A Life in the Theatre: Jerry Zaks

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Jerry Zaks
Meet former actor Jerry Zaks, the veteran Tony Award-winning director who brought fresh life to Guys and Dolls, The House of Blue Leaves and The Addams Family.

Jerry Zaks
Jerry Zaks Photo by Aubrey Reuben


"I like to laugh," Jerry Zaks says. "I like when audiences laugh. I've always believed that the sound of laughter is the sound of people falling in love with what's happening onstage."

In more than 30 years as a director, Zaks has made millions of people laugh — and has also illuminated theatre's serious side. He has four Best Director Tonys, for The House of Blue Leaves, the original Lend Me a Tenor, Six Degrees of Separation and the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. He has nominations for Anything Goes, Smokey Joe's Café and the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. This year, he took over directing — as creative consultant — The Addams Family, starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth.

Zaks was born in Stuttgart, Germany, to parents who were Holocaust survivors. They moved to the Bronx in 1948, then to East Paterson, NJ. Through high school, he had no interest in theatre. "But I had a secret life. I would go to our basement, which had a large mirror and a record player. I got rock 'n' roll records from the man who owned the store next to my father's kosher butcher shop. I would sing for hours, pretending to be Marvin Gaye, the Righteous Brothers. It was a germ of wanting to perform."

It was at Dartmouth that his life changed. "I saw a student production of Wonderful Town and I said, 'Oh, my God.' It was the first musical I ever saw. I couldn't believe the lights, the music — the joy. I was hooked. I tried out for plays, and got parts in all of them."

Zaks got a master's in theatre at Smith College. He lost 40 pounds, started dancing and met a director, Curt Dempster, with whom he co-founded Off-Off-Broadway's Ensemble Studio Theatre. Zaks spent much of the next decade acting — in the Broadway revue Tintypes, as Kenickie in the long-running original Grease. His goal, though, was to direct. "I think I was an O.K. actor. I survived. But part of me that watched what I was doing kept me from really committing. I would give notes to people I was acting with. I would have fired me for what I was doing — gently making suggestions."

Finally, he started directing. For Ensemble Studio's new-play marathon, he read Christopher Durang's one-act comedy Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. He directed it there in 1979, then at Playwrights Horizons and finally for a successful Off-Broadway run.

In 1985 he got a call from Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten, who were bringing Lincoln Center Theater back to life. They asked him to direct John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves. It became a runaway hit, and Zaks' directing career took flight.

Zaks was asked to work on The Addams Family after its troubled Chicago tryout (it's now at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre). He was determined "to make it a real musical comedy. To make clear what it means to be a member of the Addams Family. To make it funny. I think when Charles Addams did his cartoons he assumed people would smile, that we would laugh."

What's next? "I'm working on a revue of Randy Newman's music, Harps and Angels, with Warren Carlyle and Randy, for the Mark Taper in Los Angeles in October."

Is there something in theatre he hasn't done that he would like to do? "Shakespeare. I've always felt a little inadequate. Chekhov. I'd like to make Chekhov's comedies really funny."

Swoosie Kurtz and John Mahoney in the show that put Zaks on the map: <i>The House of Blue Leaves</i>
Swoosie Kurtz and John Mahoney in the show that put Zaks on the map: The House of Blue Leaves Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
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