Though the director is now one of the most important people on a production’s creative team, creating and shaping the vision for the entire production, that prominent role is oddly-enough a relatively recent development in the context of theatre history. Until World War II, it was very normal to see someone credited simply with “Staging” in a Broadway Playbill, if there was even a credited director at all. Sometimes the playwright or producer would take on those duties and go uncredited.
These ten theatrical legends helped shape the role of the modern Broadway director into how we view it today, and any Broadway history buff should know their names.
(Editors note: We have not included director-choreographers in this list. We will cover those figures in a future Broadway 101 list.)
May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985
You might know Orson Welles best from his film and radio career; his 1941 film Citizen Kane is often ranked high on lists of the best films ever made and his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast is infamous to this day for fooling people across the country into believing we were truly being invaded by aliens.
But Welles got his start on the stage, and was one of the first to come in with a sweeping vision for the production rather than just an idea of good stage blocking. He worked with the Federal Theatre Project throughout his 20s, directing productions like an all-Black Macbeth in 1936 and the 1937 political musical The Cradle Will Rock. The latter was so controversial that the WPA withdrew its funding a few days before its planned Broadway opening. The show went on, but to avoid union and government restrictions the composer Marc Blitzstein performed his score at a piano on a bare stage while the cast shouted out their lines from the audience. The story became the inspiration behind the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.
Many consider Caesar his biggest stage success, which opened on Broadway in November of 1937. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Welles used modern costumes and minimal scenery to draw comparisons to current-day Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
September 18, 1901 – September 9, 1980
Over his career, Harold Clurman directed over 20 plays on Broadway, including Bus Stop, Touch of the Poet, Incident at Vichy, and Golden Boy. The Group Theatre, which Clurman co-founded in 1931, became one of the first training grounds for the Stanislavsky acting method, which would become the dominant acting style on Broadway and in Hollywood through the middle of the 20th century.
But it is perhaps through writing that he left his directorial mark on theatre history. He wrote seven books about theatre, covering the history of The Group Theatre in The Fervent Years, his own life in an autobiography, and his views on directing and what theatre should aspire to be in On Directing. He also served as a drama critic for over 30 years, writing for The New Republic and The Nation.
The next time you see a show at the Theatre Row complex in New York City, look for the Clurman Theatre named in his honor.
June 25, 1887 – January 31, 1995
George Abbott, or “Mister Abbott” as he was known to the people that worked for him, was one of the most prolific directors during the Golden Age of musical comedy on Broadway. His many hits include The Boys from Syracuse, Too Many Girls, Pal Joey, On the Town, Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Once Upon a Mattress, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Flora, the Red Menace. Many of his shows featured major innovations to the genre: the first plot-integrated ballet sequence in On Your Toes, the first American musical based on a Shakespeare play with The Boys from Syracuse, and On the Town’s hybrid musical comedy-symphonic score.
Abbott was an early champion for the importance of a musical’s book, insisting that the story be strong enough to stand alone without the score. In turn, he was a writer as well, contributing books to several of the classic musicals he also directed (including Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, among others).
Abbott also became one of the most famous “show doctors.” Creative teams working on new musicals would have him come to their out-of-town tryouts to offer a fresh perspective as to how they could fix their production’s problems. Often this would involve substantial restructuring and re-writing, superior skills of the director. Abbott’s career was perhaps the longest in Broadway history. At the age of 96, Abbott became the oldest director to stage a hit on Broadway with a revival of On Your Toes.
November 17, 1901 – February 17, 1982
Lee Strasberg had a successful career directing on Broadway, but he put those skills to his most lasting impact as an acting teacher. Often thought of as the father of method acting in America, he taught the Stanislavsky method first at the Group Theatre and, most notably, while director of the famed Actors Studio in both New York and Los Angeles. The method involves an improvisatory approach to acting with heavy use of real-life memories to approximate the emotions of the character being played.
His roster of famous acting students include Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Anne Bancroft, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Julie Harris, Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, and Paul Newman to name but a few. He also worked with Sidney Lumet, Frank Perry, and Elia Kazan, all who would go on to become stage and film directors and carry on the Stanislavsky method. Though Strasberg didn’t create the method, his acting institutions defined the new acting style on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood definitively from the 1950s through the 1980s and beyond.
October 5, 1908 – July 12, 1988
Joshua Logan is another influential director from the Golden Age of Broadway, perhaps best remembered for his work on South Pacific, for which he also co-wrote the book (with Oscar Hammerstein II) and received a Pulitzer. His staging of South Pacific was groundbreaking for 1949 as the first Broadway musical to offer cinematic-style transitions from scene to scene rather than the traditional lowering of a curtain in order to prepare the next scene.
His stage works include Annie Get Your Gun, Picnic, Mister Roberts, and Fanny. He won Tonys for Picnic, South Pacific, and Mister Roberts. Logan also found considerable success in Hollywood, directing film adaptations of Broadway plays. He came out to film Mister Roberts in 1955, which he followed with film versions of Picnic and Bus Stop. He re-created his stage direction for the 1958 film version of South Pacific, and also helmed movie adaptations of Camelot and Paint Your Wagon.
Born January 30, 1928
Harold Prince got his start in the theatre working underneath George Abott, first as an assistant stage manager and later as a producer. He had his first hit as a director in 1966 with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, but the defining work of his career would be the decade of collaborations he had with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, beginning with Company in 1970.
When it comes to defining moments in musical theatre history: Most people look to Show Boat in 1927 as the first piece of musical theatre to feature a serious plot and songs with story integration and Oklahoma! in 1943 for being the first musical to fully integrate plot, song, and dance. Company, too, earns its place as a milestone moment for successfully breaking classic musical theatre traditions with a non-linear plot that put an overarching concept first, making way for a decade of experimentation and further development of the genre of the concept musical. Prince and Sondheim followed Company with an unprecedented string of artistic hits, including Follies in 1971, A Little Night Music in 1973, Pacific Overtures in 1976, and Sweeney Todd in 1979.