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AMERICAN THEATRE | Mr. Abbott Meets the Child: The Care and Feeding of the Revival

Jack O’Brien with George Abbott on the opening night time occasion for “Rattling Yankees” in 1993. (Picture by Ken Howard)

The next is an excerpt from Jack within the Field: Or, The right way to Goddamn Direct, a brand new guide by Jack O’Brien. Michael Bloom’s evaluate of the guide is right here.

If I’m not fully mistaken, I imagine I may need been the final individual to work professionally with the legendary George Abbott. Nicely, “work with” could also be considerably deceptive, as we will see, however after we first met he was 105 years outdated, and he died two years later at 107, and I actually imagine these additional two years had been just about fueled by fury at me. He referred to me as “the child.” I used to be, let’s face it, nicely into my sixties, however to him, why not? “The child smiles and agrees with you, after which he goes on and does what he goddamn likes!” Once I heard that he’d mentioned that about our collaboration, I need to confess I felt sort of proud.

The event was the Broadway revival of his triumph of the fifties, Rattling Yankees, which was to start on the Globe earlier than transferring on to Broadway for over a full yr’s run, with a wholesome nationwide tour to observe. I used to be unaware of the truth that in his one hundredth yr, he’d directed a revival of the musical himself for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, with Orson Bean in the important thing position of the satan, Applegate, believing the present to be foolproof and one thing of an annuity for him. However for numerous causes, the manufacturing didn’t come collectively, and reasonably than transferring it on to Broadway, it closed, an enormous disappointment in addition to considerably complicated for a person who had bestridden Broadway like a veritable colossus from roughly 1913 till 1995. Had the enterprise modified that a lot? he questioned. It had at all times labored earlier than . . . Why not now?

Sitting in enterprise class on the primary flight east from San Diego to New York one morning in 1993, I used to be rapidly discovering out why not. Out of absolutely the blue, the Globe had obtained a name from a producer, Mitchell Maxwell, who wished to know if (a) we wished to supply the revival with him previous to Broadway, and (b) I might take into account directing it. The kicker was, nevertheless, that I had solely the opening of the subsequent twenty-four hours to reply…that means studying the script, flying to New York to satisfy with Maxwell and Richard Adler, the one surviving authentic creator, who was summering someplace in or close to the Hamptons, as a substitute of his companion, the late composer Jerry Ross, or Mr. Abbott, who was at the moment residing in Florida. Tall order, all of that, however time was of the essence, and the chance had the supposed shelf lifetime of a tsetse fly.

My very own information of the piece was restricted…I will need to have been sixteen or seventeen years outdated once I first encountered Rattling Yankees, carried out on the Clio Musical Tent in Michigan, a efficiency indelible in my reminiscence throughout which an actor named Lester Rawlins, enjoying Applegate, carried out his massive quantity “These Had been the Good Previous Days” with such panache that I thought the ovation for that requisite encore was brought on by the brilliance of his efficiency, versus a efficiency that had been fastidiously calibrated, thought of, and solidly rehearsed. If I’m not mistaken, it was this specific virus that bit me on the spot and was by no means going to let me go. I can recall nearly each element of the night vividly.

However within the rushing cabin of my American Airways flight, some thirty or so years later, the romance was clearly gone. Though I might recall each notice of that scrumptious rating, Mr. Abbott’s guide, based mostly on Douglass Wallop’s The Yr the Yankees Misplaced the Pennant and written in collaboration with Mr. Wallop, is a captivating baseball riff on the Faust legend, by which the remodeled older man lastly finds himself within the arms of the satan’s handmaiden, on this case, initially personified onstage by the unforgettable Gwen Verdon. On reflection, nevertheless, all of it appeared each labored and dated, and, worse, now deeply offensive to ladies: On the finish of the musical, when outdated Joe returns residence to his spouse, Meg, she greets him with “Don’t inform me the place you had been…I don’t ever need to know.” I visibly cringed as I learn this, and my coronary heart sank. I used to be on my option to confront one of many authentic authors, and in at this time’s market how might I presumably assist this?

Stephen Douglass, Gwen Verdon, and Ray Walston within the 1955 manufacturing of “Rattling Yankees.”

