George Abbott -- actor, playwright, director, maker of blockbusters, rescuer of flops, discoverer of talent and recipient of just about every theatrical award going -- is once again doing what he's done all his life with more success that anyone else in the American theater: staging a Broadway show.
This time it's the Kennedy Center's impending revival of Rodgers and Hart's "On Your Toes," which Abbott just happened to coauthor back in 1936. He didn't direct that one initially, but when the musical ran into tryout trouble in Boston, he was promptly summoned to straighten it out. He turned it into another smash. Only Ty Cobb, in an unrelated field, seems to have chalked up more hits.
Abbott is a little hard of hearing in his right ear, but otherwise spitting with the energy of a man half his age, who would be, let's see, 47 1/2. For the First Curmudgeon of the American Theater is now 95 and defiantly spry to boot.
"I hate that term, 'spry,' " he says, wrinkling up his face and looking, for an instant, like a grand old turtle dismissing a school of polliwogs. "It makes me think of an old man with a cane, jumping up and down. 'Vigorous' is a better word. I'm not all that vigorous, really. But I'm comfortable. I feel all right."
Among theater folk, notorious for instant intimacy, Abbott is Mister Abbott, in deference to his no-nonsense ways in a rehearsal hall and his reluctance to suffer fools gladly. His daughter, Judy, has always called him George. ("I didn't want her to call me Father because I felt that term gives a person a false influence. She's a friend of mine.") His grandchildren try to call him Gramps, but he balks. ("It's like they want to make a cutie pie out of me. And that I ain't.") Everyone else calls him a legend.
Tonight at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- five days before "On Your Toes" begins previews in the same hall -- he will be one of the five Americans honored for a lifetime of achievement in the arts. (The others: Gene Kelly, Lillian Gish, Eugene Ormandy and Benny Goodman.) Friends say he's pleased about the tribute. But if you ask him point blank, he hides behind a chuckle and Shakespeare. "What did he say? 'A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.' " But, yes, he does seem pleased.
The legend started taking shape in 1913, when Abbott, having given himself a month to crack the profession, strode into the Hudson Theater and landed a walk-on in a trifle called "The Misleading Lady." The play also had roles for two drunken young men. "Right off, the actor playing one of them was fired," Abbott recalls, "so the producer said, 'You try it, kid.' I guess I was pretty good at it. The next day they fired the other guy and put me in his part, which was even better. 'Well,' I thought, 'there's nothing to the theater. Here I had a role in a Broadway play, good notices.' Later I found it wasn't so easy."
Abbott just makes it look easy. He has worked with everyone who was ever anyone in the American theater -- from A (Judith Anderson, Elizabeth Ashley, Eddie Albert) to Z (Zero Mostel), not to forget Carol Burnett, Ethel Merman, Cole Porter, Liza Minnelli, Ray Bolger, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Gwen Verdon, Rosalind Russell, Jeanne Eagles, Lynn Fontanne, Jimmy Durante, Donna McKechnie and probably half the membership of Actors Equity. He has directed more successful shows than he cares to remember, starting in 1926 with "Broadway," the rip-snorting melodrama he wrote with Philip Dunning, and moving on to "Coquette," "Twentieth Century," "Three Men on a Horse," "Boy Meets Girl," "Room Service," "The Boys From Syracuse," "Kiss and Tell," "Best Foot Forward," "Pal Joey," "On the Town," "Wonderful Town," "Call Me Madam" and "Once Upon a Mattress." As a writer, his finger was in a fair share of them.
But the extent of his career is best understood if you consider what might have happened if Abbott had pulled his laurels about him and retired at the customary age of 65.
Producer-director Hal Prince might still be sweating it out as an office boy. It was Abbott who gave Prince his start as a producer by promising to direct his first show, an unlikely musical about union activities in a pajama factory. Abbott eventually ended up co-writing the book, providing some of the financing and paying Prince's office expenses. The result was a bonanza entitled "The Pajama Game." Abbott, then 67, subsequently obliged his young protege by directing "Damn Yankees" and "New Girl in Town" for him. Before long, Prince was being widely hailed as a "boy wonder."
