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Stage Struck

A funny thing happened on Tony winner Jerry Zak's way to med school: he became a Broadway director.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

He has won four Tony Awards as the best director on Broadway. The New York Times has called him the outstanding director of comedy in the American theater today. He is Jerry Zaks, and he is sitting in his Manhattan office on West 44th Street above the St. James Theater, home (until January) of his long-running hit revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, talking about why he loves what he does.

"Something happens to me in the theater when what's happening on-stage is really good," he says, leaning forward in his chair to emphasize his point. "It's a kind of communal, shared ecstatic experience--whether we all scream when the bad guy leaps out of the darkness and we think it's murder, or we all laugh so hard we don't know if we can stop, or we get so involved with someone's loss, we fall in love with the character and what they're going through hurts us so much that we cry. It's a kind of magic, and I love when magic happens. And I love it even more when I'm the one at least partly responsible for weaving that spell, for making the audience laugh or scream or cry. I love being the magician."

The 51-year-old Zaks is an accomplished theater magician. Nathan Lane, who has starred for him on Broadway in Forum, Guys and Dolls and Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23d Floor, calls Zaks "the best there is," a director in the supremely talented tradition of all the great Broadway directors of the past.

In Zaks' office are four visible manifestations of that talent: statuettes representing Tonys, Broadway's highest honor, awarded him in 1986 for directing John Guare's tragicomic The House of Blue Leaves at Lincoln Center Theater, in 1989 for Ken Ludwig's delightful farce Lend Me a Tenor, in 1991 for Guare's acclaimed comedy-drama Six Degrees of Separation and in 1992 for his critically hailed revival of Frank Loesser's classic musical Guys and Dolls.

Zaks has three other Tony nominations to his credit, for the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes in 1988, for Forum in 1996 and for another long-running smash, Smokey Joe's Cafe, a smart and sassy 1995 revue of the 1950s and '60s rock-and-roll songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (among them "Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion No. 9" and "Stand By Me").

Since 1990, Zaks has held a salaried but untitled position with a major theater owner, Jujamcyn Theaters, developing plays and musicals for the company's five Broadway stages. In 1996 he directed his first movie, the critically praised Marvin's Room, starring Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Robert DeNiro.

Zaks is nothing if not intense. He approaches everything he does--most especially his craft, gathering together and assembling the many complex and varied components that make up a play or a musical--with the likable enthusiasm of a young boy gluing together a model airplane. Indeed, his smiling face and the cheerful, twinkling eyes under his dark, thin oval glasses reveal the youthful joy and excitement of a man happy with his life and the choices he has made. He is thin and trim for his age, and as he sits and talks about his career it takes only a little imagination to change his carefully combed curly salt and pepper hair--with the emphasis on the salt--back to pure pepper to see the teenager from which the successful adult grew.

"It's impossible to overstate the pleasure I get when an audience is driven crazy by a show I've directed," he says. "I love being in control of all the pieces. I love orchestrating the pieces with my collaborators. When the play works in the way it was intended to work, so that when the lights go down at the end you hear a roar of approval from the audience, there's a satisfaction beyond words."

To get to that point, he says, is both hard work and great fun.

"I love working with the actors, right from the beginning," he says. "My job is real basic. On the first day of rehearsal, what I'm presented with is the acting equivalent of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin and a nut like Dennis Rodman. I've got all those highly talented individuals, and now they have to become a team. And making them a team is what I do."

Becoming an ensemble is "a very delicate process," he says. "Everyone gives great lip service to it. But doing it is another thing." He gives actors great leeway, he says--up to a point. "I tell them when something's not working, when it could be working better and why it's not working. Maybe it's the tone, maybe it's in the actors' attitude to each other. And I could be wrong. I'm wrong many times. But the actors have to be willing to trust me. What I do is I throw out ideas--good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. They'll adopt the good ones and discard the bad ones and the indifferent ones. And they will come up with things on their own, amazing things, that I never would have expected. And together we'll make our way to opening night."

Zaks' own opening night was on Sept. 7, 1946, in Stuttgart, Germany. "My parents were Polish," he says. "They had come through the war. My mother was in Auschwitz for a year; my father had changed his identity and managed to escape. And then they were reunited."

The family emigrated to the United States in 1948, settling first in the Bronx and soon after in East Paterson, New Jersey, where Zaks grew up with no interest in the theater.

