George Abbott

One of the most important and admired men in the entire history of Broadway – indeed, some have said that he WAS the history of Broadway –, George Abbott (b. Forestville, NY, 25 June 1887; d. Miami Beach, FL, 31 January 1995) was a theater director and producer, playwright, screenwriter, and film director and producer whose career spanned more than nine decades. He had a hand, one way or another, in the most historically and artistically significant New York productions of the twentieth century: Broadway (1926), Three Men on a Horse (1935), Brother Rat (1936), On Your Toes (1936), Room Service (1937), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), Pal Joey (1940), On the Town (1944), High Button Shoes (1947), Where’s Charley? (1948), Call Me Madam (1950), Wonderful Town (1953), The Pajama Game (1954), Damn Yankees (1955), Once Upon a Mattress (1959), Fiorello! (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1961), Flora the Red Menace (1965), and 103 other shows, giving a boost to the early careers of (among others) Sylvia Field, Helen Hayes, Shirley Booth, Garson Kanin, Rodgers and Hart, Ray Bolger, Eddie Albert, Jose Ferrer, Eddie Bracken, Gene Kelly, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Nancy Walker, Jerome Robbins, Allyn Ann McLerie, Harold Prince, Carol Haney, Bob Fosse, Carol Burnett, Jack Gilford, and Liza Minnelli. Abbott had 40 films to his credit as screenwriter, director, or producer, among them All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Fall Guy (1930), and the film adaptations of his Broadway hits; his featured screen actors included Jean Arthur, Lew Ayres, and Gene Tierney. He received over thirty prestigious honors and awards, though he set little store by them.

When George Francis Abbott was a boy, his father was twice elected mayor of Salamanca, in upstate New York. The family moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, when he was eleven, and the teenaged George got jobs as a Western Union messenger and a ranch hand. He was not a promising student, and appeared to be headed toward juvenile delinquency, so he was sent to Kearney Military Academy in Nebraska, where they cured his slouching posture (he measured six feet two inches) as well as his unruly tendencies.

Just after the turn of the century, the Abbotts moved back East to Hamburg, where George often took advantage of a trolley line to theaters in nearby Buffalo. Graduating from Hamburg High School in 1907, he went on to the University of Rochester for a B.A. in 1911. The University Dramatic Club performed his play Perfectly Harmless that year, and Abbott proceeded to Harvard to take a course in playwriting from George Pierce Baker. One of his plays, The Head of the Family, was performed by the Harvard Dramatic Club, and another, The Man in the Manhole, won a $100 prize from Boston’s Bijou Theatre, where he was working as an assistant stage manager.

By 1913 he felt he was ready to begin his career as an actor in New York. Months of fruitless auditioning ended when he landed a part as a drunken college student in The Misleading Lady, a play that survived for 183 performances and paid him $45 a week. Flush with success, he married his sweetheart of five years, Ednah Levis, but the play closed and he found himself destitute again. Only two years later was he truly able to make a living, as an assistant to John Golden (lyricist, composer, producer, director, playwright, and theatre owner, 1874–1955 – whose list of credits is nearly as long as Abbott’s own) starting at $15 a week.

After a few more lackluster acting parts, George Abbott took on the role of “Texas,” a roistering cowboy in Zander the Great. The play didn’t last long, but Abbott (playing a character he had actually lived) was chosen one of the best performers of 1923, and his name was made. For another two years he played cowboys, until his first play was produced on Broadway, The Fall Guy, co-written with James Gleason.

The next few years saw collaborations between Abbott and a variety of other playwrights, setting a pattern for him, and for Broadway production in general, of cooperation and common effort. His first big hit (at 603 performances), a joint effort with Philip Dunning who also co-directed, was Broadway (1926) with Sylvia Field. Another pattern that showed itself at this time was Abbott’s tireless activity, moving directly without a break from one project to another, whether they were successful or not. Several of his scripts (Love ‘em and Leave ‘em, A Holy Terror, The Fall Guy) were quickly adapted for films, and Abbott was well represented on the silver screen from 1929 through the early ’30s.

It is interesting to note that the non-musical play Chicago (1926, billed as a comedy), which was Abbott’s solo directorial debut, and Twentieth Century, which he staged in 1932, were destined to become smash-hit musicals decades later. He did not tackle a musical himself until 1935, when he joined with John Murray Anderson to direct Rodgers and Hart’s circus extravaganza, Jumbo. Performed in the 5,000-seat Hippodrome to music played by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, it starred jimmy Durante along with Big Rosie and a long roster of circus acts. (It introduced the classic Durante gag: Policeman: “Where are you going with that elephant?” – Durante: “What elephant?”)

