“I don’t like the word revivals. It suggests resuscitating something that’s near death or something,” said Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks. “What I try to do is pretend that it was written yesterday and given to me today.”
Perhaps it’s that perspective that led to Best Revival Tony wins for 1987’s Anything Goes (starring Patti LuPone and Howard McGillin), 1992’s Guys & Dolls (starring Nathan Lane and Faith Prince), 2004’s La Cage Aux Folles (starring Gary Beach and Daniel Davies), and 2017’s Hello, Dolly! (starring Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce)—not to mention the Tony nominations for Best Revival for 1986’s The Front Page and 1996’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
“Happily, my ignorance about a lot of musical theatre has served me well when it comes to doing revivals—or new productions of old shows as I like to call them,” says the director. Such was his success with Dolly that Zaks mounted a national tour—currently on the road—starring Betty Buckley as the titular Dolly Gallagher Levi.
A master of the revival, Zaks has also directed new works—plays and musicals—including the most recent comedy Meteor Shower and A Bronx Tale The Musical. Zaks has four Tonys for his direction for The House of Blue Leaves, Lend Me a Tenor, Six Degrees of Separation, and Guys & Dolls. Though he started out onstage as a performer in Grease, Once in a Lifetime, and Tinytypes, Zaks clearly found his calling.
“I love what I do so much that if I get the opportunity to try to talk about it, I will just go on and on,” says Zaks.
Here, we let Zaks “go on” about the key to his success with revivals, mounting the Tony-winning Hello, Dolly!, how he runs his rehearsal room, and a clue to his next big Broadway project.
Why he became a director:
I think I love to control things, and I love to orchestrate things. When I was in Grease, I was in the first national tour [as Kenickie] and then I did it on Broadway, they used to call me Uta, because I would give people notes. I would behave in a unconscionable way. In fact, I would behave in a way that I absolutely prohibit today. I make it very clear that actors are to absolve themselves of commenting on or suggesting anything regarding to do with anybody else’s performance. But I was very guilty of that.
I was given the opportunity to direct something purely by chance. I was a member of the Ensemble Studio Theater way back when, and a fellow member said, “Read this play. I want to play this part, and you should direct it. Long story short, I did. We did a workshop presentation of this play, and I experienced the joy of standing in the back and..being in the theatre from that perspective, and having been responsible for what’s on the stage, and I loved it. And pretty soon I wasn’t an actor anymore.
His directing principles:
It’s essentially the same process every time to arrive at the story you’re gonna tell. And it starts with the writers, me and the writers. That is, me and the script if the writer’s not alive anymore. It’s about inhabiting that material so that it tells the story. The new play I’m doing at Lincoln Center Theater by John Guare, John and I have been working on that script for over six years now. Once it’s ready, then we go about getting it on stage.
I don’t do big group meetings. I meet with the set designer and then I meet with the costume designer, and then I meet with the lighting designer. And I go back to the choreographer. Only when it’s absolutely essential do I get everyone together. But I want them all pointed in the direction that I want them pointed in based on the play the way I see and hear it. It really comes to me more by my imagining the life amongst the actors as I’m reading it, and the music of the transitions between scenes, and the music of the piece. I know for example, the way I wanted the first 30 minutes of John Guare’s plays to play, the rhythm of it. And there are several phone calls that I didn’t want handled in a conventional one person picks up a phone and another picks up a phone. Not dissimilar from the work that I did with Tony Walton on Six Degrees of Separation another John Guare play.
It’s really about hearing the play in my head, imagining it in my head. I pretend to be an audience and I monitor whether I’m interested or whether I’m not. You’ve got about 15 minutes get the audience involved, to get them to care, to get them to want to see what happens next, to put a big smile on their face and make them happy and laughing. Laughter is the sound of audience falling in love. That’s how people in fall in love very often is someone makes them laugh. There are many ways to involve an audience—and thank God for that—but the way I love to get to do it most is through laughter.
With an actor in the rehearsal room:
The atmosphere is one of a room in which there is great respect, and a room where no one is allowed to embarrass anyone else. It’s as simple as that, and it’s private. I will monitor what they’re doing, and I’ll suggest, “You’re getting too angry too soon here, I think, darling. What happens if you try pretending to be happy about this? What happens ... ?” And I try to guide the actors towards finding the behavior of their characters that best protects the possibility of a happy ending as long as the script allows them. Very often an actor will get lost in trying to find out what it is they’re feeling at that moment, and it is not unimportant. But what I try to guide the actors to do is to discover what the behavior that those feelings dictate. You know, because I’m feeling sad does not mean I’m going to behave sadly. I may be feeling sad, but the most important thing in the world is to keep my husband or wife from leaving the room, then I have to dedicate all my energy not displaying my sadness, but having my sadness as a prospect of him leaving or her leaving the room motivate me into behaving in a way that will keep them in the room. If you can help an actor find the behavior that suits that character at that moment then you’re helping the actor. I also try to point out to the actor the difference between what the actor knows and what the character knows. Sometimes I’ll just sit back and watch. It’s about the actors trying the scene and me reacting and shaping the scene.
