Michael Langham, Influential Director of Canadian and American Theatre, Dies at 91

Obituaries   Michael Langham, Influential Director of Canadian and American Theatre, Dies at 91
Michael Langham, whose long and influential directing career saw him helm productions on Broadway, run the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for a decade, and man the Guthrie Theatre during the 1970s, died Jan. 15 at his home near Cranbrook, Kent, in England. He has contracted a chest infection before Christmas and failed to recover. He was 91.

Michael Langham
Michael Langham

Mr. Langham was a sort of North American equivalent to English figures like Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, who anchor their directing careers with periodic spells managing leading theatrical institutions, and thus end up shaping the theatre age in which they work. From 1956 to 1967, he was invited by Tyrone Guthrie to become artistic director of Canada's Stratford Festival, becoming only the second leader in the history of that institution. During his reign, the festival's permanent, flagship thrust stage was built. He also advocated the purchase and renovation of the proscenium Avon Theatre.

Mr. Langham was artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse in California in the 1960s during its dormant period when plans were being made for a world-class facility. From there, he moved the the Midwest — to Minnesota — where he was artistic director, from 1971 to 1977, of the Guthrie Theatre (another theatre founded by Tyrone Guthrie). He retained his connection to Stratford, however, returning in 1983 and thereafter to direct productions there. His more recent festival credits were the 2008 stagings of Love's Labour's Lost (a play he directed four times at the festival) and There Reigns Love

"While great credit rightfully goes to Tyrone Guthrie as Stratford's founding artistic father," said current artistic director Des McAnuff, "it is important to recognize Michael as the intellectual architect of this theatre's artistic policy. It was Michael who articulated the approach to Shakespeare's text — a philosophy he described as 'living thought' — that to this day forms the aesthetic foundation of the classical work done at Stratford."

During Mr. Langham's time at the helm, actors who were to became synonymous with Stratford first graced its stages, including Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, Bruno Gerussi, Douglas Rain, William Hutt, Martha Henry, Christopher Newton and Richard Monette. The director's rendition of Henry V in 1956 vaulted Christopher Plummer to prominence.

"Michael Langham more than anyone — even Tyrone Guthrie — solidified, matured and transformed the Stratford Festival into the finest theatre company in North America," said Mr. Plummer. "He also gave me, quite literally, my career. Without his talent, taste, intellect and wit, God knows where I might have gone with my life." Mr. Langham moved to New York to be the director of the Juilliard School from 1979 to 1982, a post he held again from 1987 to 1992. Shortly after his second stint at Juilliard, actor Tony Randall drafted him as an artistic advisor for his newly formed National Actors Theatre. He directed many of the NAT's first efforts, included a production of Saint Joan starring Maryann Plunkett; Timon of Athens with Brian Bedford (a transfer of a Stratford staging, it was one of the young company's only critical hits, and earned Mr. Langham his only Tony Award nomination); and The Government Inspector. He and Bedford teamed again in The Moliere Comedies, an evening consisting of The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold.

He was known among actors for his arduous attention to detail and long rehearals. "He was a meticulous director and was relentless in his pursuit of an interpretation of a play," said Bedford. "He put productions together like a sort of mosaic, paying tremendous attention to what we might think of as minutiae. It drove some people crazy but I don’t think I worked with him on a single production that wasn't a tremendous success."

His final Broadway credit was Waiting in the Wings, the first New York staging of a little-known, later work by Noel Coward, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris among many other stage veterans.

Michael Langham was born in Bridgewater, England, on Aug. 22, 1919. He studied law at the University of London before enlisting in the British Army in 1939. During World War
II, he spent five years as a prisoner of war. Upon his release, he commenced his theatre carreer, leading several several repertory theatres in the U.K. including Coventry (1946-48), Birmingham (1948-50) and Glasgow (1953-54). He also directed several productions at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, working with such then-rising stars of Peter O'Toole, Denholm Elliot, Ian Richardson, Irene Worth, Judi Dench, Robert Shaw, Alec McCowen, and Tom Courtenay.

He directed two productions for New York's Phoenix Theatre, The Gentleman of Verona and The Broken Jug. In 1968, he scored a commercial hit, staging the Broadway premiere of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Zoe Caldwell in the title role. It ran a year.

To honor Mr. Langham's legacy, the Stratford Festival established the Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction in 2009. The inaugural session was held during the 2010 season. The festival said it will dedicate the 2011 season to Mr. Langham.

Mr. Langham is survived by his wife, actress Helen Burns, his son, Christopher, daughter-in-law, Christine, two grandchildren, Emily and Harry, and three grandsons from Christopher's earlier marriage. A memorial will be held at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at a later date.

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