In America, died on Friday in Manhattan. She was 75.

Her son, Matthew Nemeth, said the cause was a brain aneurysm. She had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, one of several causes she supported, and had a lung transplant in 2018.

In an era when big-budget theatre was an increasingly corporate affair, bankrolled by companies like Disney Theatrical Productions, Lion was an independent producer, putting up her own money and recruiting other investors to get a show mounted.

"She was passionate," producer Rocco Landesman, who worked with her on Angels In America and other shows, said in a telephone interview, "and she was always all-in".

Unlike some producers, who commit to a show only after it has proved itself in workshops or out-of-town trial runs, she was known for getting on board early - often initiating a project, as she did with Jelly's Last Jam (1992) and Hairspray (2002). And she stuck with shows she believed in despite the considerable risk of losing money, as most Broadway productions do. She often put up her West Side apartment as collateral in support of a project.

"People think I'm nuts," Lion told The New York Times in 2002. "But once you get going on these shows, you have so much invested in them emotionally, you have to believe completely in the purpose of what you're doing, so you risk the farm."

People who worked on her productions knew her to be interested more in the art than in the bottom line. One admirer was Susan Birkenhead, the lyricist for Jelly's Last Jam, a show about jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton that Lion began developing in the mid-1980s. Where other producers might be cautious, Birkenhead found Lion to be encouraging and open.

"It was a nurturing I'd never experienced in a producer," Birkenhead told The Baltimore Sun in 1993. "She allowed us to fail, and she allowed us to experiment, and the more innovative and dangerous it became, the more willing she was."

Margo Allison Lion was born on Oct 13, 1944, in Baltimore to Albert and Gloria (Amburgh) Lion. Her father was chairman of Lion Brothers, a company that made embroidered emblems, and her parents were supporters of arts institutions in Baltimore. Both were killed in a plane crash in Egypt in 1963 when she was finishing her freshman year at Mills College in Oakland, California.

Lion transferred to George Washington University and earned a bachelor's degree in history and politics before going to work on Capitol Hill for Senator Daniel B. Brewster and then for Senator Robert F. Kennedy in his New York office. After Mr Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, said she "never wanted to do politics again".

She became a teacher at the Town School in Manhattan, but when her husband at the time, Ted Nemeth, enrolled in the playwriting division of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she followed him there and rediscovered a love of theatre she had nursed in school productions as a girl.

"I loved hanging out with the playwrights, the theater world," she said.

She and her husband soon separated and later divorced, and, back in New York, she grew more serious about theatre.

"I really thought I would have three kids, four dogs and be the woman behind the man," she said. "But I found when Ted and I separated that I had all of this energy and this passion to do something."

A second cousin, choreographer Martha Clarke, introduced her to Lyn Austin, who had founded the nonprofit Music-Theater Group, which produced idiosyncratic performance works. Austin brought Lion aboard. She eventually became a producing director alongside Austin.

"She was the perfect person for me to learn from," Lion said. "She was a gambler."

After five years there she struck out on her own, and by 1984 she was working on a musical tentatively titled Mr. Jelly Lord. The show, retitled Jelly's Last Jam, didn't make it to Broadway until eight years later - a measure of how long it can take before a new musical reaches the stage. Gregory Hines played Morton; his wife at the time, Pamela Koslow, was Lion's co-producer.

The show ran for 569 performances. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three, although it lost out on the prize for best musical to Crazy For You. By then, Lion already had three Broadway credits, as associate producer on two shows and a producer on one, I Hate Hamlet (1991).

Her Broadway credit after Jelly's Last Jam was atypical, in that it was not a project she had been with from the beginning; it had been developed in productions in San Francisco, London and Los Angeles. The show was Tony Kushner's two-part work about Aids and homosexuality, Angels In America. Landesman's company, Jujamcyn Theaters, had won the competition to bring it to New York, and Lion bought in, becoming a significant voice in the still-evolving work as it headed to Broadway.

Lion had her share of failures, perhaps none bigger than Triumph Of Love, a musical that died on Broadway 85 performances after opening in 1997. But it wouldn't be long before she was struck by the brainstorm that would become her biggest hit.

Lion had seen the movie Hairspray (1988), directed by fellow Baltimorean John Waters, soon after it came out, but admitted that she didn't embrace it initially.

"To be candid," she told The Sun in 2002, "I think I wasn't sophisticated enough when I first saw Hairspray to appreciate its many virtues."

But in 1998, she rented the video and watched the movie again while recovering from a cold. "Halfway through," she recalled in the 2002 interview with The New York Times, "I literally said: 'Yes, this is it. I found it.'"

She had not yet met Waters. By the time she did, she had acquired the rights and had sent him the first few songs for the musical, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. When they finally did meet, Waters said in a phone interview, she promised him that she would make sure that the musical, about a chubby Baltimore teenager who wins a spot on a local television dance show, stayed true to his voice and vision.

"She stuck to her word," he said, "and we were lucky. It went right, right from the beginning. She honoured everything about the original intentions of the movie." The musical version of the Waters movie, with a book by Mark O'Donnell, opened on Broadway on Aug 15, 2002, and ran for almost 6-1/2 years, a total of 2,642 performances. It won eight Tony Awards, including best musical.

Lion's other Broadway producing credits included the August Wilson plays Seven Guitars (1996) and Radio Golf (2007), as well as Elaine Stritch At Liberty (2002), Caroline, Or Change (2004), The Wedding Singer (2006) and Catch Me If You Can (2011).

Lion was an early supporter of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy. In 2009, he named her to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

In addition to her son, she is survived by two grandchildren. NYTIMES