The following is an excerpt from Jack in the Box: Or, How to Goddamn Direct, a new book by Jack O’Brien. Michael Bloom’s review of the book is here.
If I’m not completely mistaken, I believe I might have been the last person to work professionally with the legendary George Abbott. Well, “work with” may be somewhat misleading, as we shall see, but when we first met he was 105 years old, and he died two years later at 107, and I truly believe those extra two years were pretty much fueled by fury at me. He referred to me as “the kid.” I was, let’s face it, well into my sixties, but to him, why not? “The kid smiles and agrees with you, and then he goes on and does what he goddamn likes!” When I heard that he’d said that about our collaboration, I must confess I felt kind of proud.
The occasion was the Broadway revival of his triumph of the fifties, Damn Yankees, which was to begin at the Globe before moving on to Broadway for over a full year’s run, with a healthy national tour to follow. I was unaware of the fact that in his one hundredth year, he’d directed a revival of the musical himself for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, with Orson Bean in the key role of the devil, Applegate, believing the show to be foolproof and something of an annuity for him. But for various reasons, the production didn’t come together, and rather than moving it on to Broadway, it closed, a huge disappointment as well as somewhat confusing for a man who had bestridden Broadway like a veritable colossus from approximately 1913 until 1995. Had the business changed that much? he wondered. It had always worked before . . . Why not now?
Sitting in business class on the first flight east from San Diego to New York one morning in 1993, I was quickly finding out why not. Out of the absolute blue, the Globe had received a call from a producer, Mitchell Maxwell, who wanted to know if (a) we wanted to produce the revival with him prior to Broadway, and (b) I would consider directing it. The kicker was, however, that I had only the opening of the next twenty-four hours to respond…meaning reading the script, flying to New York to meet with Maxwell and Richard Adler, the only surviving original creator, who was summering somewhere in or near the Hamptons, instead of his partner, the late composer Jerry Ross, or Mr. Abbott, who was currently living in Florida. Tall order, all of that, but time was of the essence, and the opportunity had the supposed shelf life of a tsetse fly.
My own knowledge of the piece was limited…I must have been sixteen or seventeen years old when I first encountered Damn Yankees, performed at the Clio Musical Tent in Michigan, a performance indelible in my memory during which an actor named Lester Rawlins, playing Applegate, performed his big number “Those Were the Good Old Days” with such panache that I presumed the ovation for that requisite encore was caused by the brilliance of his performance, as opposed to a performance that had been carefully calibrated, considered, and solidly rehearsed. If I’m not mistaken, it was this particular virus that bit me on the spot and was never going to let me go. I can recall almost every detail of the evening vividly.
But in the speeding cabin of my American Airlines flight, some thirty or so years later, the romance was clearly gone. Although I could recall every note of that delicious score, Mr. Abbott’s book, based on Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and written in collaboration with Mr. Wallop, is a charming baseball riff on the Faust legend, in which the transformed older man finally finds himself in the arms of the devil’s handmaiden, in this case, originally personified onstage by the unforgettable Gwen Verdon. In retrospect, however, it all seemed both labored and dated, and, worse, now deeply offensive to women: At the end of the musical, when old Joe returns home to his wife, Meg, she greets him with “Don’t tell me where you were…I don’t ever want to know.” I visibly cringed as I read this, and my heart sank. I was on my way to confront one of the original authors, and in today’s market how could I possibly support this?
