George Abbott, 107, the quick-pacing perfectionist whose career as actor, author, director and producer of Broadway shows and movies spanned nine decades and who, with collaborators ranging from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to Garson Kanin, Leonard Bernstein, Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim arguably defined a century of American popular theater, died Jan. 31 of a stroke at his home in Miami Beach, Fla.
In tribute, all the lights on Broadway were dimmed for one minute, beginning at 8 p.m., on Feb. 1. to honor the man who, for most of the century, embodied the district.
A fitting encomium was delivered by director Harold Prince, one of Abbott’s best-known proteges.
“It’s impossible to believe that George Abbott is no longer alive,” Prince said from Paris in a prepared statement. “He enjoyed the longest, most productive and probably most celebrated life in the American theater.”
Among the shows Abbott produced, directed and usually co-authored were Rodgers & Hart’s “Jumbo,” “Boy Meets Girl,” “On Your Toes,” “The Boys From Syracuse” and the groundbreaking “Pal Joey.”
Moving from the 1930s into the ’40s, Abbott produced and directed the work of a quartet of newcomers – the lyric-writing team of Betty Comden & Adolph Green, composer Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins – whose “On the Town” opened in 1944 and was followed nine years later by the Rosalind Russell starrer “Wonderful Town.”
In between, Abbott partnered with two more Broadway newcomers, composer Jule Styne, for whom he staged the hit “High Button Shoes” in 1947, and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, for whom he wrote and directed “Where’s Charley?,” which also clicked, in 1948. Abbott staged Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam” in 1950, starring Ethel Merman, with dances by Robbins.
Indeed, for decades Abbott’s Times Square office was Mecca for Broadway’s most talented newcomers, including, in the ’50s, dancer-turned-choreographer Bob Fosse, producer Robert E. Griffith and Harold Prince, who, first as Abbott’s partner and then as an independent, would produce some of the most important musical hits of the ’50s and ’60s.
Prince became one of the most successful directors of contemporary musicals, from the ’70s through the present, using and expanding on techniques he learned from Abbott.
Griffith and Prince began their careers as stage managers in the Abbott office. Their first collaborations included two Richard Adler-Jerry Ross tuners, “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees.”
For “The Pajama Game” (1954), Abbott co-wrote with Richard Bissell and co-staged with Robbins. The show, jointly produced by Prince and Griffith with Frederick Brisson, marked Fosse’s debut as choreographer. A year later, the same team struck gold again with “Damn Yankees,” which made a star of dancer Gwen Verdon.
Prince said his mentor had encouraged “more careers among directors, choreographers, producers, actors and designers than anyone in Broadway history. As one of them, I couldn’t be more grateful, and clearly, it’s inadequate to say I’ll miss him.”
Abbott, whose career as a film director began in 1929 with “Why Bring That Up?,” produced, wrote and co-directed with Stanley Donen the successful film versions of “Pajama Game” (1957) and “Damn Yankees” (1958).
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Abbott worked with composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick as director and co-librettist, notably of “Fiorello!” (1959), produced by Griffith and Prince, and “Never Too Late,” the hit Sumner Arthur Long comedy that featured Bock and Harnick’s music. Prince picked up where Abbott left off with the team, directing and producing “She Loves Me” (1963) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964).
In 1962, Abbott staged “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which marked Sondheim’s debut as composer and lyricist and starred Zero Mostel. In 1965, Abbott co-wrote the book for and directed John Kander & Fred Ebb’s Broadway debut, “Flora, the Red Menace,” with Prince producing; that show featured Liza Minnelli’s Broadway debut.
Abbott shared a Pulitzer Prize for “Fiorello!” and won seven Tonys; he surely would have won more had the awards been inaugurated before his career was half over. The Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers’ top achievement award is named in his honor, and he was its first recipient.
Known universally as Mr. Abbott because of the frugal, no-nonsense style and the jacket-and-tie rectitude that gave him a formal air in an informal industry, George Francis Abbott was born on June 25,1887, in upstate Forestville, NY. As a graduate student he learned the craft of playwriting in George Pierce Baker’s famous workshop at Harvard University.
Abbott made his Broadway debut in November 1913, playing a small role in a nowforgotten screwball comedy, “The Misleading Lady.” He continued acting while developing his writing skills, and in 1925 co-wrote his first two Broadway plays: “The Fall Guy,” with James Gleason, and “A Holy Terror,” with Winchell Smith.
But it was “Broadway,” a dark, pre-Runyonesque melodrama about the intersection of Broadway and Gangsterland, that launched Abbott’s spectacular career. With Jed Harris producing a script that had been turned down by everyone else in town, “Broadway” opened in 1926 at the Broadhurst and grossed a phenomenal $2 million before it closed; Abbott co-wrote and co-directed with Philip Dunning.
In 1927, Harris replaced George Cukor with Abbott as director of “Coquette,” which he and Ann P. Bridgers had written as a vehicle for Helen Hayes.
Hit followed hit: Abbott staged “Twentieth Century” in 1932 and co-wrote and directed “Three Men on a Horse” in 1935. Easily his biggest directing assignment ever was Billy Rose’s production of the circus extravaganza “Jumbo,” which reopened the enormous Hippodrome, starred Jimmy Durante, and began Abbott’s extraordinary relationship with Rodgers & Hart.
The relationship hit its peak in 1940 with “Pal Joey,” based on John O’Hara’s stories. With Gene Kelly in the title role, it was the first Broadway musical comedy to feature an unsympathetic scoundrel as the leading character.
An imposingly tall and graceful figure, Abbott had little patience for philosophizing or navel-gazing. In rehearsal, he got a show up on its feet quickly and spent most of the period polishing the blocking. Most of the director’s work, he felt, was in casting choices.
A master of comic structure, he was nearly as famous as a play doctor on other people’s shows as a presenter of his own. A play or musical under Mr. Abbott’s aegis moved with snap cinematic efficiency.
The formality did not extend beyond the theater, where Abbott was very much the lady’s man. Avid dancers, he and Prince often flew down to Havana, spending weekends tripping the light fantastic in the clubs there. On opening nights, Abbott was more likely to be found on a nightclub dance floor than fretting over the reviews.
And in a business whose medieval economics often hide financial shenanigans, Abbott’s ethics and fairness were legendary.
“I didn’t like producing, never liked it,” he once said. “Directing, writing, acting I loved, but I never liked deciding who got which dressing room.”
Notwithstanding a lifelong passion for tennis and, later, golf, Abbott never stopped working. He staged a 1987 revival of “Broadway” that opened on Broadway on his 100th birthday and closed after four performances. Earlier in the decade, however, he had staged a major revival of Rodgers & Hart’s “On Your Toes,” starring Natalia Makarova, that was a hit.
Though Abbott decried the rising costs of Broadway, he was an unabashedly commercial producer. Asked when business took over the theater, he replied, “Way back in 1601. Shakespeare said, ‘Let’s move it to a larger theater.'”
Most recently, he advised director Jack O’Brien on revisions of the book for “Damn Yankees,” which opened last spring and is currently on hiatus before a Feb. 28 re-opening to mark Jerry Lewis’ Broadway debut. Looking frail but ever game, Abbott was paid a warm tribute during last June’s nationally televised Tony Awards ceremony.
Abbott’s film directing credits include “Half Way to Heaven” (1929); “The Sea God” (1930); “Stolen Heaven” (1931); “Secrets of a Secretary,” “My Sin” and “The Cheat” (1931); and “Too Many Girls” (1940), which he also produced. Other producing credits include “Boy Meets Girl” and “Room Service” (1938); and “Primrose Path” (1940).
Films for which Abbott was the original author included “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” (1926); “Four Walls” (1928); “Coquette,” “The Saturday Night Kid” and “Broadway” (1929); “Lilly Turner” (1933); “Heat Lightning” and “Straight Is the Way” (1934); “Three Men on a Horse” (1936); “On Your Toes” (1939); “The Boys From Syracuse” (1940); “Highway West” (1941); “Broadway” (1942); “The Pajama Game” (1957); and “Damn Yankees” (1958).
His memoir, “Mr. Abbott,” was published in 1963.
Survived by his third wife, Joy. His funeral will be private, but a public memorial service is being planned.