by Ellis Nassour

    Smoke he must. Big, awful smelling cigars! But even multi-Tony and Drama Desk winning director Jerry Zaks abides by New York's strict smoking regs. He can't smoke his favored stogies in his Jujamcyn Theatre office high atop the St. James Theatre, so for this interview, we crawl out a former window onto a unique Theatre District patio. Even during the long hours of rehearsals, he only smokes during breaks. So it's not unusual to find the director on Theatrical District sidewalks sending smoke rings into the strata.

    [On December 8, Zaks and Drama Desk Award-winning Tovah Feldshuh [Golda's Balcony] will be honored with Tree of Life Awards by the Jewish National Fund in a star-studded event. For details, see below.]

    Though he has nothing to do with the revival of Wonderful Town, Zaks, who's represented on Broadway by the revival of Little Shop of Horrors, says that the musical holds a special place in his heart.

    "Seeing a production my Sophomore year [1964] at Dartmouth was what drew me into theater," explains the German-born son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the States from Stuggart. Ironically, he was pre-med -- even working in a Hanover, NH hospital drawing blood! -- with absolutely no interest in theater.

    "I was on my way, then Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Leonard Bernstein changed my life." So much so that he auditioned when Dartmouth revived it the following Spring. "And I got a part."

    Returning his junior year, he auditioned for as many shows as he could. So Jerry Zaks could sing? "Oh, yes!" he laughs, "and dance! I was in the Wonderful Town chorus, playing eight parts: Irish cop, Brazilian Navy admiral, beatniks. I'm still amazed at what a terrificl score it has."

    At the recent Encores! "Bash" concert, celebrating City Center's 60th anniversary, audiences got a sample of Zaks' hoofer past. The program presented songs from musicals revived at City Center between 1943 and 1968. As a tribute to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was responsible for creating the City Center entity, Zaks began the show with "The Name's LaGuardia" from Bock & Harnick's Fiorello!, which Zaks performed in concert in 1994. The director got off to a bumpy start, doing what every actor dreads: missing his entrance cue. But Encores! [and Wonderful Town's] musical director Rob Fisher got him back on track. He acquitted himself nicely.

    Zaks was reluctant to follow his theatrical dream because it wasn't something his family encouraged "especially when they had their hopes set on me becoming a doctor!" To them, he says, "the idea of going into theater was the waste of a good education."

    He was torn only momentarily between law school and theater. In 1967, he entered an MFA program at Smith. He participated in a Dartmouth summer theater program and got his Equity card. Arriving in New York in the Fall of 1968, he began going to open calls. He got the part of young Thomas Edison in a production by the Park Foundation [forerunner to Theaterworks, USA], where he worked for three years while studying with Curt Dempster [founder of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, of which Zaks is a founding member].

    Zaks made a living acting for ten years: On TV, in the early 70s, he had a bit on M*A*S*H; in the early 80s, a featured role on The Edge of Night, appeared in the made-for-TV Attica; in movies, such as Outrageous Fortune, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives; on Broadway and Off in Grease, the 1978 revival of Once in a Lifetime, Tintypes, Talley's Folly and Isn't It Romantic?.

    His most memorable performance? "One of my greatest thrills," he states, "was participating in the Kennedy Center tribute to James Cagney, doing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.' I was a good faker as a dancer. I moved well."

    There was a change, well, in direction when a friend came to him with a play he was to do the lead in and wondered if he'd direct it. "I read it and laughed out loud," he recalls Zaks of Soft Touch by Neil Cuthbert. "We staged it at Ensemble. Two SRO audiences roared with laughter. I was smitten with this new discipline, but went into directing reluctantly, continuing to think of myself as an actor."

    But not for long. He worked with Christopher Durang in 1981 on Beyond Therapy so, a few months later, when at the Ensemble Studios he came across Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, he was anxious to read it. Then to direct it.

    "I was fortunate to cast Elizabeth Franz, who was brilliant, as was the entire cast. It was such a success, we did it for Andre Bishop at Playwrights Horizons and then made the move to Off Broadway [on a double-bill with The Actor's Nightmare]. It was provocative, smart, fun and different. The characters were extraordinarily far out. I insisted on believable behavior between the actors: Make it real, make it real! It ran for several years and is still running some place."

    With Bishop at Lincoln Center, Zaks helmed to great acclaim John Guare's House of Blue Leaves [Tony and Drama Desk, Best Director], the revival of Cole Porter' Anything Goes [Tony and Drama Desk nominee, Best Director] and Six Degrees of Separation[Tony and Drama Desk, Best Director].

    He was firmly on the map as a sought-after director. The modest success of his Front Page revival was overshadowed by the runaway success of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me A Tenor [Tony and Drama Desk, Best Director].

    When Zaks directed [Tony and Drama Desk Awards] the 1992 revival Guys and Dolls, critics were so ecstatic that some said he had reinvented that classic musical. "They didn't know what they were talking about. I doubt if any had seen the original. Maybe the movie, which was a different ballgame, or some revival."