How rapidly, in our pendulum-swinging universe, values can change, typically seemingly in a single day. What as soon as was witty repartee can sound like insensitive insults, and what as soon as handed for normal byplay between the sexes in addition to the races is rendered nearly insupportable by a society now pressured to relisten with newly enlightened ears. We stare typically with unbelieving eyes at what a portion of the populace as soon as often celebrated as sheer leisure, and search regularly for tactics to mitigate, to reform, to revoice themes deeply rooted in racism, misogyny, and home violence. All of it operates as a sort of recurring blindness so offensive to many for thus lengthy that we have now to retrain ourselves on nearly a day by day foundation. Like a lot of the remainder of the 20 th century’s self-satisfied, intrinsically white society, George Abbott pursued his myriad inventive pursuits with no social consciousness that any of it was, in any manner, offensive; he was a person who started working within the theatre as an actor in 1913, and who was nonetheless related and collaborating professionally on the time of his dying within the mid-nineties, nearly a whole century later. He had seen, he had participated, he had been lively longer than anybody else in all probability on the planet, on the very peak of his inventive powers, wearing a go well with and tie and carrying a fedora whereas rehearsing, as almost everybody did throughout the thirties. He was the gold normal. Interval. Right now, residents don’t placed on a coat and tie, even to go to church, not to mention a hat to work within the theatre. Mr. Abbott noticed all of it, did all of it, and just about led the parade. I really feel the necessity to make allowances whereas being cautious to not seem to guage him too harshly in at this time’s gentle. If, by at this time’s requirements, some or a lot of the work seems sexist, it was, and it has taken all of us this lengthy to start to atone.

What he was, in reality, was a consummate entertainer, and as such, he used no matter was useful to make the purpose, button the scene, and ship the products. And my God! Did he ship them! He was, presumably, the unique “play physician,” a shrewd and skilled authority referred to as in for a really excessive value to “save” or repair any present that was out of city and in hassle. He had extra methods up his sleeve than anybody earlier than or since. Surveying a bit of stage enterprise the place a tray of martinis was to be lifted by a visitor for his personal private consumption, when it repeatedly bought not a lot as a giggle from the viewers, he merely mentioned to the prop grasp, “Make all of them Manhattans,” realizing that clear liquid wouldn’t learn from the stage in a Broadway home, however darker liquid would. And the joke labored! It’s mentioned that historically, early on, if any of his musicals had been in deep trouble within the second act, he would make use of an chubby, baby-voiced comic named Thelma Pelish, put the poor pricey on curler skates, and simply push her throughout the stage. The home would come down! I hasten so as to add that I by no means noticed this, and blush to file it, probably not having the ability to substantiate it, however, unhappy however true, it sounds identical to one thing George Abbott may need provide you with.

So, naturally from his viewpoint, the top of his guide for Rattling Yankees might hardly be thought of in any manner offensive, and but, with the information that in at this time’s market, the best share of theatre tickets are bought by ladies, how might I presumably take a look at that a part of the script and never understand we had been trembling on the cusp of some sort of sociological catastrophe?


However fairly instantly, there I’m—there all of us are—Mitchell Maxwell and his sister, Victoria, and Dan Markley, the very seekers of the rights, sitting with me within the beautiful Miami Seashore front room the place Mr. Abbott and his effusive third spouse, Pleasure, at the moment are completely residing. We’ve supposedly come for a dialogue concerning the musical, the guide, and, on the prompting of my producers, to share “my take” on what ought to occur and the way that is likely to be achieved.

Mr. Abbott, born in 1887, is now totally 105 years of age. All the present footage one has ever seen of him reveal him to be tall, athletically straight, slim, in exquisitely tailor-made fits, and with a powerful, no-nonsense expression on his very leading-man face, these eyes—even rendered in black-and-white pictures—astonishing of their readability and energy. However right here, lastly in his retirement, he’s however a figment of that picture, confined to a wheelchair, bent over, and collapsed, as if an inflated ball had been punctured, and between the slender shoulders, the face glares out, burning, impenetrable. And unimaginable to learn. As a result of at this stage, the muscle tissue within the face have relaxed, have ceased to carry up or to have the ability to replicate any emotion or expression he is likely to be feeling. The face turns resolutely down on the corners of the mouth, broad, with the lips ceaselessly transferring in an inside monologue he both can’t share or refuses to. The impact, lastly, is of a everlasting grimace, as if he had been soured by some unimaginable disappointment, with solely these exceptional eyes carrying something evocative of life. The remaining is a masks, like that of the basic picture of tragedy…all the pieces turns down, it doesn’t matter what he is likely to be attempting to specific.

