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From Hill to ‘Hairspray’

Adam Epstein, a 28-year-old producer of the runaway hit Broadway musical “Hairspray,” leans in so intently his chin nearly touches the table at Union Station’s Thunder Grill, and with a blue pen in hand, ticks off a list of professional accomplishments.

At 23, after a brief theater “apprenticeship” of sorts, he launched an eponymous theatrical company. A few years later, with producing credits for “Amadeus” and “The Crucible” under his belt, he earned two Tony Award nominations. And now, with his newly formed Bonmar Entertainment — named for his parents, Bonnie and Marc — he plans to shepherd future film and television projects. Then, of course, there is “Hairspray,” which as he notes, is mostly sold out till sometime around like … umm … Thanksgiving.

Still, there’s much the indefatigable, 5-foot, 7-inch-tall Miami Beach native would like to do. “I’m interested, really, in being a multimedia mogul,” Epstein says simply, not even cracking a smile.

Oh, and this salt-and-pepper-haired wunderkind, who spent summers in college interning for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), hasn’t ruled out a run for the Senate, either.

In late February, Epstein demonstrated his proficiency at filling campaign coffers when a “Hairspray” fundraiser he hosted — his first ever — netted around $130,000 for Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) presidential effort.

“One of the great hooks is having a show like ‘Hairspray,’” he explains. “In order to get a ticket, which are hard to come by … you can make a contribution … . It’s a very sexy combination.”

However, with Graham, his former boss, beginning a bid for the White House — and a formal announcement expected later this year — Epstein admits his political calculus may have to undergo a minor reassessment.

“[Sen. Graham’s] been there for me. He’s a supporter of the arts. He always comes and sees my shows. He’s been good to my grandparents. He’s been good to the people of my state … of my city,” Epstein asserts.

“I’ve supported [Edwards], but now the possible entrance of Bob Graham may change my landscape,” he says, quickly adding that Edwards is a great guy, too.

Allure of Politics

Epstein arrives at the interview dressed for a day on Capitol Hill. Dark suit. Telegenic blue tie. Mandatory American flag pinned to his right lapel. Indeed, the one-time New York University political science major appears perfectly comfortable straddling the glitzy world of the Great White Way and the more button-upped atmosphere of policy wonks in the nation’s capital.

“Fundraising and forging relationships are so central to my business,” he declares, referring to the similarities between Washington and the entertainment industry.

He points to his maternal grandfather, retired Circuit Court Judge Irving Cypen — who served as a delegate for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and later headed up Hubert Humphrey’s Dade County presidential campaign — as his political mentor.

By the 1988 elections, Epstein admits to being “gripped” by the allure of presidential politics.

“Suddenly, at 13 years old I had an epiphany that it was important to be aware,” he recalls.

Epstein carried this political passion to college, even though he initially started out as a theater major. He spent the summers of 1994 and 1995 toiling as an intern on Capitol Hill.

His days then were hardly glamorous. During his first Congressional stint in Deutsch’s House office, Epstein remembers opening endless constituent letters. “It gets redundant,” he says, “sort of like a mixed green salad — six pieces of lettuce later, you’ve had it.”

By the following summer he moved over to the Senate side, where he advanced to writing position papers and policy briefs for Graham on everything from the Middle East peace process to tax cuts.

But despite his solidly Democratic credentials and progressive social outlook, Epstein’s ideology reflects what he calls a “Jim Jeffordsesque” political framework.

For one thing, the former intern for then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani backs the war in Iraq. Big time.

“If you can make any group of people anywhere somehow less oppressed — not withstanding all the chaos and conflict that can ensue from it — I think we are better off,” says Epstein, though he wishes the Bush administration had utilized a bit more Wilsonian finesse when dealing with the lead-up to war.

Epstein also contends his fiscal views are more conservative than those of many of his colleagues.

“You can’t saddle everything with taxes and regulations because it’s good for the social welfare of the world … which is debatable,” he observes.

The Right Note

Having already hit the jackpot once by tapping into Broadway’s latest trend of adapting movies into musicals, Epstein says plans are in the works for two “new big musicals” based on films from the last decade or so, though he declined to name names. Meanwhile, the meteoric success of “Hairspray,” derived from independent filmmaker John Waters’ 1988 cult classic — which he remembers walking out of on his first viewing at age 13 — continues to consume his attention. The show will begin its national tour this fall in Baltimore — Waters’ hometown and the setting for the musical — and consistently plays to full houses at the Neil Simon Theater in New York City.

“It hits a chord,” he explains. “Its themes of diversity, of acceptance, and a celebration of the fact that anyone can overcome and win is so resonately American, and I think that’s hitting home in a post-9/11 world.”

As for politics, Epstein, heir to a Florida gasket fortune, may capitalize on his network of show biz and New York intelligentsia contacts to generate support for select, Democratic candidates. “If you have a profile of somebody in show business,” he says, “ … you can have a corridor to people who are representing the issues you believe in in Washington.”

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