    Actually, Zaks attempted to reinvent it. "I wanted to present it scenically in a way that was different from the alternating 'in one' full stage sequences of the original," he explains. "But it wouldn't let me. It's written that way. The reason then was stage craft limitations. We brought modern technology to it. The look may have been colorful and different, but not a word or a piece of music was changed. It was everyone meaning what they were saying, as if it was happening for the first time and as if their lives depended on it!"

    Keeping it real, in other words -- a philosophy Zaks remains true to. In a recent interview for this column, Hunter Foster of Little Shopsaid, "It helps that the show is inherently funny and that Jerry knows how to mine humor [but] he was careful to get us to base our performances on truth as opposed to just doing shtick. With a show as loved as Little Shop, there are high audience expectations so you don't want to disappoint. There were temptations, but Jerry saw to it that we kept things reigned in. It was a constant reality check."

    There were great successes: Smokey Joe's Cafe, the Funny Thing... revival [both Tony and Drama Desk nominated, Best Director]; modest successes: Swing!, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, the 2000 Roundabout revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner; and failures: Face Value, The Civil War, Epic Proportions, the premiere of Sondheim's Assassins and 45 Seconds from Broadway.

    Who remembers the failures? It's the successes that count. And because of his, Zaks became bi-coastal, as much in demand to direct theater here as to direct TV on the West Coast. In addition to directing the highly acclaimed film Marvin's Room, he's also directed such long-running, highly-rated sitcoms as Everybody Loves Raymond and Frasier. There were failures here, too: Kristin, starring Kristin Chenoweth, and Bram and Alice, starring Alfred Molina.

    Later, in his expansive memorbilia-filled office, Zaks discussed the fundamental difference between directing theater and directing TV: "Power. That's what it comes down to. In my limited experience, the nature of the job in theater is general. Even though you are the 'general,' you actually have thousands of little jobs to do. The nature of the job in episodic TV is quite specific. You're hired on a weekly basis for a show on which the cast has been together for years. You are brought in to get the shots. If you have a suggestion the writers or actors find helpful, you can make it. I've been fortunate that they've been inclined to listen to suggestions I make, but I would never claim to be the boss. That's the show runner [who usually carries the title of executive producer]. He or she has the writers'; and actors' ears the way a director would in theater and is responsible for maintaining the thread of the storyline.

    There are exceptions. "When James Burrows [son of director/writer Abe Burrows] directs a series pilot," says Zaks, "and goes on to direct every episode, he clearly has authority and influence. Philip Rosenthal [executive producer of Everybody Loves Raymond] is a theater person and he looks at every taping as an opening night. He wants it to be as perfect as possible, so he can get that first-time, genuine audience response. As a result, they rarely, if ever, have to sweeten their shows with canned laughter."

    On the sound stage, Zaks doesn't work from a control booth, but from a podium. He views what the cameras are getting through TV monitors. He doesn't call shots but does call "Action!"; and "Cut!" He explains,"The real work's done in the editing room, where they get a show down to a running time of 22 or 44 minutes. The Raymond scripts are so meticulously crafted that they change only ten percent in the course of the production week."

    What about the myth that if you're Broadway, you're not respected in Hollywood? "I found people receptive. It helped that I had a bit of a positive reputation from my Broadway work." He adds that a little humility helped. "I made it clear to my crews that I knew very little about the camera choreography and that I'd need their help. I didn't come in and pretend to know something I didn't know."

    According to insider theater sources, Zaks is also that type of director. He appreciates feedback. "It's the best way of working," he insists. "I don't know how else to do it. I encourage my actors and team to express ideas. You never know what the source of a good idea is going to be, so it's good to protect the possibility of having as many as possible. You can be the general of the enterprise but entertain suggestions. Then you have to decide whether to use them or not."

    Zaks also has a reputation of maintaining respect among his actors. It's known that, during rehearsals, he discourages actors from commenting on the performances of peers and, as he puts it, "using another actor's performance as a reason for not being able to do what's expected of them."

    What he does, he notes, "What any director does is bring to life what's on the page. If an actor's attention is on the way to say a line, or trying to get a laugh, the audience will not get what's being said. You don't want an actor to be so busy playing a character that he forgets the situation the character's in. If the script is funny, all we have to do is breath life into it.

    "I insist that the actors mean what they say," he adds,"that they get the attention off themselves and onto the other actor. If an actor can make another actor look more important, he or she becomes more interesting to the audience. It works.You can take it to the bank."

    [On December 8, as a co-honoree with Broadway/TV/concert star Tovah Feldshuh, director Jerry Zaks will receive the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award at a gala at New York's Marriott Marquis Hotel. Lewis J. Stadlen will host. Nathan Lane, Richard Dreyfuss, Douglas Sills, composer Andrew Lippa and Kristin Chenoweth will be among those entertaining and paying tribute. For information, contact Norma Balass, 212-879-9305
    X. 502.]


    Wednesday, November 26, 2003 at 12:09 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.