Abbott’s play of the same year, Three Men on a Horse, co-written with John Cecil Holm and directed by Abbott alone, was destined to become a classic (835 initial performances and three Broadway revivals), though its musical derivative, Let It Ride (1961), did not do as well. With Boy Meets Girl (1935), Abbott became a producer as well as director, and until the early 1950s (The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees) functioned in both capacities for almost every show on which he worked.

In 1936 he joined Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to write the book for their musical On Your Toes, starring Ray Bolger. For The Boys from Syracuse (1938), he took upon himself alone the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, as well as its production and stage direction. On the Town (1944) brought him into close directorial relationship with Leonard Bernstein (music), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (concept and choreography). Abbott’s association with Robbins flourished through the next decade (Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’, Call Me Madam, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees). The book of New Girl in Town (1957), adapted from Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill, was another solo Abbott project, earning a 1958 Tony® nomination for Best Musical. That same year the Writers Guild of America cited George Abbott with two nominations for Best Written American Musical – the film versions of Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game.

“Mr. Abbott,” as he was invariably addressed by his associates, was a breed apart in the extravagant world of Broadway, and, by his own admission, puritanical, exacting, and intolerant. He never removed his tie, and seldom said anything more than was absolutely necessary. He worked until he was tired, then went home and went to bed. He drank hardly at all and ate three square meals a day. He attributed his energy, effectiveness, and optimism to his abstemious life: “I do not think burning the candle at both ends casts a lovely light; on the contrary, I am of the opinion that it is a dandy way to get a nervous breakdown.”

When Abbott directed a production, actors didn’t just stand there, they did something. He was particularly impatient with “method” actors who mumbled: “[An actor] has struggled successfully at such difficult tasks as pretending that he is a tree in full bloom, but he has never learned to say a final ‘t.'” Once an actor asked him, “What is my motivation?” and Abbott replied, “Your job.”

Though he had earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Achievement in Writing back in 1930 for All Quiet on the Western Front, the honors and awards began to cascade upon George Abbott with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. Both won Tony Awards® (1955,1956) for Best Musical. Fiorello! (1960) not only won for Best Musical and Best Director, but earned a Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well. In 1963 Abbott received the Tony Award® for Best Direction of a Musical for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Two more Tonys® were later awarded him: The Lawrence Langer Award in 1976, and in 1987 a Special Tony® on occasion of his 100th birthday. In 1976 he received New York City’s highest cultural honor, the Handel Medallion (Jerome Robbins got one at the same time), in 1982 he was a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Honoree, and in 1983 (when he was 96) he won a Drama Desk Award for the revival of On Your Toes, Outstanding Director of a Musical. He had honorary doctorates from the Universities of Rochester and Miami, was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and in 1990 was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

No amount of adulation, however, ever deterred him from his steady productivity: in 1965 he presented the nineteen-year-old Liza Minnelli to the world in Flora, The Red Menace, for which he directed and wrote the book, and for which she won the Best Actress Tony Award®. Among the musicals he directed subsequently were Anya (1965), How Now, Dow Jones (1967 – another Tony® nomination), and The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1968), but Abbott’s projects were increasingly interspersed with revivals (The Pajama Game, Where’s Charley?, On Your Toes, Damn Yankees) from this point on.

George Abbott lived to 107, and could be said to have lived three full lives in his time (though all as the same person). He had as many wives; Ednah died in 1930, leaving a daughter Judith, an actress who later married actor Tom Ewell. Abbott’s second marriage, to Mary Sinclair, lasted only five years; they were divorced in 1951. He had a long liaison with Maureen Stapleton before he married his third wife, Joy Valderrama, in 1983.

His vigor in age was legendary. He played golf and liked to go out dancing well past his 100th birthday. One day while he was playing golf with his wife, he fell down on the fairway. He took his time to get up, and Joy, alarmed, leaned over and started to shake him. “Get up, George, get up! Don’t just lay there.” After a moment he opened his eyes and looked at her. “Lie there,” he said.

He was writing revisions to the Pajama Game script a week and a half before he had the stroke that killed him. Just a year earlier, at 106, he had been cheered with a standing ovation as he walked down the aisle at the opening of the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees. He was overheard wondering to his companion, “There must be somebody important here.”

Abbott wrote an autobiography, Mister Abbott, in 1963, celebrating what had then been his 50 years in show business – unaware that there were more than 30 years to go. Soon thereafter, the 54th St. Theatre (previously known as the Adelphi) was renamed the George Abbott Theatre in his honor. The building stood for only another five years, however, and was demolished in 1970. Now a section of West 45th Street, in deepest Broadway territory, is named George Abbott Way.

– Lucy E. Cross

Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection