Remembering Tony-Winning Directors/Choreographers -- Part 1 | Playbill

Tony Awards Remembering Tony-Winning Directors/Choreographers -- Part 1
From the Special Tony Playbill:

From the Special Tony Playbill:

Remembering some of the great Tony winning directors and choreographers.

George Abbott's theatrical career spanned most of the twentieth century. It began in 1913 when he acted in his first Broadway play, The Misleading Lady. He would be involved in 121 other Broadway productions as performer, writer, director, producer and/or play doctor. Even a partial list of his astonishing credits underscores the indelible role he played in shaping Broadway history. His hits included Three Men on a Horse, Twentieth Century, Room Service, Boy Meets Girl, On Your Toes, The Boys From Syracuse, Pal Joey, On the Town, High Button Shoes, Where's Charley?, Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Fiorello! and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He won nine Tony Awards, including two for directing (Fiorello! and Forum). Abbott was also influential in the careers of many of Broadway's most prominent artists, including Hal Prince, Garson Kanin, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Oliver Smith, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Helen Hayes, Gene Kelly, Gwen Verdon, Dorothy Loudon, Chita Rivera and Nancy Walker. Harnick describes the so-called "Abbott Touch": "There are two things that made up the Abbott Touch. One was his God-given sense of humor and theatre. That was something he possessed; I don't think you can teach it to anybody. The other thing was his innate sense of honesty. What surprised me when rehearsals began on Fiorello! was his attention to reality. I thought I was going to be working with the king of farce, that he'd do anything for a laugh. And it was just the opposite. I remember thinking that in his own way he was like Stanislavsky. For instance, one day Tom Bosley ad-libbed a line in rehearsal and everybody roared with laughter, including Abbott. And when the laughter died down, Abbott said to Bosley, 'Tom, in that situation, would LaGuardia have said that?' There was a long pause, and Tom said, 'No.' And Abbott said, 'Then we can't, either.' He was always looking for what's real."
Tony Award Winner: Best Musical, The Pajama Game, 1955; Damn Yankees, 1956; Fiorello!, 1960. Best Author of a Musical, The Pajama Game, 1955; Damn Yankees, 1956; Fiorello!, 1960. Best Director of a Musical, Fiorello!, 1960; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1963. Special Award, 1987.

Michael Bennett, winner of six Tony Awards, emerged from the chorus to become one of Broadway's most outstanding director/choreographers. Like Jerome Robbins, he used dance to tell stories, define character and convey emotions, even as he served up marvelous entertainment. It is fitting that the towering achievement of this Broadway gypsy's stellar-but-too-brief career is A Chorus Line, a show about the power of dance and the nobility of dancers. Donna McKechnie, Tony winner for A Chorus Line and the performer most closely associated with Bennett's work, reflects on his gifts. "Michael had an ability to pick the right people, and then let them do what they do," she says. "He did that with me. I was an acting student for years and years, but I had so many inhibitions about performing when I did A Chorus Line. And he just left me alone and let me find the role. Not only did that give me confidence, it changed my life. I became bold enough to get over my inhibitions because the director wasn't trying to manipulate my performance. He also had the ability to see the psychological curve of a play and then dramatize it musically, and with dance. His dances were always part of the dramatic action. They were never about steps. They had to have a point of view and further the story line, or reveal something about a character's inner life. He was the rare person that could create art and make it viable for the commercial world. He used to say, 'Okay, we've created art. Now, is my Aunt Belle from Buffalo going to like it?' He understood that in addition to creating something unique, he had an obligation to the audience."
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Musical, Follies, 1972; A Chorus Line, 1976. Best Choreographer, Follies, 1972;
1974; A Chorus Line, 1976; Ballroom, 1979; Dreamgirls, 1982.

"It's impossible to say what is more difficult [to direct] in one production compared with another," states renowned avant garde director Peter Brook. "In one way, everything is difficult; everything is experimental even a monologue or two people sitting face to face. On the other hand, the moments that seem most complex or spectacular to an audience and seem to have demanded great thought and preparation very often just fall effortlessly in place by themselves.
Musing on the power of the Tony, Brook suggests, "certainly, the Tony for Carmen would not have occurred if the production had never taken place and it was twice in mortal danger! The first time was when the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street was snatched away from us. It was the ideal place for this show, and we could not believe our ears when we heard that the building hadn't been checked by builders and in the very last minute had suddenly been declared unsafe. This led to a group of us visiting the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center as a possible replacement. The building was deserted; it had not been used for some time.
Very unwisely, we took the elevator, and it stuck between floors. The alarm did not work, the emergency phone was dead, there were six of us in a metal box with no air vents, and it was late on a Friday afternoon. After a long and suffocating period of waiting and wondering, a sudden collective spasm of jumping brought the elevator back to life, which proves that the Tony Award is a good protector even before it is given!"
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Play, Marat/Sade, 1966; A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1971. Special Award, La Tragedie de Carmen, 1984.
Until he was 40 years old, Abe Burrows was known as a wit, humorist, raconteur, parodist and scriptwriter. He worked in radio and night clubs, and seemed to have done almost as much entertaining in the living room of friends. He had never written a word for Broadway when Frank Loesser and producers Ernest Martin and Cy Feuer gambled on his talents and asked him to write the book for Guys and Dolls. The show launched his Broadway career, and he was soon much in demand as a playwright, director and play doctor. In a 1961 interview in Newsweek, he said, "The delicate thing about a joke. . . is that an actor begins to help it. When an actor begins to anticipate a joke, and a light comes into his eyes before he says it, the audience sees it and you're dead. My favorite direction to actors is just to say the lines. They're shocked they've been taught since they were children to 'read with expression.' " Among the many productions he wrote and/or directed during the 1950's and 60's were Can Can, Silk Stockings, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, What Makes Sammy Run, Cactus Flower and Forty Carats. He won five Tony Awards, one of which was for directing (How To Succeed). Burrows's friend Cy Feuer says, "Abe was a great humorist. He was just plain funny. He thought funny and spoke funny and wrote funny and directed funny. He had a sort of sociological attitude toward comedy, meaning it wasn't just about jokes. Everything he did had to do with the life around him."
Tony Award Winner: Best Musical, Guys and Dolls, 1951; How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying, 1962; Best Author of a Musical, Guys and Dolls, 1951; How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1962. Best Director of a Musical, How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying, 1962.

John Caird was for 12 years an associate director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, where his productions included A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Beggars' Opera and Antony and Claopatra, as well as the premieres of many new works. More recently he directed The Seagull at the Royal National Theatre, and his own adaptation of Henry IV for BBC Television. But the greatest triumphs in his career are likely the two productions he co-directed with Trevor Nunn, The Life and Adventures of Nocholas Nickleby and Les Miserables, both of which earned them Tony Awards. Les Miz has become the most performed musical in the world, and in an issue of Drama, The Quarterly Theatre Review, Caird offered some insight into the shaping of the play. He wrote: "As we progressed with our work an interesting pattern began to emerge, which is certainly implicit in the original story, but has been made more evident in our version of it. God is seen through the eyes of three characters: by Valjean, who at the moment of his own greatest danger prays to a loving and forgiving God for the safety of another man; by Javert, who in his pursuit of Valjean believes himself to be the representative of an angry God, a God of order and retribution; and finally Thenardier, who in rifling the bodies of the recently slaughtered students, declares God to bo 'As dead as the stiffs at my feet.'"
Tony Award winner: Best Director of a Play, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1982. Best Director of a Musical, Les Miserables, 1987.

Before Gower Champion was beckoned to Broadway to direct and choreograph Bye, Bye, Birdie, the show that established him as one of theatre's rising stars (Tony Awards, Director and Choreographer), he had already made quite a name for himself in Hollywood musicals, performing with his then-wife Marge. He began his career as a dancer on Broadway, and went on to stage and/or choreograph several revues including Lend an Ear, for which he garnered a Tony for his choreography working for the first time with an unknown named Carol Channing. But it was only after he had made his mark in films that he returned to the stage. Following Bye, Bye, Birdie, Champion directed and choreographed Carnival, in which he opened the show with a bare stage and created a carnival before the audience's eyes. (Marge Champion believes this to be among his greatest achievements.) But it was Hello, Dolly! that solidified his place in Broadway history. Like 42nd Street, his final show Dolly! enabled him to demonstrate the range of his artistry, showmanship and imagination. He was so good at dazzling audiences that it's easy to overlook the fact that he was a consummate craftsman, whose attention to detail left nothing to chance. That was as true on Hello, Dolly! as it was on the intimate I Do! I Do! Carol Channing recalls, "When I worked with Gower on Dolly! it was like he was Rodin and I was The Thinker. He had the most remarkable talent I ever saw. He designed around me, down to the smallest detail. He would walk to the back of the theatre, then come forward and say, 'Move your left foot there, on that line, and then stay still in fifth position.' He had that kind of an eye. There was a reason for everything he did."
Tony Award Winner: Best Choreographer, Lend an Ear, 1949; Bye, Bye Birdie, 1961; Hello, Dolly!, 1964; The Happy Time, 1968; 42nd Street, 1981.Best Director of a Musical, Bye, Bye Birdie, 1961; Hello, Dolly!, 1964; The Happy Time, 1968.

Agnes de Mille's 1942 ballet Rodeo established her career as a major choreographer and led to an invitation from Rodgers and Hammerstein to choreograph their first collaborative effort, Oklahoma! When Hammerstein suggested that the second act end with a dream ballet set in a circus, de Mille countered with the notion of doing a psychological dream ballet depicting Laurey's confusion over her attraction to Jud. "I told Oscar and Dick that Laurey would not be dreaming of herself as a circus queen," she said several years ago. "That's unsound dramatics. It has nothing to do with life. I also told them they had no sex in the first act." She got her way and choreographed Laurey Makes Up Her Mind, which echoed the plot of the show and gave the conflict a complexity it would not otherwise have had." Following Oklahoma!, de Mille went on to choreograph such hits as Carousel, One Touch of Venus, Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. She also became the first choreographer to direct a musical, but Allegro proved to be one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's few flops. Her choreography for Brigadoon earned de Mille a Tony Award in 1947 Michael Kidd was a co-winner that first year and she received a second Tony 15 years later for Kwamina. "I think my talent is that I have a good nose," she said in 1988. "I can smell what's real and what's fake, and I have a great appreciation for the true expression of a people. You can't improve on the real thing, because those dances were born out of life experience." Since Oklahoma! opened before the establishment of the Tony Awards, it was only fitting that De Mille accept the Special Tony for the show awarded in 1993 on the 50th anniversary of its debut.
Tony Award Winner: Best Choreographer, Brigadoon, 1947; Kwamina, 1962.

"Give 'em the old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle 'em. Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it and the reaction will be passionate." That Fred Ebb lyric from the show Chicago might just as well have been written by Bob Fosse, its director and choreographer, as it pretty much sums up his approach to Broadway musicals. Fosse was pure show business: Creating art did not interest him; creating entertainment did. It was an attitude that worked exceedingly well for him. He won nine Tony Awards for his direction and choreography of Pippin and for his choreography of Pajama Game (his first show), Damn Yankees, Redhead, Little Me, Sweet Charity, Dancin' and Big Deal. Fosse had one of the most distinctive styles of any choreographer. A Fosse number would likely be jazzy, sexy and devoid of sentimentality and was usually characterized by any combination of hunched shoulders, bent knees, turned-in legs, pelvic thrusts, bumps and grinds, idiosyncratic movements and an ever-present hat. "Bob always said his style developed out of his limitations," says Gwen Verdon. "For instance, he always worked with hats because he was going bald from the time he was 17. And a hat is a wonderful prop. The first time that I every worked with him, the very first number he did for me was 'Lola.' The whole dance was finished before I even saw it. He choreographed it on his own body. That's how he worked. There were times when he'd be showing all the dancers what he had figured out a few days before, and they'd have trouble doing it. He would apologize and say, 'I'm sorry. It really stinks.' Then they would reassure him. And I would usually step in and say, 'Bob, they just don't know how to do it yet.' I'd make him leave the room, and the dancers would work on it. His movement came naturally to me, and he expected everyone else to get it as quickly as I did."
Tony Award Winner: Best Choreographer, The Pajama Game, 1955; Damn Yankees, 1956; Redhead, 1959; Little Me, 1963; Sweet Charity, 1966; Pippin, 1973; Dancin', 1978; Big Deal, 1986.Best Director of a Musical, Pippin, 1973.

Few directors have had as great an impact on international theatre as Sir Tyrone Guthrie. He rose to prominence at London's prestigious Old Vic, where he was especially acclaimed for his productions of Shakespeare and other classic plays. He first came to America to direct Call It a Day in 1936, and returned a decade later to direct a revival of He Who Gets Slapped. From then on he divided his time between two continents. Among his Broadway productions were The Matchmaker, for which he won a Tony Award, and the original production of the musical Candide. In 1953 Guthrie helped found the renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and ten years later he was the driving force behind the creation of the celebrated Guthrie Theatre, where he served as artistic director until his death in 1971. In his autobiography A Life in the Theatre (1959), Guthrie discussed his views of how one should go about directing a classic: "First he must decide what he thinks the play means to him. The meaning of any work of art is subjective. It is not what the author thinks it means. If the objective meaning of a work of art were known, there would be no point in its existence. It exists merely to suggest many ways in which an undefined truth may be approached. . . "
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Play, The Matchmaker, 1956.


Peter Hall, two-time Tony Award winner for The Homecoming and Amadeus, has been a predominant force in British theatre for more than 35 years. In 1960 he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, then provided the troupe with a second base of operations at the Aldwych Theatre in London. He remained with the RSC until 1968, and during that time directed 18 plays at Stratford and many others in London, including the world premiere of The Homecoming and a production of Macbeth that was subsequently brought to Moscow. In 1973 Hall succeeded Laurence Olivier as director of the Royal National Theatre, a post he held for 15, sometimes troubling, years. Under his guidance the company moved into its new home on the South Bank, where he first directed Amadeus. Following Hall's departure from the National in 1988, he launched his own very successful company in a big way, with a production of Orpheus Descending starring Vanessa Redgrave. That production later transferred to Broadway, as did his staging of The Merchant of Venice, with Dustin Hoffman in the title role. Other productions by the Peter Hall Company include The Wild Duck with Alex Jennings, Lysistrata with Geraldine James, Separate Tables with Patricia Hodge and An Ideal Husband, which he recently directed for Broadway. He has also directed over 40 operas at major opera houses around the world.
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Amadeus, 1981.
As anyone who read his autobiography Act One is aware, Moss Hart had a deep and abiding affection for theatre. As those who knew him will attest, it seems that everyone in theatre had a deep and abiding affection for Moss Hart. Alan Jay Lerner wrote in his autobiography, "Moss Hart, as I was to find out, had no understudies. He is and forever will be irreplaceable to more people in more ways than any man I have ever known. When he died in 1961 . . . it seemed as if the gods had broken in and robbed us of some of our most precious humanity." Why was he so beloved? "I think there were two reasons," says his widow, Kitty Carlisle Hart. "Moss loved actors, and that's not always true with directors. He wanted to be an actor, but when he was very young, he got a job as an actor and discovered that he was not leading-man material. So he turned to writing." Hart first gained fame as co-author, with George S. Kaufman, of Once in a Lifetime; their eight other collaborations include You Can't Take It with You (Pulitzer Prize) and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Hart also wrote the books for Jubilee and Lady in the Dark, the play Light Up the Sky, and several screenplays, most notably Gentlemen's Agreement. As a director, he is best known for his work on two Lerner and Loewe musicals, My Fair Lady, for which he won a Tony Award, and Camelot, his final show. "The other reason Moss was beloved was because he did something quite remarkable with actors when he took on a play," says Kitty Carlisle Hart. "I don't know how he did it, but I saw it happen and it was magic. Within 24 hours he created an atmosphere in the company of us against the world. It was a kind of fervor that really carried them through thick and thin. And he did it with every company. It was quite a trick, but it was totally honest because he really cared."
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Musical, My Fair Lady, 1957.

When the first Tony Awards were handed out in 1947, Elia Kazan was voted Best Director for his work on All My Sons. It was a propitious choice, as Kazan would come to be recognized as the most important stage director of the late forties and the fifties. His name will be forever linked with two of this country's greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as he directed a total of seven world premieres by those two men. Of Death of a Salesman, he told the Dramatists Guild, "It was the story of my life, about my father, my own family, things I knew. Arthur and I came out of the same experience. . . This is the only play I've ever done where I've stood in the back of the audience and heard men sobbing." Among the Williams plays he directed are the landmark A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Other productions include The Skin of Our Teeth, One Touch of Venus, Tea and Sympathy, and J.B., for which he won his third Tony. Kazan, one of the founding members of the Actors Studio, also made memorable contributions to film as director of such classics as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Gentleman's Agreement (Academy Award), A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront (Academy Award). He had the ability to seamlessly interweave reality and poetry, and to expose the inner lives of characters as seemingly ordinary as Willy Loman, or as complex as Blanche DuBois. Robert Whitehead, with whom he founded the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center in 1964, says, "Like all great directors, he gave actors a sense of confidence. He made them feel he would be there holding their hands forever, which, of course, is never the case with a director. He could convince them of the validity of what they were doing, and that's important and exciting."
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Play, All My Sons, 1947; Death of a Salesman, 1949; J.B., 1959.