Pleasure retains up a virtually continuous roulade of cheery feedback, fluttering round to get drinks, modify Mr. Abbott’s chair, by no means actually settling, not nervous, precisely, however as if prepared the night to have some bodily exercise to it. A former nurse, she has been, as nicely, a extremely aggressive golfer, and till solely not too long ago, when Mr. Abbott might now not will himself round in a golf cart, they performed as a lot golf as humanly attainable, her maintaining with him, reasonably than the opposite manner round. One recollects the reported legend of George Abbott, deep into his eighties, making weekly appearances at Roseland in Manhattan, often accompanied by not one however two Latina beauties, and dancing for hours alternately with the 2 ladies, who truly wanted a spare to come back alongside to take care of the punishing tempo of those conventional Friday-night exploits. He adored dancing, and, ramrod straight, tall, and lithe, he was spectacular on the dance ground.

Now he glares at me throughout the room, or does he? The fastened, masklike expression and the wispy, nearly ghostly sound of his voice are each devoid of any shade, any selection, any trace of how one ought to interpret what’s being mentioned. And what is being mentioned? My three producers, as shocked and awed as I’m to be within the Presence lastly of the Nice Man in his personal lair, have subsided to monosyllabic grunts, and with the give attention to me, and with an inclusive and cautious eye on Pleasure, I attempt to categorical my issues.

Nevertheless, as I slowly start this considerably damped-down evaluation of facets of Rattling Yankees that is likely to be lower than welcome in at this time’s market, his eyes by no means depart my face; that basilisk stare is considered one of everlasting condemnation. Not simple to cheerily promote to that! I’ve seen actually superb alternatives for revisions to his guide that shouldn’t make all that a lot distinction within the dramatic arc and which may soften the extra jagged edges of mores that at the moment are remarkably far behind us. I point out the opportunity of shedding Meg’s sister as being lower than important, the increase of the Applegate position extra acceptable now for a star of Victor Garber’s sophistication and clout. No responses. No indication of sure, no, or possibly. Nonetheless I plunge on, attending to the extra severe crux of the difficulty, the final scene, when Meg, the deserted spouse and not using a clue, merely sweeps all her husband’s transgressions underneath the rug whereas Lola, the satan’s handmaiden, who has apparently not too long ago slept with Meg’s husband, for retribution has had her everlasting youth lifted with a view to be labeled “the ugliest girl in Windfall, Rhode Island.” It might but be a humorous flip of phrase, except, after all, you’re a lady and are available from Windfall, Rhode Island, however the fats’s within the hearth now, and regardless of the underscoring of little yips and tender objections with which Pleasure has punctured my recitation alongside the way in which, there was no sound from the creator himself. The dialog stops, with futile assist from my colleagues, however after they’ve sputtered their demurrers like so many farts of vintage Fords, the room is quiet.

We sip our cocktails and wait. One or two of my pathetic remarks attempt to buoy up what’s left of his define as I evaluate what nonetheless stays of his smooth writing, his celebrated deft financial system. Nothing. I’m certain we’re lifeless within the water, and marvel how lengthy we are able to go on like this earlier than I, a minimum of, should rise and provides my thanks, if not apologies for having ruined his night, and start my humiliating exit, when there’s instantly a rumble from Mr. Abbott’s throat, and all of us flip to him expectantly. The ghostly voice speaks: “I understand how to repair the issue with the spouse,” he gives, and you may really feel the ceiling rise above us, like God respiration gently to increase the room. Maybe there may be collaboration of a sort, in spite of everything. “How?” I ask, and the response is so quick, you understand he’s been ready for the chance: “Rent a fats girl!” comes the moment reply.

Everybody goes clean, even Pleasure. “Excuse me?” I provide, however Mr. Abbott has no intention of relinquishing the ground. “Rent a fats girl,” he repeats. “Fats ladies are simply grateful to be married; they don’t give a rattling what else occurs.”

Nobody can provide you with something to say, however in fact, with all shade eliminated, all inflection, all spoken nuance bleached from his voice, we marvel: Is that this a joke? Can he be teasing? Or is he presumably talking his reality? If it’s the previous, it’s a grotesque slap within 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 urged by Mitchell Maxwell that I “strive” with, say, the primary scene, to jot down an alternate model of what I imply for Mr. Abbott to react to…No use working within the summary; we’ll give him eighteen or twenty pages of my model of the primary scene between Joe Hardy and Applegate, and he can reply and provides me notes. How about that? I’m despondent. This is kind of my worst nightmare. The nice George Abbott both doesn’t get my objections or received’t get my objections, and but I’m someway imagined to submit an alternate model of his work with the…what?…hope that he’ll fall in love with it? It received’t occur, I insist, however Maxwell claims someway that regardless of the scene we’ve simply shared, he truthfully believes that I’m going to get a minimum of 80 % of my revisions. He’s even prepared to guess on it.