"My father opened a kosher butcher shop, just as his father before him," Zaks recalls. "I went to Paterson East Side High School, and I basically didn't know that theater existed. I was the first-born son, precious, overprotected, encouraged to excel in school. I was smart, I was nonathletic. My only vice was '50s music, which I would steal away and perform by myself in the basement, singing into a mirror over my father's bar, all the songs in Smokey Joe's Cafe. I was Ben E. King. I was the Coasters. That was my joy."

His pain, he says, was the pain of many other children of parents who survived Hitler. "My parents didn't talk about their Holocaust experiences, so the mystery of it was huge in my mind," says Zaks. "But I was made to believe that the world was an incredibly hostile place, that people are essentially out to get you. The message was to be careful whom you trust, if you trust anyone. And that you as a Jewish person have reason to be afraid. I don't know if there's a direct connection between that and the fact that my greatest terror is fear of boring an audience, that they'll get up en masse and ask who is responsible for this, but I suspect there's a connection between my upbringing and the fact that I have an incredible need to be liked by everyone. The feeling is I need to please people to protect myself, so they won't attack me. And that kind of perception, from the earliest days of childhood, dies very hard."

College changed his life. "I went to Dartmouth, which is really where everything in my life began," he says. "I divide my life pre-Dartmouth and post-Dartmouth. I finally left the family, went out into the larger world. And I discovered theater. Two things happened in my sophomore year. I was asked to act in an intrafraternity play, and I found that I loved performing. I was scared by it, but I loved it. And then shortly after that I saw the college's winter carnival student musical. It was Wonderful Town. It was the first musical I had ever seen. And I couldn't believe it--the lights, the music, the joy that was being spread. From then on I was hooked. I gave up the notion of being a premed student. I tried out for every play I possibly could. I got parts in all of them and started acting."

Zaks wound up getting a master of fine arts degree in theater at Smith College, where he lost 40 pounds, began dancing and met a theater director named Curt Dempster. He moved to New York, became a founding member with Dempster of the Off Off Broadway Ensemble Studio Theater and spent most of the next decade acting on and off Broadway and in commercials. He appeared in the Broadway revue Tintypes, in a score of children's productions for Theaterworks U.S.A. and as Kenickie in the long-running original Broadway production of the musical Grease. The more he performed, the more he wanted to direct.

"I was an OK actor," he says, "good but nowhere near great. And in directing, I could work with actors who could do things I could never imagine. Even in Grease, the wanna-be director in me was starting to come to the surface. I would start giving notes to replacements on their performance--something I would fire myself for today. Any director would consider it unacceptable behavior for an actor--but I couldn't help taking that responsibility for myself."

In the late 1970s, a fellow member of Ensemble Studio Theater suggested he direct a play, unknown then and unknown now--The Soft Touch, by Neil Cuthbert. "We did four performances. It wasn't even publicized. But the place was packed--and the sound of laughter was huge. I was hooked."

Soon after, as part of Ensemble Studio's marathon of new plays, Zaks read a one-act play called Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, a comedy about an aging religion teacher conducting an assembly in the auditorium of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows School. The author was Christopher Durang, a young playwright he had met several years earlier at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. "I remember finishing it and wanting to burn all the other copies so no one else could get it before me," Zaks says. He directed the play at Ensemble Studio, then at the Off Broadway Playwrights Horizons and finally for a long and successful off-Broadway run. Slowly, he was becoming noticed.

Zaks directed several other Durang plays at Playwrights Horizons--and then in 1985 a call came from Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten, who were bringing Lincoln Center Theater back to life after several years of darkness. "They asked me to direct John Guare's House of Blue Leaves, " Zaks recalls. The play--set in Sunnyside, Queens, in 1965, on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York, and featuring a zookeeper and his wife, Bananas--had first been performed in 1971, and by coincidence Zaks had directed it a couple of summers earlier as a guest artist at Dartmouth. "I had fallen in love with the play," he says. "I said 'yes' right away."

The tragi-comedy starred Swoosie Kurtz and John Mahoney (better known now as Frasier's father on the television sit-com of the same name), and it was an immediate hit. The play moved from Lincoln Center to Broadway, and provided Zaks with his first Tony. Then came a successful revival of The Front Page and, also at Lincoln Center, his acclaimed production of Anything Goes, starring Patti LuPone. And the successes kept on coming--both revivals and original plays: Lend Me a Tenor. Six Degrees. Guys and Dolls. Smokey Joe's and Forum.

