Eighteen months after theaters around the country shut down, Jerry Zaks is back doing exactly what he was the moment things went dark: rehearsing his next big Broadway comedy.
One of the industry’s go-to guys for laughs, the director (“Six Degrees of Separation,” “Guys and Dolls”) is getting the stage version of “Mrs. Doubtfire” up and running after the pandemic halted it just before its fourth preview. He’s also prepping for the follow-up to his starry box-office-busting staging of “Hello, Dolly!”: a buzzy revival of “The Music Man” set to star Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.
But not everything is the same as it was prior to the pandemic. Over the past year and a half, the rising awareness and advocacy of the trans and gender-nonbinary communities has made the premise of “Doubtfire,” about a divorced dad who masquerades as a nanny to stay in his kids’ lives, even trickier to handle than it already was. Meanwhile, “Music Man” is moving ahead with a new producer, Kate Horton, who steps in for Scott Rudin in the wake of the widespread allegations of his workplace abuses.
For “Doubtfire,” Zaks says he and the creative team have tried to avoid causing offense by focusing on the show’s universal story of a parent who will do anything to stay close with his children. “Given all that’s happened in the world around us, we would be crazy not to be as sensitive as we can to the extent to which what we’re doing might hurt people,” he says. “We’re certainly not making fun of a man who gets into a dress.”
Meanwhile, Zaks has also kept up with “Music Man” with design discussions, check-ins with his stars and a recent two-week dance workshop. He declines to address the allegations about Rudin other than to note that while he worked very closely with the producer on “Music Man,” he now has no contact with him on the project. “When Scott said he was withdrawing, he did,” Zaks says.
The director’s workdays now balance out to about 80% “Doubtfire,” which begins previews Oct. 21 prior to a Dec. 5 opening, and 20% “Music Man,” which begins previews Dec. 20 and opens Feb. 10.
Like so many theater professionals, he says he’s just glad to be working on the thing he loves most — making people laugh.
“Comedy is forever humbling,” he says. “Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, something you thought was going to be funny doesn’t work. Then you have to figure it out all over again.” •