NEW YORK - The elements all are there: A ball gown, a lost glass object, even a fairy godfather.

Most of all, this real-life fairy tale has, at its center, a beautiful woman who worked very hard for a very long time before her dream - one she never believed would come true - was fulfilled.

Her name is Margo Lion, and she is the Baltimore-born producer of Hairspray, the Broadway show that racked up a whopping eight Tony Awards, including best musical, last Sunday at Radio City Music Hall. In one night - just a matter of hours - she was transformed from someone whose shows generally receive critical acclaim but don't always make money into this season's most successful producer.

It was a glorious night and its shimmer will cling to her, like fairy dust, forever.

  • Lion lives in a spacious, sun-drenched Upper West Side apartment. There is no clutter. The hardwood floors are bare. The living room windows are curtain-less. This is the home of a woman blessed with clear vision.

    Tucked discreetly in one corner is a nude sculpted by Matisse, which she inherited at 18 when her parents died in a plane crash in Egypt. It is a treasure, but one she was willing to sacrifice. In 1992, when Lion produced her first Broadway musical, Jelly's Last Jam , she used the artwork as collateral. She also mortgaged her apartment, and has taken out loans many times since. Hairspray's unbridled success suggests she can finally abandon this pattern, though she says cautiously, "You never know."

    Four hours before the Tony Awards are to be broadcast live, the producer is padding around in fuzzy lion slippers and a white terrycloth robe embroidered with the Hairspray logo, an opening night gift from the musical's songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Her short, thick, black hair is freshly washed in preparation for the arrival of Madison Avenue hairstylist Richard Stein.

    For the 58-year-old Hairspray producer - who will be seen by nearly eight million television viewers before the night is over - this simply cannot be a bad hair day.

    It's also a day Lion never expected to see. Not that she doesn't want her shows to be hits. But a few years ago, when The Producers won 12 Tony Awards, more than any other show in history, Lion thought, "This will never happen to me."

    It wasn't a painful realization. Lion, whose theatrical career spans three decades, is a strong woman - you have to be, to play in this league - but she's not one to deliberately chase wealth or fame.

    Lion's shows, like Angels in America and the short-lived musical Triumph of Love, have been satisfying to her, but haven't always found a wide audience. "I've chosen another path and that path is to nurture young artists and try new things that have cultural relevance, and those probably aren't going to be big box office successes," she says.

    "I had really come to terms with it. I thought, 'Well, I'll just stay in this as long as I can afford to.' "

    So it's with a sense of unreality that she's dressing for the Tonys, theater's most visible awards ceremony and one in which she is predicted to be the big winner. Already she has weathered a dress disaster. The first gown she bought - off the rack at Saks Fifth Avenue - was a blue-gray silk shantung with a full skirt and scoop neckline. She loved the style, but not the color, and was planning to ask Hairspray costume designer William Ivey Long to copy it in a different hue when Stein persuaded her to wear black.

    That led to dress No. 2, a black chiffon purchased at Emilio Pucci and altered by Hairspray's costume shop. But on Tuesday, Lion went to a fitting with her assistant, who took one look and declared, "You can't wear that!"

    Fortunately, Lion hadn't returned the blue-gray shantung. An inspired costume maker named Warner Kulovits set a fuchsia band into the neckline, and the drab-colored dress was transformed into a ball gown fit for the limelight, and far more in sync with Hairspray's Necco wafer-to-neon color scheme.

    Just past 4 p.m., hairstylist Stein bustles in wearing a white T-shirt with black letters proclaiming: "Save the drama for your mama." He's the first in a small parade of people who will play a role in Lion's preparation this afternoon.

    As Stein (whose clientele has included Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman) fluffs and feathers, Lion muses aloud, "I really identify with Marissa."

    In the stage adaptation of John Waters' 1988 movie, actress Marissa Jaret Winokur stars as Tracy Turnblad, a tubby Bawlamer teen who not only wins a place on a 1962 TV dance show, but also wins the heart of the show's heartthrob and introduces integration to the Baltimore airwaves.

    "We're very unlikely candidates for this sort of success," Lion continues. "For obvious reasons for Marissa, and for me because I've been doing all this artful work that has been acknowledged critically, but I've never been someone who's done a big popular show, and I didn't set out to. John Waters called me Friday. He said, 'I don't know what to do with this. I've never been a front-runner.' He said, 'I'm so nervous.'