Abbott, George Francis
Abbott, George Francis
(b. 25 June 1887 in Forestville, New York; d. 31 January 1995 in Miami, Florida), actor, playwright, producer, and director who contributed to more than 100 plays and musicals in his almost eighty-year-long career on the Broadway stage.
Abbott was one of three children born to George Burwell Abbott, who ran a uniform-making business in Salamanca, New York, and May McLaury, a homemaker. In 1898 the family moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Abbott’s father, who had gone bankrupt, was appointed a government land agent. Young George (called “Francis” in those days) became familiar with cowboy life. Because of his unruly behavior he was sent to a military academy in Kearney, Nebraska, which straightened his posture and eliminated his antisocial ways. Another setback forced Abbott’s father to move the family back east to Hamburg, New York, where Abbott was active in school sports and theatricals at Hamburg High School, from which he graduated in 1907.
In 1911 he graduated from the University of Rochester, where he was again involved in sports and dramatics. He even wrote and staged his own farce, Perfectly Harmless (1910). After graduating he studied playwriting from 1911 to 1912 at George Pierce Baker’s famous Harvard workshop. The Harvard Dramatic Club later produced one of his student plays. He also won a $100 prize for a one-act play, The Man in the Manhole (1912), successfully produced by Boston’s Bijou Theatre, which hired him as assistant manager. After a year, he left to pursue a Broadway career and in 1913 landed a role in The Misleading Lady, but the lack of additional opportunities led him to work in vaudeville and as a movie extra. He married his former high school teacher, Ednah Levis, three years his senior, in 1914; she died in 1930, leaving him with one daughter.
The struggling young actor-playwright began working in 1918 as a general factotum for the producer John Golden. With his success as a cowboy named Tex in Zander the Great (1923), named one of the year’s ten best performances, Abbott began to get noticed as a character actor. His playwriting efforts, usually in collaboration with others, paid off in 1925 with The Fall Guy, a breezy hit comedy about New Yorkers cowritten with James Gleason. The Fall Guy also launched Abbott’s directing career when he took over the staging from Gleason, who was busy elsewhere. Moreover, Abbott was already a respected play doctor for ailing scripts.
Abbott hit pay dirt in 1926 with his staging of Broadway, cowritten with Philip Dunning. This hard-boiled, fast-paced, backstage-at-a-nightclub comedy-melodrama, with its local color and 200-plus entrances and exits, established the slick professionalism that came to be called “the Abbott touch.” Journalist Maurice Zolotow later described this as “speed. Curtains rise and fall quickly. Actors enter and exit on the run…. Lines of dialogue are spit out feverishly. Characters cross in front of one another with dizzying rapidity. Doors are forever being jerked open and slammed shut.” Despite the often frenetic pacing, the actors provided a bedrock of realistic behavior. A royalty conflict with Broadway’s argumentative producer, Jed Harris, inspired Abbott—despite his lack of taste for the job—to become his own producer on many subsequent projects.
Abbott continued acting until 1934, after which he did not apply greasepaint until a 1955 revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, which toured in the USSR. Meanwhile, Hollywood beckoned, and Abbott directed his first film, The Devil’s Candlesticks, in 1928, but he disliked the tedium of movie directing. In all, he directed or worked as a screenwriter on eleven movies, the best known being All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Too Many Girls (1940), Kiss and Tell (1945), Damn Yankees (1957), and The Pajama Game (1958).
Abbott directed many Broadway melodramas in the 1920s and 1930s, including Chicago (1926), Four Walls (cowritten with Dana Burnet, 1927), Spread Eagle (1927), Lilly Turner (cowritten with Philip Dunning, 1932), Heat Lightning (cowritten with Leon Abrams, 1933), Small Miracle (1934), Abbott’s own Ladies’ Money (fy (1934), Angel Island (1937), and Goodbye in the Night (1940). But he became even more successful with farce and comedy, coauthoring (with John Cecil Holm) and staging the extremely popular Three Men on a Horse (1935) and directing such hits as Boy Meets Girl (1935), Jumbo (1935), Brother Rat (1936), Room Service (1937), and What a Life (1938).
