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George Abbott's 'touch' brought life to dozens of Broadway plays

Theater lore has it that George Abbott, the legendary director, playwright, producer and actor who died Tuesday at age 107, was once asked by an actor, "What's my motivation?"

Mr. Abbott replied, "Your job."

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In an interview shortly before his 100th birthday, Mr. Abbott insisted the story was apocryphal. "I don't think I'd do that. I'm very tactful with actors. I've been an actor. I don't want to humiliate them -- I want to work with them."

Mr. Abbott spoke from Cleveland, where he was directing a revival of his first major hit, "Broadway," more than 60 years after its debut. The show's title was both prescient and appropriate for an early work of someone who would later be called "The Man who Invented Broadway," "The Dean of Broadway Showmen," and "The Most Celebrated Theater Man of This Century."

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Mostly, though, he was known simply as "Mr. Abbott."

The 6-foot-3 showman, who worked as a cowboy and in a steel mill before turning to theater, claimed not to understand why even his closest associates chose to address him with such formali- ty. But in 1963, when he wrote his autobiography summing up his first 50 years in the theater, he titled the book "Mister Abbott."

When the book was published, its author's name was already associated with more than 100 shows, including "The Boys from Syracuse" (1938), "Wonderful Town" (1953), "The Pajama Game" "Damn Yankees" (1955), "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962) and "Fiorello!" (1960), which won him a Pulitzer Prize. In the 1930s, he routinely had two or three shows running on Broadway simultaneously, many of which tried out in Baltimore -- one of his favorite tryout towns.

But impressive as these lists and numbers may be, it's the approach that Mr. Abbott brought to these shows for which he will be remembered. His directorial style came to be known as "the Abbott touch."

Usually characterized as speed, pep, fast entrances and exits, the "touch," according to the master himself, was more accurately defined as "timing. It's keeping the show interesting. Sometimes writing can be as much of it as directing."

Indeed, in the same interview, Mr. Abbott reiterated that storytelling is at the core of good playwriting. "I think many plays fail because the story is not told properly," he said. "You must tell the story so that it's interesting all the way through. I've seen so many plays bore the audience because the story is muddy."

In addition to these stylistic approaches, Mr. Abbott revolutionized the practice of auditions.

"I think I invented the reading of actors to determine whether they were right for the part. When I first went into the theater you didn't do that," he said, explaining that actors used to be hired on the basis of interviews. "Then you went into rehearsal, and if you weren't right, they changed you. By reading the actors first, you make fewer mistakes. It's very trying on the actors to stand up and read a strange part, but it saves a lot of changing later."

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This practice is probably one reason he was so successful working with young unknowns -- although under his tutelage many did not remain unknown for long, including Shirley MacLaine, Carol Burnett, Gene Kelly, Garson Kanin, Harold nTC Prince and Bob Fosse.

Before Mr. Abbott's 100th birthday, Prince -- who shared an office with him for five decades -- said the most important thing he learned from his mentor was "an attitude toward working in the theater, which is to say discipline, no nonsense, little tolerance of histrionic indulgences, a pragmatic approach to solving problems -- and truth, underlined."

In keeping with this, Mr. Abbott had a reputation for being shy and laconic. Over the phone, he was cheerful and polite, if somewhat reserved. Most of all, he was modest.

Asked how he'd like to be remembered, Mr. Abbott initially replied, "I don't think anybody's going to worry about remembering me." Then he added, "I'd like to be remembered as a decent person. That's part of it -- fair to people in the theater."

Last June's Tony Awards included a tribute to Mr. Abbott, who won five Tonys during the course of his career. At the start of the telecast, he made an appearance and spoke the words that were his last heard by a wide audience. They were, fittingly: "On with the show!"


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