Abbott himself would have missed out on the Pulitzer Prize, which came his way in 1959 as the coauthor (with Jerome Weidman) of "Fiorello." He was 72 at the time.
The long-run record books might not include "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" or "Never Too Late," both of which Abbott directed in 1962, one of his best years in the theater. He was then 75.
And the Kennedy Center's revival of "On Your Toes" might still be languishing on a planning board. The working notion, after all, was to revive the musical with as many of the original creators as possible. Contacted at his home in Miami Beach, Abbott didn't have to be asked twice. For one thing, there were "some errors" in the original and he was delighted to have the chance to correct them. And because Abbott was willing, so was choreographer George Balanchine, who, at 78, has to be considered a mere pup.
As a result, for the past month Abbott has been shuttling back and forth between the Dorset Hotel, his usual perch when he's visiting New York, and the stage of the Uris Theater, where a company headed by Natalia Makarova, Lara Teeter and George Irving is rehearsing the musical about a down-and-out hoofer who revives the fortunes of a failing Russian ballet troupe.
When Abbott walks, he takes sight of his destination, leans forward as if into a wind, and then moves off at a jaunty clip, slapping his feet on the ground, like diver's flippers. New York invigorates him.
"Nobody looks the same here, the way they do in all the other cities," he observes. Slap, slap, slap go his feet on the pavement. "I'm as excited as if I was a kid, directing my first show."
LATER IN THE day, Abbott allows himself to be coaxed to dinner at a small French restaurant, where he goes virtually unrecognized. He settles on veal scallopini and lets the wine (white) be picked for him, while a mediocre guitarist in a corner wrestles with "La Vie en Rose." Abbott has been known to strike a healthy respect, if not terror, in the hearts of performers. Once, when an indulgent method actress asked him, "What's my motivation here?," Abbott shot back, "Your salary." At a recent "On Your Toes" rehearsal, he killed a joke in the script by telling the actor who couldn't get it right, "Well, you've just lost that line to infinity." But over veal scallopini, he seems more a cross between the Pepperidge Farm man and a benevolent small-town banker. He once said his IQ probably wasn't worth a damn, but he figures, after 95 years, that he knows himself. That knowledge registers as a kind of unassuming wisdom. The spines are merely protective. Under the cactus crust is a gentle sweetness.
"I'm very philosophical about the hoopla and the folly of a career," he is saying. "I've always had great contempt for the people who worry about their billing or the size of their print. God, there are so many phonies in this business. So many greedy people. I never thought all that much about my career. I just know that the theater always seemed fun to me and I was glad to be able to make a living that way. But I would have been just as happy to do it for nothing.
"The most important thing is not to take life too seriously. It's sound and fury signifying nothing. That's Shakespeare again. I've always figured you're going to have just as much fun, however you slice it. So you shouldn't be eaten up by petty emotions, such as jealousy or envy or suspicion. Jealousy, I think that's poisonous. And the next thing is, you might as well learn to live a life that's good for you as one that's bad. You ought to have enough sense to know that if you stay up until 4 a.m. drinking you'll feel rotten the next day. It's just as easy not to get heavy. Eat a little less. You ought to know that too much sugar is bad for you and not cultivate an oversweet taste. Now I'd like one of those strawberry tart things over there for dessert. But you know what I'll take? The fresh fruit. Not as much sugar. I always do that. Unconsciously. I've tried to be a clean liver. I had a drunkard father, so I never tasted wine until I was past 40."