How quickly, in our pendulum-swinging universe, values can change, sometimes seemingly overnight. What once was witty repartee can sound like insensitive insults, and what once passed for regular byplay between the sexes as well as the races is rendered virtually intolerable by a society now forced to relisten with newly enlightened ears. We stare sometimes with unbelieving eyes at what a portion of the populace once regularly celebrated as sheer entertainment, and search continually for ways to mitigate, to reform, to revoice themes deeply rooted in racism, misogyny, and domestic violence. It all operates as a kind of habitual blindness so offensive to many for so long that we have to retrain ourselves on almost a daily basis. Like most of the rest of the twentieth century’s self-satisfied, intrinsically white society, George Abbott pursued his myriad creative interests with no social awareness that any of it was, in any way, offensive; he was a man who began working in the theatre as an actor in 1913, and who was still relevant and participating professionally at the time of his death in the mid-nineties, virtually an entire century later. He had seen, he had participated, he had been active longer than anyone else probably on the planet, at the very height of his creative powers, dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a fedora while rehearsing, as nearly everyone did during the thirties. He was the gold standard. Period. Today, citizens don’t put on a coat and tie, even to go to church, let alone a hat to work in the theatre. Mr. Abbott saw it all, did it all, and pretty much led the parade. I feel the need to make allowances while being careful not to appear to judge him too harshly in today’s light. If, by today’s standards, some or much of the work appears sexist, it was, and it has taken all of us this long to begin to atone.
What he was, in fact, was a consummate entertainer, and as such, he used whatever was handy to make the point, button the scene, and deliver the goods. And my God! Did he deliver them! He was, possibly, the original “play doctor,” a shrewd and experienced authority called in for a very high price to “save” or fix any show that was out of town and in trouble. He had more tricks up his sleeve than anyone before or since. Surveying a piece of stage business where a tray of martinis was to be lifted by a guest for his own personal consumption, when it repeatedly got not so much as a giggle from the audience, he merely said to the prop master, “Make them all Manhattans,” realizing that clear liquid wouldn’t read from the stage in a Broadway house, but darker liquid would. And the joke worked! It is said that traditionally, early on, if any of his musicals were in serious trouble in the second act, he would employ an overweight, baby-voiced comedian named Thelma Pelish, put the poor dear on roller skates, and just push her across the stage. The house would come down! I hasten to add that I never saw this, and blush to record it, not really being able to substantiate it, but, sad but true, it sounds just like something George Abbott might have come up with.
So, naturally from his point of view, the end of his book for Damn Yankees could hardly be considered in any way offensive, and yet, with the knowledge that in today’s market, the greatest percentage of theatre tickets are purchased by women, how could I possibly look at that part of the script and not realize we were trembling on the cusp of some kind of sociological disaster?
But quite suddenly, there I am—there we all are—Mitchell Maxwell and his sister, Victoria, and Dan Markley, the very seekers of the rights, sitting with me in the lovely Miami Beach living room where Mr. Abbott and his effusive third wife, Joy, are now permanently living. We’ve supposedly come for a discussion about the musical, the book, and, at the prompting of my producers, to share “my take” on what should happen and how that might be achieved.
Mr. Abbott, born in 1887, is now fully 105 years of age. All the existing pictures one has ever seen of him reveal him to be tall, athletically straight, slim, in exquisitely tailored suits, and with a strong, no-nonsense expression on his very leading-man face, those eyes—even rendered in black-and-white photographs—astonishing in their clarity and power. But here, finally in his retirement, he’s but a figment of that image, confined to a wheelchair, bent over, and collapsed, as if an inflated ball had been punctured, and between the narrow shoulders, the face glares out, burning, impenetrable. And impossible to read. Because at this stage, the muscles in the face have relaxed, have ceased to hold up or to be able to replicate any emotion or expression he might be feeling. The face turns resolutely down at the corners of the mouth, wide, with the lips ceaselessly moving in an interior monologue he either cannot share or refuses to. The effect, finally, is of a permanent grimace, as if he were soured by some unimaginable disappointment, with only those remarkable eyes carrying anything evocative of life. The rest is a mask, like that of the classic image of tragedy…everything turns down, no matter what he might be trying to express.
Joy keeps up a nearly continual roulade of cheery comments, fluttering around to get drinks, adjust Mr. Abbott’s chair, never really settling, not nervous, exactly, but as if willing the evening to have some physical activity to it. A former nurse, she has been, as well, a highly competitive golfer, and until only recently, when Mr. Abbott could no longer will himself around in a golf cart, they played as much golf as humanly possible, her keeping up with him, rather than the other way around. One recalls the reported legend of George Abbott, deep into his eighties, making weekly appearances at Roseland in Manhattan, usually accompanied by not one but two Latina beauties, and dancing for hours alternately with the two girls, who actually needed a spare to come along to maintain the punishing pace of these traditional Friday-night exploits. He adored dancing, and, ramrod straight, tall, and lithe, he was spectacular on the dance floor.
