THE BOOK SHELF: "Jack Be Nimble" by Jack O'Brien

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18 Jun 2013

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This month's column looks at award-winning director Jack O'Brien's memoir, "Jack Be Nimble."

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One would expect Jack O'Brien — the three-time Tony Award-winning director of musicals (Hairspray), dramas (The Coast of Utopia), and a host of other memorable shows — to be a warmly entertaining fellow with myriad tales to tell in his memoir, "Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director" [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. What is unexpected, though, is that he turns out to be a very good writer as well. "Jack Be Nimble" is an ever-interesting chronicle offering a perceptive overview of the dramatic stage of the 1960s and 1970s, but it is enhanced by being written so enjoyably well.

Comparisons to Moss Hart's "Act One" are, under the circumstances, unavoidable. Hart placed his spotlight on the legendary playwright/director George S. Kaufman. O'Brien had a similarly outsized mentor dominating his career, influencing his decisions, and ultimately becoming an obstacle: Ellis Rabb, a flamboyant and wildly (but not consistently) talented actor/director. Rabb poured his creative energies into the A.P.A. [Association of Producing Artists], a non-profit repertory company which was born in 1959, broke through to Broadway in 1965, and died in 1969.

Born in 1939 in Saginaw, Michigan, O'Brien was your typical Broadway-obsessed lad; he was, he tells us, "self-trained practically from the pediatric ward in the role of Hajj." (Readers who are similarly Broadway-obsessed will know that he is talking of Kismet, which wasn't written until 1953, but you get the point. O'Brien, mind you, was not the Alfred Drake type, then or now.)

He made his way to the theatre department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where in 1961 he intersected with Rabb, his actress/wife Rosemary Harris, and the fledgling APA. O'Brien joined the company as an auxiliary member, a student actor playing bit roles; maintained contact with the APA family when they moved back to New York; and ultimately left a teaching job at Hunter College to become assistant to Ellis and Rosemary.

The job was all encompassing, with his duties including myriad artistic, business and personal activities. This included serving as loyal confidant to both Ellis and Rosemary during their painful divorce in 1967; O'Brien offers a first-hand account of the violent-yet-somehow grandly theatrical battle that ended the marriage, at which he was an unwilling observer.

O'Brien describes the life and death of an ambitious rep company, recalling the highs and the lows nostalgically, humorously, and sometimes with a raised eyebrow. As time passed, he was handed scenes to stage; as Rabb became increasingly unreliable, O'Brien found himself an accidental director. Thus is was that in 1968 he was assigned Sean O'Casey's Cock-a-Doodle Dandy during the APA residence at Ann Arbor. The play came to the Lyceum on January 29, 1969 — with a cast including Donald Moffat, Richard Easton, Frances Sternhagen, Barry Bostwick, and Rabb himself — and the 29-year old O'Brien suddenly found himself a Broadway director.

Jack O'Brien
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
But his love had always been musical comedy. Since college days, even before Rabb appeared upon the scene, he had been writing songs with a fellow student, composer Bob James. The pair remained connected through the APA years, with James providing incidental music for several plays. James and O'Brien finally found themselves with a real Broadway musical in 1972, The Selling of the President. This was a jaw-droppingly bad opus, an intended political satire that sat on the stage like a bloated lemon. O'Brien describes it in hysterically funny detail, although it presumably wasn't too much fun for him at the time.

The bookwriter was fired during the San Francisco tryout; no replacement was hired, so lyricist O'Brien was enlisted to patch things up. The director — Ellis, of course — was fired on the way to New York, replaced by Robert H. Livingston (of The Me Nobody Knows). He was fired in Philadelphia. As the show came to Broadway, Harold Prince or Michael Bennett were said to have agreed to come in to help. (The producers were members of Prince's production staff, circa Follies.) The expected help never arrived, so the reins were handed to — who else? O'Brien.

The lyricist/librettist/director struggled to rewrite and restage the show. Three performances into the two-weeks of Broadway previews at the Shubert, the producers ran out of money altogether. "We have to open tomorrow," O'Brien was told. The Selling of the President did, and was gone Saturday night after five performances. O'Brien tells us that it was pretty awful, and let me concur: it was. (This was the show in which Karen Morrow — one of the most exciting musical comedy performers of the time — was starred but not given any songs.)

"Jack Be Nimble" ends — except for a brief afterword discussing O'Brien's arrival at the Old Globe in San Diego (where he eventually became Artistic Director) and the decline & death of Rabb — with the triumphant 1977 production of Porgy and Bess. This altogether thrilling production, which originated at the Houston Grand Opera, finally established O'Brien on Broadway. With typical modesty, he only briefly discusses Hairspray and doesn't go so far as to mention The Coast of Utopia, The Invention of Love, The Full Monty or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Yet he spends seven pages — for our enjoyment — on his biggest failure, The Selling of the President.

O'Brien also tells a hilarious tale about an opening night party when he wore the custom-made toupee he had just received as a gift from Ellis and Rosemary, and how it inevitably went flying from his head. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" gasped Helen Hayes. There are also some glimpses of the great Eva Le Gallienne — who, when she entered the newly-named Helen Hayes Theatre on West 46th Street, haughtily sniffed: "I will always prefer to think of this place as the Fulton." We can just imagine the line reading.

But that's "Jack Be Nimble." Entertaining, fascinating, and pretty much delectable.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)