Weeks later, I submit eighteen pages of recent dialogue between Joe Hardy and a sublime, brilliant Applegate, as I think about Victor Garber would possibly sound within the position, like a recent William Powell. I prefer it. The producers prefer it. Even Victor Garber likes it. However Mr. Abbott? No response, and from that, we take braveness that I’m meant to go on.

He didn’t say sure, precisely, however he didn’t say no, both, and I’m changing into an increasing number of enthralled by this new enterprise in addition to by my enjoyment of toying with it. I take liberties. I minimize Meg’s caustic, labored sister, and with the encouragement of the late James Raitt, our musical director, I flip the duet “Close to to You,” initially sung in a park by younger Joe to Meg, right into a sleepless nightmare of Meg’s, whereas she is tossing and turning sleeplessly in mattress, and the place, by way of a scrim wall, she begins to intuit the mix of her husband with this new, scorching ballplayer, so what was initially conceived as a duet turns into a contemporary and delightful trio for 3 principals. I take additional possibilities. By no means feeling snug with “Two Misplaced Souls” as a duet for Lola and younger Joe, a sign that they’re headed for a torrid affair, I substitute Applegate, feeling that Lola and Applegate ought to cement their partnership and let the outdated man return to his completely satisfied suburban residence, whereas my two stars, Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth, may give the viewers a extremely sensational ultimate “eleven o’clock” quantity, the time-honored good late spot to show the ultimate, full vary of the celebrities, replete with jets of fireplace taking pictures out of the stage. Nonetheless no actual objections out of Miami Seashore, and once I stub my metaphorical toe on the eroding ending of the second act, none aside from the visiting Tom Stoppard, peering over my shoulder in curiosity at what I’m at the moment doing, jogs my memory to “put a clock on the present,” as in Cinderella, which can compel the motion ahead. This, nevertheless, places nonetheless extra emphasis on the weak system of a weak trial scene, which is supposed to additional condemn our younger stalwart ballplayer, and once I name Mr. Abbott on the telephone for his recommendation and help, he rasps again his answer…“Reduce it! It by no means labored within the first place!”

Though I’m relieved that he’s prepared to play as quick and unfastened together with his personal work as I’ve been doing, I remind him that this dippy court docket scene is the one complication left earlier than we run out of story into the finale, and, lastly left alone by my collaborator fully silent, I stagger towards concocting a end by myself.

Lastly, the day of reckoning arrives. Mr. Abbott and Pleasure are of their summer time residence, a stunning cottage up within the Berkshires, and we three—Mitchell Maxwell, Dan Markley, and I—are summoned for a ultimate evaluation. Like dutiful schoolboys, our faces brilliant and scrubbed, we present as much as this actually stunning cottage, which has been Mr. Abbott’s personal escape for in all probability half a century, to be greeted by the indefatigable Pleasure and Himself, screwed into his wheelchair and, as at all times, trying imply as a snake. We group ourselves across the eating room desk, whereas exterior, the unimaginable background of a number of the most beguiling surroundings on the Japanese Seaboard mocks our grim encounter. It’s simply previous ten within the morning after we start, and we don’t end till about 4 within the afternoon. Each single phrase, each scene, each phrase is scoured, sanded, argued, and debated by this relic of a person on the age of 105. Throughout the desk from me, these good, dazzling blue eyes in a mainly lifeless face burn into mine, ferocious and fixed. Not a second is spared, not a single phrase is allowed to go by and not using a lash again by the unique creator. “Why not? What’s that? How will you try this?” Over and time and again for almost 5 hours with out even a rest room break. I defend, I feint, I protest, and eventually, after we are toe-to-toe over the issue of Applegate and never younger Joe singing “Two Misplaced Souls,” I’m drained of each cause and persistence, and I say as forcefully as something I’ve but exhibited, “I can’t! I simply can’t try this,” that means returning to his authentic answer of Lola and younger Joe. “I simply don’t imagine it!”

Mr. Abbott’s palms go up previous his ears, and, decreasing them, he manages to push the wheelchair again from the desk in disgust. “Nicely, that’s that!” he says with a sort of finality that wants no additional interpretation.

Silence. Nobody strikes. We’re lifeless. He received’t enable it, clearly, and we have now labored all this time in useless. I’ve gone too far. Even Pleasure appears to sense it. Gently, feebly, she gives, “Nicely, George, possibly there’s a manner…,” to which he solutions with a fervor that’s now unmistakable, “No! That’s it! If he doesn’t imagine it, he can’t make it work!”