Now he glares at me across the room, or does he? The fixed, masklike expression and the wispy, almost ghostly sound of his voice are both devoid of any color, any variety, any hint of how one should interpret what is being said. And what is being said? My three producers, as stunned and awed as I am to be in the Presence finally of the Great Man in his own lair, have subsided to monosyllabic grunts, and with the focus on me, and with an inclusive and wary eye on Joy, I try to express my concerns.
However, as I slowly begin this somewhat damped-down analysis of aspects of Damn Yankees that might be less than welcome in today’s market, his eyes never leave my face; that basilisk stare is one of permanent condemnation. Not easy to cheerily sell to that! I have seen really amazing opportunities for revisions to his book that shouldn’t make all that much difference in the dramatic arc and that might soften the more jagged edges of mores that are now remarkably far behind us. I mention the possibility of losing Meg’s sister as being less than vital, the building up of the Applegate role more appropriate now for a star of Victor Garber’s sophistication and clout. No responses. No indication of yes, no, or maybe. Still I plunge on, getting to the more serious crux of the issue, the last scene, when Meg, the abandoned wife without a clue, simply sweeps all her husband’s transgressions under the rug while Lola, the devil’s handmaiden, who has apparently recently slept with Meg’s husband, for retribution has had her eternal youth lifted in order to be labeled “the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island.” It may yet be a funny turn of phrase, unless, of course, you’re a woman and come from Providence, Rhode Island, but the fat’s in the fire now, and despite the underscoring of little yips and tender objections with which Joy has punctured my recitation along the way, there has been no sound from the author himself. The conversation stops, with futile support from my colleagues, but after they’ve sputtered their demurrers like so many farts of antique Fords, the room is quiet.
We sip our cocktails and wait. One or two of my pathetic remarks try to buoy up what’s left of his outline as I review what still remains of his sleek writing, his celebrated deft economy. Nothing. I am sure we’re dead in the water, and wonder how long we can go on like this before I, at least, must rise and give my thanks, if not apologies for having ruined his evening, and begin my humiliating exit, when there is suddenly a rumble from Mr. Abbott’s throat, and we all turn to him expectantly. The ghostly voice speaks: “I know how to fix the problem with the wife,” he offers, and you can feel the ceiling rise above us, like God breathing gently to expand the room. Perhaps there can be collaboration of a kind, after all. “How?” I ask, and the response is so immediate, you realize he’s been waiting for the opportunity: “Hire a fat woman!” comes the instant reply.
Everyone goes blank, even Joy. “Excuse me?” I offer, but Mr. Abbott has no intention of relinquishing the floor. “Hire a fat woman,” he repeats. “Fat women are just grateful to be married; they don’t give a damn what else happens.”
No one can come up with anything to say, but in truth, with all color removed, all inflection, all spoken nuance bleached from his voice, we wonder: Is this a joke? Can he be teasing? Or is he possibly speaking his truth? If it’s the former, it’s a grotesque slap in the face to all our reasoning. If it’s the latter—oh,
if it’s the latter…!
Shortly after, we’ve made our abrupt goodbyes and withdrawn. It has been suggested by Mitchell Maxwell that I “try” with, say, the first scene, to write an alternative version of what I mean for Mr. Abbott to react to…No use working in the abstract; we’ll give him eighteen or twenty pages of my version of the first scene between Joe Hardy and Applegate, and he can respond and give me notes. How about that? I’m despondent. This is more or less my worst nightmare. The great George Abbott either doesn’t get my objections or won’t get my objections, and yet I’m somehow supposed to submit an alternative version of his work with the…what?…hope that he’ll fall in love with it? It won’t happen, I insist, but Maxwell claims somehow that despite the scene we’ve just shared, he honestly believes that I am going to get at least 80 percent of my revisions. He’s even willing to bet on it.