A mistake he made that he learned from:
When I first started [directing], it seemed that everything I did worked. I began to mistakenly believe... I became very arrogant about what I was doing and forgot that the most important element in whatever success I’d had in the early part of my career had to do with the richness of the material that I was working on. And so, I hope to have learned something from having made that mistake. Of course, the education never stops, just never. Just when you think you’ve got something figured out, you realize you don’t.
A good decision he made that he learned from:
The good hard decisions for me, have always been about having to replace actors, which is as painful a thing as I can imagine having to do in the theatre. It’s someone that you respect, and I’ve had to do it several times in my career. And every time I did, it hurt them, it hurt me, and it ultimately saved the production. It’s acknowledging that you’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s causing someone else great pain, but it’s absolutely necessary if the production is gonna have the life amongst the actors that I was preaching about before.
Those good ‘easy’ decisions [come] in the form of an idea. As I’m walking to the subway or something and I go, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t wait to try this.’ In Lend Me A Tenor there’s a moment in that where one character is desperately trying to slip a mickey to another character. He does it by putting some sleeping medication into a glass of wine that he gives to this person, and they toast and they both drink. I realized that it’s life and death to the young man who’s administering this sleeping medication. The last thing he wants is for this guy to taste, or notice that there’s something wrong with his drink. It was Victor Garber, was the actor who administering it, and I said, ‘Victor, darling, you’ve just put the sleeping pills in the guy’s drink, right?’ I said, ‘I think you want to make sure that it’s dissolved, because you just put it in his drink, so you want to make sure it’s dissolved. So what happens if you ... ?’ And Victor’s eyes lit up, because he knew exactly what I was gonna suggest, which is: Stick your finger in his drink and stir it. Just before they drink, Victor sticks his finger in the other guys drink and stirs it. It gets an enormous laugh, right? Now, the other guy, thinking that this is some local ritual, he sticks his finger in Victor’s drink and stirs it as well. Now, we’ve got people really laughing hard, but that’s [a decision] that comes to one after you’ve lived with the script, you’ve lived with the actors, you’ve staged it, you’ve watched it.
About Hello, Dolly!:
When I was a kid, in 1964, or ‘65, just after I sort of started getting interested in the theater as an actor, I went to see that Hello Dolly with Carol Channing. And I fell in love with that show so hard I went back to see it two more times. I always dreamed of being able to do something that did to an audience what that show did to me. It portrays simultaneous love stories, all of which are life and death. When it’s life and death, and it’s well written, the result is funny, and the results are funny. And the big result is that the audience falls in love with these characters as they pursue their goals. I mean, Cornelius wants to get kissed. Dolly wants to land Horace. As long as you’re making that happen, the opportunities for comedy just present themselves. [The stage production] presents that story with an urgency that the movie couldn’t do. And also, the biggest thing is, the equation is what’s happening on stage plus the audience—the electricity.
[The lavish design] was a vision that I shared with [producer] Scott Rudin. When I was standing in the back of the St. James as a college student, he is a nine-year-old or ten-year-old sitting in the last row of the second balcony at the St. James. It didn’t take long to discover that we had this passion for the show and the determination to present it in as a luxe a way as possible. That is, the most beautiful costumes, the most visually satisfying sets, but the sets that also would move in a way that the story needed. And you never want to wait for a scene change. It was about a year’s worth of conversations before we started rehearsals as to what the show would look like, and obviously with [designer] Santo Loquasto. That was always the vision. But if you don’t have the electricity amongst the actors and the audience, then nobody will care.
On directing revivals:
The task is the same—which is to tell the story. If you tell the story honestly and passionately and skillfully, then you’ll avoid upstaging the material with your own directorial stamp. I think sometimes people—in an attempt to find a way to do an old show—compromise the story of the show and sometimes also the tone. It it’s a good show, you have the benefit of someone else’s trial and error process and you’d be silly not to pay attention to it.
When I did Guys & Dolls, for example, I didn’t know anything about it. So reading it and listening to it was a tremendous adventure. I tried to use the history from the time it opened right up to the present to help inform the decisions I made.
Guys & Dolls, if you look at it is a series of alternating full-stage scences, beause that’s the way they changed scenery in those days: You had to bring in a drop and —while you were doing a scene in front of the drop, the set would be changed. I figured ‘I’m going to be the one who figures out a way to do Guys &Dolls in something other than alternating full-stage sequences. Nope. If you’re messing with something that is inherent in the kishkes of the show, you’re asking for trouble.
John Guare’s plays Sleigh Ride. I’m developing Mrs. Doubtfire, so that’s going to be taking up a big chunk of my time. There’s a movie that I may be doing next year, which I’m excited about, but I can’t really say much about. It’s percolating. And then in 2020, I’m doing to do a new production of a grew old musical with a big wonderful person in it—and that’s all I can tell you.