Abbott prides himself on his "optimistic nature," which doesn't discount the foibles of mankind as much as it refuses to be upset by them. "When I was young and had to work as a house painter for a while, I imagined myself owning a great house-painting business. That's the way I am. I probably could have made a good lawyer. My mother wanted me to. But whenever I saw a show, I thought that I could direct it better. Always felt I knew how to improve things. Except for some of this modern theater -- 'Company' or 'Evita.' I admire that, but I wouldn't know how the hell to do it. I guess I'm too old-fashioned.
"The point is, I've always got some job going. I've written some novels. One of them got published recently, 'Tryout.' Not a success. Damned if I was going to go out and sign autographs or whatever it is you have to do to get your book read. But it didn't get a good press. Got reviewed at least, which most novels don't. If anyone comes to me and asks me to me to adapt something for the theater, I'll sit right down and do it and then find out afterwards they haven't got the money to produce it. You see, I think work is the greatest fun in the world. I literally do."
Abbott still makes a face when he recalls his childhood near Buffalo ("worst climate in the world"). So "a couple of decades ago," he migrated to Florida. ("I've never had much of a memory, so when anyone asks me when something happened, I usually say, 'Oh, a couple of decades ago.' ") He considers Miami Beach "pretty square," although to his mind the influx of Cubans has made the area more interesting than it once was. And there's the sun. A lot of Abbott's time is spent at an exclusive country club -- not because there's even a whiff of the snob about him, but because the limited membership is a virtual guarantee that he won't have to wait to get out on the links. Abbott's abiding vice is his impatience.
"It's not too convenient for entertaining, though," he says. "I've got a couple of Jewish friends, and they're not admitted. And I've got some lesbian friends. They're not admitted. One of my best friends is a doctor, but he's not allowed in, either, because he's an abortionist."
Abbott chuckles. Then he pushes himself back from his plate and wipes his chops with a napkin.
"I'll tell you, ballroom dancing is one of the things I've enjoyed inordinately in my life. Used to go to Cuba just to get the good dancing over there. I have a couple of old Cuban friends. One girl--gosh, she tells me she was 18 when she first went out with me. Now she's a plump little old lady. She's changed so much that I can't see any resemblance to the person I knew back then. But she tells me things we did when we were young, so I must have known her then. 'Course I've changed, too. Anyway, we go out dancing to some of the Cuban joints in Miami. Most places have only the most obvious kind of music. But Cuban dancing is very interesting. Those African rhythms are quite a challenge to the Yankee ear."
What with his golf clubs and the rhumba, the sunshine and the theater, it would appear that George Abbott is perfectly content with his life and times. "Well, I am a little worried about herpes," he admits.
ABBOTT HAS directed just about every kind of play, but his knack for snappy, up-tempo pacing and his succinct sense of humor have found their greatest employment in musicals and farces. Long before Broadway spawned its current crop of signature directors -- Prince, Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune -- who leave their mark on a show like a branding iron, Abbott was known for "the Abbott touch." It has come to be synonymous with a zesty staging that another age called "madcap."
"Oh, the terms people make up," he says. "One thing it isn't is hell-blazes speed. I saw a revival of 'Three Men on a Horse' down in Miami about three years ago. Well, I guess they were trying to duplicate the 'Abbott touch' and they were racing through the thing, making no sense whatsoever and mugging all over the place. Everything I hate. It's not a matter of velocity. What seems fast is just variety. It's keeping a show interesting by cutting out the dead wood.
"I hate reading about myself that I love the socko one-liner at the end of a scene. Not true at all. I hate gags and pies in the face -- that sort of thing. The people have to be real to make their predicament real. Clarity and motive -- those are the key words."
He pauses. "I guess I can tell you this. Rodgers and Hart asked me if I'd like to write 'On Your Toes' with them and direct it. We had a date to go into rehearsal, but they kept postponing it. I lived in Florida then, as I do now, and I said, 'Look, I'm going down to Palm Beach. Get someone else to direct.' Off I went. And the show went on without me.
"Then one day Dick Rodgers called me up from Boston and said, 'We're in trouble. You've got to come up here and help.' I said, 'Look, I was there. I waited. I've done my part.' And he said, 'That doesn't make any difference. You have a responsibility as coauthor.'
"So I went up to Boston, took a look at the show and knew what was wrong right away. Dick and Larry asked me, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Boys, there's nothing to talk about. Let's get some girls and go dancing.' And we did. I didn't say a word about the show, but I knew what to do. This director Worthington Minor had monkeyed with the story. The audience didn't know what the hell it was about. So the next day I went back and fixed it. All I did was restore my script."
Abbott is short on memories of Rodgers ("He was a businessman, hid completely his romantic nature, which was responsible for his music"). But he warms at the mention of Hart. "He was a gypsy and a complete drunkard, of course. He used to get drunk and sleep the night in alleys. But he was such a sweetheart. He hated swank, what passed for cafe' society, and he had the tongue in the cheek. Sometimes I think about him and wish I'd been nicer to him. Because I was very intolerant when he'd come in late and not do his work. I don't like to tell people what my favorite show is -- that's the cliche' thing -- but I'll tell you my favorite song -- 'Falling in Love with Love' from "The Boys from Syracuse" . I don't think anyone was better at writing lyrics than Larry Hart."
It does seem appropriate to ask Abbott what he thinks -- 46 years after the fact -- of "On Your Toes." He rumples up his brow. "Not quite as bad as other shows of that period. The Gershwin shows -- they've got some of the worst books you ever saw. Just terrible. Or if you go back further to 'The Red Mill,' you just can't believe it. You'd think a high school student could do better. Actually, 'On Your Toes' was one of the first musicals that integrated the book and the music. Oh, I know they usually say it was 'Oklahoma.' But this one had two ballets written right into the story. I'll admit that when I went back to it for this revival, some of it looked kind of old-fashioned to me. Balanchine is old and I'm older still. But I think we've both stayed young enough for this show to look old to us. So I've rewritten it drastically. Made changes here and there. And I think I've done a good job of it."
SLAP, SLAP, slap. Abbott is heading back to his hotel. "Did you ever experience a colon X-ray?," he asks. "I wanted to make sure I was in good condition for these rehearsals, so the doctors decided to give me that. You have to wear one of those crepe paper smocks that keeps coming undone in the back, which is where they want it to come undone. Damndest humiliating thing you ever experienced in your life." He supplies the details with some relish.
For his momentary humiliation, the doctors gave him a clean bill of health. "That's number one. Without your health you're nothing," Abbott says. Not too long ago, he broke his arm, but once it mended, he was right back on the golf course. His handicap has shot up to 36 -- "about as bad you can get" -- but for Abbott it's how you play that counts. "I'm very juvenile about sports. Always loved games.
"Down in Miami Beach I'm surrounded by people who say they have nothing to do. Don't understand it at all. Every day, I wake up thinking what I'm going to accomplish. Maybe write some letters. Maybe make one of the fruit trees grow a little better. I've got oranges and papayas, limes and bananas. You know, I'm giving up my oranges and my golf to direct this show, so I really have to want to do it. I guess I've never considered myself in retirement."
Has religion ever lent him a helping hand on the way to his grand old age? Abbott snorts. "No, I can't say that I understand how people think anything they say, any genuflections they might make, can affect the course of life. People can pray to make themselves better, but that's more like meditation. I'm absolutely baffled at people who swallow liberally any dogma."
So what parting nugget of advice can he pluck from his remarkable life and productive career?
"Have fun," says Abbott, "And go home when you're tired." With that -- slap, slap, slap -- he disappears into the lobby of his hotel. CAPTION: Picture 1, George Abbott; Natalia Makarova and Dina Merrill rehearsing for "On Your Toes"; Copyright (c) by Bert Andrews; illustration by Allen Carroll for The Washington Post; Picture 2, George Balanchine and George Abbott; Copyright (c) byBert Andrews