Weeks later, I submit eighteen pages of new dialogue between Joe Hardy and an elegant, bright Applegate, as I imagine Victor Garber might sound in the role, like a contemporary William Powell. I like it. The producers like it. Even Victor Garber likes it. But Mr. Abbott? No response, and from that, we take courage that I am meant to go on.
He didn’t say yes, exactly, but he didn’t say no, either, and I’m becoming more and more enthralled by this new enterprise as well as by my delight in toying with it. I take liberties. I cut Meg’s caustic, labored sister, and with the encouragement of the late James Raitt, our musical director, I turn the duet “Near to You,” originally sung in a park by young Joe to Meg, into a sleepless nightmare of Meg’s, while she is tossing and turning sleeplessly in bed, and where, through a scrim wall, she begins to intuit the blend of her husband with this new, hot ballplayer, so what was originally conceived as a duet becomes a fresh and beautiful trio for three principals. I take further chances. Never feeling comfortable with “Two Lost Souls” as a duet for Lola and young Joe, an indication that they are headed for a torrid affair, I substitute Applegate, feeling that Lola and Applegate should cement their partnership and let the old guy return to his happy suburban home, while my two stars, Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth, can give the audience a really sensational final “eleven o’clock” number, the time-honored perfect late spot to display the final, full range of the stars, replete with jets of fire shooting out of the stage. Still no real objections out of Miami Beach, and when I stub my metaphorical toe on the eroding ending of the second act, none other than the visiting Tom Stoppard, peering over my shoulder in curiosity at what I’m currently doing, reminds me to “put a clock on the show,” as in Cinderella, which will compel the action forward. This, however, puts still more emphasis on the weak device of a weak trial scene, which is meant to further condemn our young stalwart ballplayer, and when I call Mr. Abbott on the phone for his advice and assistance, he rasps back his solution…“Cut it! It never worked in the first place!”
Although I am relieved that he is willing to play as fast and loose with his own work as I have been doing, I remind him that this dippy court scene is the only complication left before we run out of story into the finale, and, finally left alone by my collaborator completely silent, I stagger toward concocting a finish on my own.
Finally, the day of reckoning arrives. Mr. Abbott and Joy are in their summer residence, a lovely cottage up in the Berkshires, and we three—Mitchell Maxwell, Dan Markley, and I—are summoned for a final assessment. Like dutiful schoolboys, our faces bright and scrubbed, we show up to this really beautiful cottage, which has been Mr. Abbott’s private escape for probably half a century, to be greeted by the indefatigable Joy and Himself, screwed into his wheelchair and, as always, looking mean as a snake. We group ourselves around the dining room table, while outside, the impossible background of some of the most beguiling scenery on the Eastern Seaboard mocks our grim encounter. It’s just past ten in the morning when we begin, and we do not finish until about four in the afternoon. Every single word, every scene, every phrase is scoured, sanded, argued, and debated by this relic of a man at the age of 105. Across the table from me, those brilliant, dazzling blue eyes in a basically dead face burn into mine, ferocious and constant. Not a moment is spared, not a single word is allowed to go by without a lash back by the original author. “Why not? What’s that? How can you do that?” Over and over and over for nearly five hours without even a bathroom break. I defend, I feint, I protest, and finally, when we are toe-to-toe over the problem of Applegate and not young Joe singing “Two Lost Souls,” I am drained of both reason and patience, and I say as forcefully as anything I’ve yet exhibited, “I can’t! I just can’t do that,” meaning returning to his original solution of Lola and young Joe. “I just don’t believe it!”
Mr. Abbott’s hands go up past his ears, and, lowering them, he manages to push the wheelchair back from the table in disgust. “Well, that’s that!” he says with a kind of finality that needs no further interpretation.
Silence. No one moves. We’re dead. He won’t allow it, clearly, and we have labored all this time in vain. I’ve gone too far. Even Joy seems to sense it. Gently, feebly, she offers, “Well, George, maybe there’s a way…,” to which he answers with a fervor that is now unmistakable, “No! That’s it! If he doesn’t believe it, he can’t make it work!”