What? What have I simply heard? He goes on, remarkably. “When you don’t imagine within the materials, you’ll be able to’t direct it. That’s all there’s to say.” There speaks a director, not a author. The author in him figures that he can at all times provide you with another answer, supposedly, however the director is caught with solely the fabric at hand, and should completely imagine in it, or he can’t count on his actors to imagine as nicely. Now we have marched to the very fringe of the abyss in lockstep, and earlier than plunging over the sting, George Abbott has defended his personal cardinal rule, though it might erase most of his personal writing. He successfully throws within the towel.

I’m exhausted, shocked, disbelieving what I’ve simply heard, and greater than that, I discover myself powerfully and emotionally moved on the integrity, the power, the sheer drive of this man, very almost twice my age, and nonetheless in a position to battle me to a digital standstill. As we put together to depart, I provide a sort of weird compromise. “Mr. Abbott,” I say, “what about this? We all know your model works. It at all times has. Now we have a possibility to do that model in San Diego so that you can see, and if we do it and also you come out to see it and object, we’ll simply scrap it and do the unique.” I see Mitchell Maxwell going lifeless white behind the wheelchair, however he says nothing. Neither does Mr. Abbott. Does he imagine me? Do I imagine me? Is such a factor even attainable? However he graciously appears to just accept it for what it’s—a gesture, maybe—and we take our depart.

Months later, Rattling Yankees opened on the Previous Globe theatre starring Victor Garber and Bebe Neuwirth, with humorous, contemporary choreography by Rob Marshall, and a guide intrinsically rewritten by me, however for the half dozen silver-plated jokes Mr. Abbott had initially crafted for the unique Applegate, Ray Walston, and which had been nonetheless actually humorous—“Who’re you?” “Not a soul!”—and, versus what some witnesses insist, Mr. Abbott didn’t stride down the aisle underneath his personal steam, however was carried, like a comfortable bag of autumn leaves, between my enterprise companion, Tom Corridor, and our manufacturing supervisor, Ken Denison, to be deposited in an aisle seat, however historical past is true to report that there was, certainly, a right away standing ovation by the whole viewers. They knew a legend once they noticed one.

And the subsequent morning, once more the dutiful schoolboy, I introduced myself on the resort the place he and Pleasure had been staying, as she wheeled him right into a convention room the place I sat with pen and paper to “take my notes.” Once more he glared throughout the large desk at me—an enviornment far too massive, too broad, for the bitter little packet of what was supposed to transpire between us. I lifted my pen and opened the pad, however Mr. Abbott waved a skinny hand my manner. “What does it matter what I say?” he mentioned. “They stood, didn’t they?”

And that was that. There spoke a sensible theatre skilled, the person who’d almost invented the occupation itself. He was something however sentimental. His Paper Mill Playhouse model hadn’t fired the way in which he believed it will. This one had. Massive-time. So this was the model he wished. In any case, he was nonetheless making a residing.

My identify was by no means to seem alongside his with any sense of authorship. The producers paid me pretty decently for my route, attempting to compensate for what I had contributed, which might now play for nicely over two years, however a director’s royalties don’t final remotely so long as an creator’s. Mr. Abbott knew that, and there was no manner, in spite of everything I had executed to his authentic script, that he would invite me onto that web page. The consummate professional, he merely swept all of the chips off the desk. “Neuf à la banque!” His present. His rewards.

And what of the phantasm of anger? Was he, certainly, offended at me, as I’ve presumed all these years later? I don’t assume so. Oh, he was offended, all proper, however not finally at me. On some stage he had made his peace with me, and if he didn’t approve, there was a grudging respect in spite of everything. “The child smiles and agrees with you, after which he goes on and does what he goddamn likes!” However these eyes…the ability of a lifetime winnowed down to 2 blazing blue orbs in a encompass of failing flesh. He might by no means forgive the truth that he was now not the one doing the work, giving the orders, making it “occur.” It in all probability didn’t matter who else did it, as long as it labored. However the ultimate unforgivable insult was that it was now not him. And that was all that was left smoking in that collapsed face.

Going through my mattress in my new Connecticut residence, mockingly sufficient, is a bust of George Abbott, an award that bears his identify given by our union, the Stage Administrators and Choreographers Society, for distinguished work over a profession, and which was introduced to me various years in the past. He watches me, I suppose, as I sleep. And people traces—neither his nor mine—float within the room between us: “Tyger! Tyger! burning brilliant / Within the forests of the night time, / What immortal hand or eye / May body thy fearful symmetry?”

What a person.

Jack O’Brien was the inventive of the Previous Globe Theatre from 1981 to 2007, and has received three Tony Awards for his route.

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