In the 1940's, 50's and early 60's, the so-called golden age of the American musical, Michael Kidd was one of the most sought-after talents on Broadway, first as a choreographer and later as a director as well. When the first Tony Awards were handed out in 1947, Kidd was honored for his work on Finian's Rainbow, sharing the choreography award with Agnes de Mille, a winner for Brigadoon. Like de Mille and Jerome Robbins, Kidd first made a name for himself in ballet. Although he had worked on Broadway off and on beginning in 1937, it was as a dancer with Ballet Theatre that he became a star. His energetic, acrobatic, macho style would eventually imbue much of his best choreography, like the Crapshooters Dance in Guys and Dolls. In 1945 when he choreographed On Stage, his first work for Ballet Theatre, the noted critic Edwin Denby said prophetically, "The gifts he shows are all. . . more suited to musical comedy than to ballet." Two years later, Kidd proved just how right Denby was when he choreographed Finian's Rainbow. In his review of the film in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "The ballet dancers of Finian's Rainbow begin the evening with some lyrical springtime rites of real glory. If notes of music could leap across the stage, they would be no lighter or lovelier than this joyous ballet of a young and free people. Mr. Kidd has designed it with skill and enthusiasm. He and his band of dancers have interpreted the theme of Finian's Rainbow like thoroughbreds and artists." One other noteworthy aspect of the show was that for the first time, a chorus was integrated with black and white dancers. Kidd's subsequent musicals, including Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, L'il Abner and Destry Rides Again the four that earned him additional Tonys for choreography were filled with athletic, explosive and exuberant show-stopping dances.
Tony Award Winner: Best Choreographer, Finian's Rainbow, 1947;Guys and Dolls, 1951; Can-Can, 1954; Li'l Abner, 1957; Destry Rides Again, 1960.

During his illustrious career Joshua Logan made his mark in musicals and plays as a producer, writer and, most especially, director. He was only 20 when he founded the University Players and immediately had the opportunity to act and direct. Three years later, he was in Moscow studying with Stanislavsky. His acting career soon faded, but his career as a director flourished. He won Tony Awards for his direction of South Pacific and Picnic, and earned accolades for so much of his other work. Among the many memorable shows he directed are On Borrowed Time, I Married an Angel, Knickerbocker Holiday, By Jupiter, This is the Army, Annie Get Your Gun, Happy Birthday, Mister Roberts and Fanny. Of Picnic, he wrote in his autobiography, "Because I had a cast of true artists, I tried to give them complete freedom in rehearsal. I remained an observer, an editor" According to Ruth Mitchell, Logan was popular with actors. Mitchell, currently assistant to Hal Prince, has been a stage manager, director and producer in a career spanning more than 50 years. She worked for Logan as an assistant stage manager on Happy Birthday and Mr. Roberts, at a time when very few women were given that kind of responsibility. "It was enlightened thinking for him to have a woman in that position, but it was difficult for me because a lot of people didn't like having a woman in that capacity," says Mitchell. "But he told me, 'Keep doing what you started out to do, and don't let anybody tell you you can't do it.' He was warm and sensitive and had a great sense of humor. He was very easy to get along with, and everybody seemed to love working with him."
Tony Award Winner: Best Play, Mister Roberts, 1948. Best Author of a Play, Mister Roberts, 1948. Best Musical, South Pacific, 1950. Best Author of a Musical, South Pacific, 1950. Best Director of a Play, Mister Roberts, 1948; Picnic, 1953. Best Director of a Musical, South Pacific, 1950. Best Producer of a Musical, South Pacific, 1950.

Whether directing an out-and-out laugh-riot about two grown men driving each other crazy like The Odd Couple, or a romantic comedy about young newlyweds like Barefoot in the Park, or a witty and trenchant play about adultery like The Real Thing, Mike Nichols has a gift for externalizing inner truths. He helps actors illuminate the pain behind the humor and the humor behind the pain, so that the characters they portray seem not to be playing a part, but living it. This is no surprise given Nichols's background. He was a member of Chicago's improvisational group Second City, and then teamed up with Elaine May for an improvisational night-club act that took them to Broadway and made them stars. After the team broke up, Nichols was invited to direct Barefoot in the Park, for which he won his first Tony Award. He has since won five more Tonys for his direction of Luv, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Real Thing. Equally renowned as a movie director, Nichols's films include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate (Academy Award), Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood and Working Girl. Most recently he scored directing Broadway's Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. He was also instrumental in Whoopi Goldberg's career, staging the one-woman Broadway show that made her a star. In a 1992 television interview, Nichols spoke with Charlie Rose about his approach to directing. "You have to have an instinct that tells you what will turn each individual actor on. . . then you have to try to feed into that and call on that. And then, of course, it's the director's job to tell the story to determine what it is that's happening. Never mind what they're saying. Because what's happening is always different from what they're saying . . .It is in life . . .but it is even more . . . in the theatre."
Tony Award Winner: Best Director of a Play, Barefoot in the Park, 1964; Luv/The Odd Couple, 1965; Plaza Suite, 1968; The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1972; The Real Thing, 1984. Best Musical, Annie, 1977.

(Continued in Part 2)

-- By Sheryl Flatow

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