What? What have I just heard? He goes on, remarkably. “If you don’t believe in the material, you can’t direct it. That’s all there is to say.” There speaks a director, not a writer. The writer in him figures that he can always come up with some other solution, supposedly, but the director is stuck with only the material at hand, and must absolutely believe in it, or he cannot expect his actors to believe as well. We have marched to the very edge of the abyss in lockstep, and before plunging over the edge, George Abbott has defended his own cardinal rule, even though it may erase most of his own writing. He effectively throws in the towel.
I’m exhausted, stunned, disbelieving what I’ve just heard, and more than that, I find myself powerfully and emotionally moved at the integrity, the energy, the sheer force of this man, very nearly twice my age, and still able to battle me to a virtual standstill. As we prepare to leave, I offer a kind of bizarre compromise. “Mr. Abbott,” I say, “what about this? We know your version works. It always has. We have an opportunity to do this version in San Diego for you to see, and if we do it and you come out to see it and object, we’ll just scrap it and do the original.” I see Mitchell Maxwell going dead white behind the wheelchair, but he says nothing. Neither does Mr. Abbott. Does he believe me? Do I believe me? Is such a thing even possible? But he graciously seems to accept it for what it is—a gesture, perhaps—and we take our leave.
Months later, Damn Yankees opened at the Old Globe theatre starring Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth, with funny, fresh choreography by Rob Marshall, and a book intrinsically rewritten by me, but for the half dozen silver-plated jokes Mr. Abbott had originally crafted for the original Applegate, Ray Walston, and which were still really funny—“Who are you?” “Not a soul!”—and, as opposed to what some witnesses insist, Mr. Abbott did not stride down the aisle under his own steam, but was carried, like a soft bag of autumn leaves, between my business partner, Tom Hall, and our production supervisor, Ken Denison, to be deposited in an aisle seat, but history is right to report that there was, indeed, an immediate standing ovation by the entire audience. They knew a legend when they saw one.
And the next morning, again the dutiful schoolboy, I presented myself at the hotel where he and Joy were staying, as she wheeled him into a conference room where I sat with pen and paper to “take my notes.” Again he glared across the massive table at me—an arena far too big, too wide, for the sour little packet of what was intended to transpire between us. I lifted my pen and opened the pad, but Mr. Abbott waved a thin hand my way. “What does it matter what I say?” he said. “They stood, didn’t they?”
And that was that. There spoke a practical theatre professional, the man who’d nearly invented the profession itself. He was anything but sentimental. His Paper Mill Playhouse version hadn’t fired the way he believed it would. This one had. Big-time. So this was the version he wanted. After all, he was still making a living.
My name was never to appear alongside his with any sense of authorship. The producers paid me fairly decently for my direction, trying to compensate for what I had contributed, which would now play for well over two years, but a director’s royalties don’t last remotely as long as an author’s. Mr. Abbott knew that, and there was no way, after all I had done to his original script, that he would invite me onto that page. The consummate pro, he simply swept all the chips off the table. “Neuf à la banque!” His show. His rewards.
And what of the illusion of anger? Was he, indeed, angry at me, as I have presumed all these years later? I don’t think so. Oh, he was angry, all right, but not ultimately at me. On some level he had made his peace with me, and if he didn’t approve, there was a grudging respect after all. “The kid smiles and agrees with you, and then he goes on and does what he goddamn likes!” But those eyes…the power of a lifetime winnowed down to two blazing blue orbs in a surround of failing flesh. He could never forgive the fact that he was no longer the one doing the work, giving the orders, making it “happen.” It probably didn’t matter who else did it, so long as it worked. But the final unforgivable insult was that it was no longer him. And that was all that was left smoking in that collapsed face.
Facing my bed in my new Connecticut home, ironically enough, is a bust of George Abbott, an award that bears his name given by our union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, for distinguished work over a career, and which was presented to me a number of years ago. He watches me, I suppose, as I sleep. And those lines—neither his nor mine—float in the room between us: “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
What a man.
Jack O’Brien was the artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre from 1981 to 2007, and has won three Tony Awards for his direction.
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