Such a scorecard is not easy to obtain, especially when many of the entries are revivals of shows whose originals are legends in theatergoers' minds. The pressure of mounting new productions of shows like Guys and Dolls and Forum, with the natural and automatic comparisons to the classic performances of Sam Levene and Zero Mostel, are enormous. But Zaks has done it.

"I try not to think about it," he says. "I guess it's a case on my part of arrogance of the first order, but it's the only way I can do it. I just assume that if I really love what I'm working on, there's no reason I can't make it work. Of course, sometimes I've been proven wrong, but if you don't feel that way you can't attack the work with the kind of gusto it demands."

The difficulties of working with actors are also well known, and theatrical tales of director-actor flare-ups are legion. But, with a few exceptions, Zaks says he has been lucky. With some actors, notably Nathan Lane, the trust and teamwork have been palpable from the start, he says. "I think we have great respect for each other's ability to think funny, to make funny, to craft funny," Zaks says. "We depend on each other and love each other's sensibility and company. Nathan can take a moment and run with it and turn it into a whole comic interlude. He can come in and do something you never expected that's twice as funny as you ever imagined it could be."

Lane's replacement in Forum, Whoopi Goldberg, is the same kind of performer, Zaks says. "First of all, she's the best in terms of her approach to the work, how seriously she takes things, how willing she was to trust me. The audience loves her, and it's easy to understand why. When she came aboard, she would try new things. Some I loved, but some I wasn't sure of. But she really proved me wrong."

With some performers, however, things have not been so pleasurable. Such was the case, he says, in the making of Marvin's Room, his first movie. "I thought I was going to die," he says. "It was really difficult. I was coming from a world where I'm supremely confident, where I can do what I need to do and get it done, and where I feel the trust of practically everyone I work with--or if I'm not getting it right away I get it very quickly. But on Marvin's Room I was thrust into a situation that was brand new, where the vocabulary, the entire language, the process of translating what was on the page into its final form was very different.

"If you are rehearsing a play, the actors and I begin work, we go home, we think about it, you come in the next day, you try something new. Maybe something I said the day before sinks in and works, it's a great idea, and we work on it and make it even better, or we find out it's a terrible idea, and we laugh and throw it out, and we continue in that way until opening night, and we present this finished thing. In the theater, the actors are together all the time, building this team I was talking about. In film, the actors are rarely together at the same time. They come in in the morning, we more or less rehearse the scene, you use stand-ins for lighting, the actors go away to get made up or fitted for costumes, and then you shoot and it's already opening night. The scene is filmed, and that's that. It took a while to get used to that."

It also took a while, he says, "to get used to having to persuade the actors to make adjustments, to letting them do it their way for take after take--and if it was perfect, not saying anything, but if it was not even close to perfect dealing with the fact that sometimes they didn't believe me. And I take it all very personally."

It was particularly hard, he says, with Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton, the co-stars of the movie based on the 1991 off-Broadway play by Scott McPherson about two estranged sisters who are reunited when one finds out she is very sick. "I think it took a while for them to trust me," Zaks says. "I don't blame them. I was not feeling very confident. They're very smart. They're very talented. They're very perceptive. They could feel my uncertainty, and they must have felt, Why should they trust me? It was, after all, my first film. And I guess that made sense--except when it came down to specific decisions about how a scene was being played, when if I didn't have the cooperation of one of them, it made the going really tough. I had to figure out how to get their cooperation, and I did. But I had to do uncharacteristic things, like telling everybody to leave, emptying the set and saying to whoever it was: 'What are we going to do? I will not move on from this unless you do it my way. If you cannot make this scene be about reassuring your sister, in spite of the fact that you just heard the worst news of your life, then we will not cry. And the audience must cry.' That's not the way I usually deal with actors. And that was not the rule on the set. That was just every other day."

He laughs. Enough criticism. "On the other hand," he says, "there were actors on the set, Robert DeNiro and Gwen Verdon and Leonardo DiCaprio, who would have done anything, who would have tried anything, who worked as a team from the start--who didn't have a vested interest in being smarter than me."

In the end, though, he says, the family became a happy one. "I think everyone in the movie was proud of it and proud of their performances. Diane was grateful for the collaboration, and Meryl was, too."

