George Abbott : OBITUARIES
Thursday 02 February 1995
Born in Forestville, New York, in 1887, Abbott studied with Professor George Pierce Baker in the 47 Workshop course at Harvard - whose other students included Eugene O'Neill, S.N. Behrman, Philip Barry and Elia Kazan. Abbott credited Baker with teaching him the practicalities of play construction ("He gave you no nonsense about inner meanings and symbolism"). In 1913 he had a play mounted by the Harvard Dramatic Club and the same year made his acting debut in New York in The Misleading Lady. Though he wrote several plays, he later admitted: "I was not a successful playwright until I took parasitical advantage of other people's ideas. All my success has been either in rewriting some piece which was created by another author, or in adaptations for a musical book of such standard works as Charley's Aunt or A Comedy of Errors."
By 1918 he was already gaining a reputation as a play "doctor" (he helped rewrite a hit of that year, Lightnin'), and in 1925 he gave up acting when two plays he had co-written, The Fall Guy and A Holy Terror, reached New York. The next year he had an enormous hit with Broadway, a gangster melodrama with songs which he co-wrote with Philip Dunning and also staged. His taut direction followed by his forceful staging of Chicago established him as a master of swift-paced melodrama.
Two more hits followed in 1927, both co-written and staged by Abbott: Coquette, a tragedy starring Helen Hayes, and Four Walls, which made Paul Muni a star. Initially written by Dana Burnett, Four Walls had a tepid out-of-town opening, and Muni later said: "I'll never forget the craftsmanlike way Abbott, as both writer and director, brought the play and performance into focus."
Signed by Paramount with the advent of talkies, Abbott directed eight films for them from 1929 to 1931, the first, Why Bring That Up?, starring the blackface comedians Mack and Moran, followed by Halfway to Heaven, The Sea God, Stolen Heaven, Secrets of a Secretary, Manslaughter ("the best picture I made because it had a believable story, and Claudette Colbert and Fredric March were superb") and two vehicles for Tallulah Bankhead, My Sin and The Cheat, the latter notable for the amazing sequence in which Bankhead bares her chest in a courtroom to reveal that the villain has literally branded her. Abbott's most distinguished work in Hollywood was undoubtedly the superbly economical screenplay he wrote for All Quiet on the Western Front - he was called upon to rewrite Maxwell Anderson's original treatment.
Back on Broadway, he proved his mastery of farce by staging Hecht and MacArthur's Twentieth Century (1932, his first show as producer), then Three Men on a Horse (1935, co-written with John Cecil Holm), Boy Meets Girl (1935), Brother Rat (1936), Room Service (1937) and What a Life (1938), the last a comedy about adolescence that spawned the long-running radio series Henry Aldrich. Brother Rat and Room Service both had unsuccessful histories until Abbott rewrote and re-shaped them.
His first musical as a director was Rodgers and Hart's mammoth circus show Jumbo (1935), the start of a distinguished association with the songwriting team. He co-wrote On Your Toes (1936) with its innovative mingling of tap and ballet, adapted Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors into The Boys From Syracuse (1938), which contained his favourite song, "Falling in Love with Love", produced and directed both Too Many Girls (1939) and the classic Pal Joey (1940).
Other musicals which benefited from Abbott's directorial and creative flair were Best Foot Forward (1941), On the Town (1944, for which he drastically reshaped Comden and Green's original book), High Button Shoes (1947, extensively rewritten by Abbott and the show's star Phil Silvers - Silvers is reputed to have told the original writer, Stephen Longstreet, when they were having an argument during the show's run, "Watch out, we might start doing the show you originally wrote"), Where's Charley? (1948, Frank Loesser's first Broadway score), Look Ma, I'm Dancin' (1948), Call Me Madam (1950, for which Abbott suggested to Irving Berlin that he write a counter-melody number similar to his earlier "Play a Simple Melody", the result being the show-stopping "You're Just in Love"), A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1951), a revival of Pal Joey that ran longer than the original production (1952), Wonderful Town (1953), The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955). Bob Fosse, given his first big opportunity as choreographer with The Pajama Game, wrote an opening ballet for the second act which Abbott rejected with the request for something simpler ("Less is more," he said). The result was the show-stopping "Steam Heat". "George is a cold man," Fosse was to say later,"but there is something nice about that because he is also very straight."
Abbott co-directed with Stanley Donen film versions of both The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958), and while making the former was told by the star Doris Day of a score she had heard while at MGM for an unmade musical version of Anna Christie. Abbott acquired the score for a stage version called New Girl in Town, but clashed with his star Gwen Verdon and the choreographer Bob Fosse over an explicit dance routine, "The Red Light Ballet". "The reaction of Anna to her past should be repugnant," hesaid, "but Bob and Gwen made the whole thing look glamorous. The tone was all wrong and I told them so. I don't think either of them liked me for a while after that."
In 1955 Abbott made a triumphant return to acting when he played Mr Antrobus in Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in Paris and New York, with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin, but found it exhausting and was happy to return to directing such hits as the Pulitzerprize-winning Fiorello! (1959), Once upon a Mattress (1959), and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). He also staged the successful London production of the latter, starring Frankie Howerd, and in 1965 directed Flora the Red Menace, which won Liza Minnelli a Tony for her Broadway debut.
Hit plays he directed included Take Her, She's Mine (1961) and Never Too Late (1962), one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history. He disapproved of "method" acting, and once described his magic touch as "getting the actors to say their final syllables".
In 1965 the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers gave Abbott its first Award of Merit. The same year the 54th Street Theatre in New York was renamed the George Abbott Theatre - alas, it is now a parking lot.
At the age of 96 he became the oldest ever director of a Broadway show when he co-produced and staged a hit revival of On Your Toes (1983), bringing it to London the following year, and he was exactly 100 when he directed a revival of Broadway. Two yearslater he co-directed and wrote the libretto for an off-Broadway Frankenstein, and in 1993, aged 106, witnessed the triumphant return to Broadway of his longest-running musical Damn Yankees, which after a winter break resumes its successful run later this month.
Tom Vallance George Francis Abbott, actor, writer, producer: born Forestville, New York 25 June 1887; married 1914 Ednah Levis (died 1930; one daughter), 1946 Mary Sinclair (marriaged dissolved 1951), 1983 Joy Valderrama; died Miami Beach, Florida 31 January 1995.
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