Despite these achievements, Abbott’s greatest productions of the 1930s and 1940s were musical comedies (although he could not read music). These included his direction of such Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart collaborations as On Your Toes (musical book coauthored by Abbott, 1936), The Boys from Syracuse (book coauthored by Abbott, 1938), Too Many Girls (1939), and Pal Joey (1940). Other memorable musicals he directed were Best Foot Forward (book coauthored with John Cecil Holm, 1941), On the Town (1944), High Button Shoes (1947), Where’s Charley? (book by Abbott, 1948), and Call Me Madam (1950). The next decade included A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (book coauthored with Betty Smith, on whose novel the show was based, 1951), Me and Juliet (1953), The Pajama Game (co-directed with Jerome Robbins; book coauthored with Richard Bissell, 1954), Damn Yankees (book coauthored with Douglass Wallop, 1955), Once upon a Mattress (1959), and Fiorello! (1959), for which he shared the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize with Jerome Weidman as coauthor of the book. Abbott helped to further the process of integration of elements—book, score, choreography, design—that marks the development of the post–1920s American musical theater.
His work on straight plays was less frequent during the 1940s and 1950s, and only a few were hits. Abbott’s only successful musical in the 1960s was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), which garnered him his first directing Tony. He remained relatively prolific and directed two hit comedies, Take Her, She’s Mine (1961) and Never Too Late (1962), but most of his shows flopped. Still, his lifetime contributions were significant enough for the Fifty-fourth Street Theater to be named for him in 1965. (It was subsequently demolished).
Abbott’s Broadway presence was minimal during the 1970s, and it was during this decade that he directed his first regional theater production—a 1973 revival of Life with Father in Seattle—and his first off-off-Broadway play, Lee Kalcheim’s Winning Isn’t Everything (1978). Prior to the latter, he had temporarily left the theater in disgust following the failure of Music Is, his 1976 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. During his absence he wrote a backstage novel, Tryout (1979).
Abbott, who in 1982 had been presented with a Kennedy Center Honors Award by President Ronald Reagan, astonished the theater world and earned his second directing Tony in 1983 with his vigorous revival of On Your Toes, even overseeing its 1986 production in Los Angeles. He continued to write and direct even as a centenarian. This included a new version of Broadway called Speakeasy (1987), staged for Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival, which presented a weekend conference in his honor called “Classic Broadway.” Speakeasy’s move to Broadway, though, failed. Abbott was further feted in 1987 when he received a special Tony honoring his 100th birthday. His final project was Frankie (1989), an unsuccessful off-off-Broadway musicalization of the Frankenstein story, although, at 106, he participated as an adviser on the 1994 revival of Damn Yankees.
From 1924 to 1972, Broadway never was without at least one, and sometimes as many as seven, Abbott shows. Not until very late in his career did he stage a revival. He was responsible in one way or another for nearly 120 Broadway shows, thirteen of which ran for more than 500 performances, once a sign of hit status.
Abbott epitomized the totally-in-control professional. Blue-eyed, with slicked-down thinning blond hair; six feet, two inches tall; slender; he was always tastefully dressed—even at rehearsals—in a suit and tie. This nonsmoking, near-teetotaler, who made millions at his trade, presented a picture of confidence and ability that helped him in his business and artistic dealings as well as in his active social life, with wealthy Long Islanders, where this advocate of healthy living was a highly reputed croquet player. He also socialized with denizens of Miami, Florida, where he had a home and liked to spend his winters swimming and playing tennis and golf. After his wife’s death, he became one of New York’s most eligible bachelors, and he was considered an outstanding ballroom dancer, with a flair for the rumba. He married Mary Sinclair in 1946 but the marriage ended in divorce in 1951. In November 1983, at age ninety-five, he married Joy Valderrama, over forty years his junior.
Because of Abbott’s aloof demeanor, he was generally referred to as “Mr. Abbott,” even among close collaborators, and the term was used as the title of his 1963 autobiography. Despite his towering reputation, he remained open to advice from coworkers; the work came before his ego. He rehearsed with calm and efficiency, treating actors with courtesy but never releasing his autocratic control. Stars who tested his limits were tactfully put in their place. When pushed too far, however, he could be a severe whip cracker. His rehearsals were businesslike affairs devoid of the intellectual probing that Abbott dismissed as phony in other directors’ work. To grab attention in large theaters, he often stopped rehearsals by blowing a whistle; its relative volume signaled the level of his disturbance.
His productions were known for excellent taste, well-considered musical accompaniment, expert typecasting, rapid but well-balanced pacing, comprehensible speech (he insisted on audible line endings), naturalness of dialogue and action, lack of sentimentality, consistently motivated behavior unmarred by unnecessary emotional introspection, and a deadpan approach to even the most broadly comical material. His primary instincts were commercial and he was never known for arty effects or intellectual themes. Theater, to Abbott, was a business creating a product that had to earn an income. Abbott’s shows offered colorful characters and situations, with smoothly written dialogue that often delighted in clever repartee. He removed whatever threatened to slow down the action or split the audience’s focus.
Abbott’s plays, whether from his own pen or others, reveled in topical appeal aimed at the widest theatergoing public. Controversial material was usually avoided or toned down. Still, he sometimes broke new ground, as with On Your Toes, the first musical comedy to seriously introduce ballet (choreographed by George Balanchine); The Boys from Syracuse, Broadway’s first musical comedy based on Shakespeare (The Comedy of Errors; 1938); Pal Joey, which had an amoral nightclub rogue for its hero; The Pajama Game, with its subject of labor unrest; New Girl in Town (1957), inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s dark drama about a prostitute; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a faithful musicalization of classical Roman comedy.
When he was producing, he sought to keep costs low—he was a notorious penny-pincher—and preferred actors whose salary demands were reasonable. This often led him to bypass stars in favor of lesser-known players, thereby benefiting the play by removing the distraction of the star’s charisma while also furthering various young actors’ careers. In fact, the youth factor in his casts was one of his chief characteristics. Among the many actors who went on to stardom after being discovered by Abbott—who confessed to a “Pygmalion complex”—were Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, Nancy Walker, Shirley Booth, Carol Haney, Eddie Bracken, Kirk Douglas, Eddie Albert, Garson Kanin, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minelli, and Sam Levene, among others. In the 1930s, so many actors were used regularly by Abbott that they came to be considered part of an informal Abbott Acting (or “Stock”) Company. He was similarly prone to giving new writers, composers, designers, and choreographers career-generating opportunities. One of the most prominent of his protégés was director-producer Hal Prince, with whom he long shared an office in Rockefeller Center.
It is unlikely that anyone will ever approach the length and abundance of George Abbott’s career on Broadway, which lasted close to eighty years. When he died in his sleep of a stroke, he was 107. By this time, Broadway had moved in new directions, but Abbott’s legacy continued to survive.
Abbott’s autobiography is “Mister Abbott” (1963). The most comprehensive surveys of his work are in Samuel L. Leiter, From Belasco to Brook: Representative Directors of the English-SpeakingStage (1991); Samuel L. Leiter, The Great Stage Directors: 100 Distinguished Careers of the Theatre (1994); Tom Mikotowicz’s essay in John W. Frick and Stephen M. Vallillo, eds., Theatrical Directors: A Biographical Dictionary (1994); and Lewis Shelton, “George Abbott and the Total Theatre Perspective of Directing,” Journal of American Theatre and Drama (winter 2000). Earlier articles include Maurice Zolotow, “Broadway’s Most Successful Penny-Pincher,” Saturday Evening Post (29 Jan. 1955). Doctoral dissertations include Dean William Hess, A Critical Analysis of the Musical Theatre Productions of George Abbott (1976), and Robert MacLennan, The Comedy of George Abbott (1975). An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Feb. 1995).
Samuel L. Leiter