He says he would like to do another movie--"as long as the material is good and I get a chance to get better at it. Though I must admit that when I was in the middle of Marvin's Room, if you had asked me that question I would have laughed in your face."

When he is not in a theater or on a movie set, Zaks can often be found on a golf course. He is an inveterate duffer. "Golf is a little like directing," he says. "Every situation is different. You think your experience with the first 15 minutes of a play or the first 15 holes on the course has prepared you for the next one. But it hasn't. And you have to deal with it. You have to ask yourself if you're a big fraud for even thinking you ever knew anything about it--the theater or the game. And you say, 'Why am I wasting my time hitting this stupid little ball?' But you go on."

Just as he loves the collaboration of the theater, he says, he loves the camaraderie on the golf course. "When I play with friends the laughs are so intense. I love the idea, the challenge, of having to stay focused, of playing a game that punishes you over and over for working much harder than you need to work. I shoot in the 90s, with the feeling that with a little bit more finesse or concentration I should be shooting in the 80s. It's such a hard game. Like directing."

One thing he loves to do on a golf course is smoke a cigar. "It probably ruins my game," he says. "I'm more worried about losing my cigar than about hitting the ball properly. Which is not good. But there's something about being on a golf course with a couple of friends and lighting up a cigar that can't be beat."

He is a recent but enthusiastic convert to the world of the big smoke. "It gives me so much comfort," he says. "It started barely six months ago. I was in London directing Smokey Joe's Cafe, and I was wandering through a fashionable department store with a friend when I came upon the cigar department. I tried one--a Romeo y Julieta--and really enjoyed it. From that moment on I became a regular at the London cigar shops and began trying all their Cuban cigars."

Havanas are his cigar of choice. "I don't enjoy smoking anything that isn't a Cuban; there's just something heavier, more substantial, about the way they taste, the way they burn. The intense flavor, the spices, the hint of coffee or chocolate or whatever, just comes through better. You really feel like you're smoking a cigar. And I think there's a psychological lift in knowing you're smoking something that comes from the place that does it best."

Among the Havanas, he prefers Cohiba Robustos. "I love the robusto shape. And they're really the state of the art. Though I also enjoy the H. Upmann Connoisseur No. 1 and the Bolivar Royal Corona, and lately I've been trying and liking the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, which is a little fuller."

For Zaks, smoking a cigar is "like being with a friend. I love one at the end of the day, about 10:30 at night, when the kids are asleep. I just go outside my building and wander up and down the block." He and his wife, Jill, live on Manhattan's Upper West Side with their daughters, Emma, 15, and Hannah, 9. "And I enjoy having a cigar in my hand when I'm sitting here in my office reading a script. And letting it go out and then relighting it. I smoke them right down to the end. They've become a part of me."

The scripts he is reading include his next planned sojourn on Broadway--a musical version of George S. Kaufman's and Edna Ferber's renowned play The Royal Family, a 1927 paean to the Barrymore family and the glorious life of the theater and theater folk. The composer is William Finn, whose credits include the hit musical Falsettos; the librettist is Richard Greenberg, whose play Eastern Standard was an off-Broadway success several years ago. The production is scheduled to open this fall. In the meantime, Zaks is getting ready to direct the American premiere of The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play by Martin McDonagh, which will debut this spring at the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

Regardless of the project, he always seems to have his hands full. The theater, after all, is what Jerry Zaks does, what he loves, what he is all about.

"It has just given me such joy," he says. "I'm talking about palpable happiness. I love a good story. I love when time stops. When a play is good, that's what happens--you lose all sense of time, of it endlessly speeding by. Your attention is taken off yourself and put onto something else; you get lost in the reality of what is happening on-stage."

He ponders. "And I guess that for me it's also the idea of having an effect on people. When you grow up, as many of us do, wondering whether you have an effect or not, questioning your own sense of self-worth, and you see that by virtue of the theater you do have an effect on people, it makes you feel...well, I once said that it makes you feel like the world's greatest lover. And it does. That roar of the audience--when it happens it's like 1,200 people saying to you simultaneously, 'Thank you, we needed that.'"

But, he says, it's even more than that. "The great director George Abbott lived to 107," Zaks says. "And I can see why he lived a long life. Because what he did--and what I do--when it comes down to it, is just a lot of fun."

Mervyn Rothstein is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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