How We Met: Jerry Mitchell & Jack O'Brien

He's famous for a charity burlesque show, so if you want people to strip, there's no one better'

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:21

Jack O'Brien, 70, is an award-winning American theatre director and producer, whose Tony-winning Broadway shows include 'The Full Monty' 'Hairspray' and 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels'. He is currently in London to helm Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera' sequel 'Love Never Dies'. He lives in Connecticut.

Twenty years ago, the Broadway producer Manny Eisenberg called me up and said, "There's this young choreographer you need to meet." I agreed to meet him for lunch on Broadway, and this 6ft 2in, knock-out hilarious person joined us. We found out that we were both from Michigan, so there was an immediate rapport.

Over the next 10 years, there were a few shows I was working on that I thought would make great Jerry Mitchell projects, so we met a few times over dinner, but the timing was never right. Then, in 2000, up comes The Full Monty. One of the things Jerry is most famous for is Broadway Bares, an annual burlesque he choreographs for charity, where the acts strip. If you want people to take clothes off, no one does it better than Jerry, so he was perfect for the show.

Ordinarily when Jerry and I do a show together, we live together. He loves to cook, and I've had some terrific kitchens in the places I've lived. We've done our best work when we have been roommates and, after countless collaborations, we've learnt how to dance together creatively.

Being in a rehearsal room with Jerry is wonderful. He's like a billion-watt light bulb; we're both enthusiastic, outrageous people who don't edit ourselves. But there are some big differences, too: Jerry is Italian and the Italian choreographic temperament tends to be fiery, so he's far more rash and quick to speak out than I am.

But he's incredibly kind to me: he'll constantly come see me with a small gift, a T-shirt or a candle that he's picked up. I'm not certain what I do for Jerry, except that I'm ahead of him on the road and he uses that to judge where he's going.

We had a great day a couple of weeks ago that's emblematic of our friendship. Here we are in the middle of this hugely anticipated, fraught project with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jerry just had his 50th birthday. So I said, "I've got to buy you an outfit." We went off for the day and ended up at Harvey Nichols for lunch. We never discussed the show; it was just two close friends talking about relationships.

Love Never Dies might, or might not, be a great success, but it won't affect our relationship, because it transcends the professional bonds we started with.

Jerry Mitchell, 50, is a six-time Tony-nominated director and choreographer. He worked on films including 'Drop Dead Gorgeous' and 'In & Out' and countless theatre productions before his directorial debut three years ago, the lauded 'Legally Blonde', which has since transferred to the West End. He lives in New York.

No one is more charming than Jack. It was in 1990 that a producer I was working with said to me: "You really should meet Jack O'Brien," so I did, and we really hit it off. We tried to work with each other three times over the next few years and The Full Monty was the charm.

As a director, he let me fly. I remember in the script at the end of the first act of The Full Monty, the cast are meant to watch a video of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. I looked at Jack and said, "This is the wrong way to finish the act – it will never bring the house down," so we changed it. While other directors dictate, he welcomes ideas.

When we did The Full Monty in San Diego at the Globe [where O'Brien was artistic director for 25 years], Jack said, "Why don't you stay here at my home?" He had a beautiful two-bedroom house and we would have every meal together. It's very easy to talk about what you like and don't like over a glass of wine, so our trust in each other built up quickly.

After The Full Monty we did a load more collaborations: Hairspray, Imaginary Friends and Catch Me if You Can. And throughout, Jack was a big cheerleader for me to eventually become a director. My first real solo project, Legally Blonde, he guided me and helped me through it all. So there is without question an element of student and mentor to our friendship. I'm like a sponge, sucking everything up.

Together we've been to every opening of almost every show there is. Now I'm working in London as his choreographer on Love Never Dies, which some might say is a step down for me as I am beginning that climb as director, but for me, I'm here to support Jack.

I've loved getting to know London with Jack. He's always buying me ice-cream from this amazing gelato place in Covent Garden. Then there's this great family-run ravioli place a block away from the stripper alley in Soho that I've just found, so I went over to Jack's two weeks ago laden with pasta filled with artichoke, truffle oil and crab meat, as I wanted to share it with him.

I've had some wonderful working relationships with other directors of note, such as Sam Mendes, but what I have with Jerry is one of a kind. Who else knows the lyrics to virtually every track ever written, and starts singing along to every song that comes on the car radio?

'Love Never Dies' is at The Adelphi Theatre, London WC2 (0844 412 4651,, until 23 October

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