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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."

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