Jack in the Box: Or, How to Goddamn Direct by Jack O’Brien

“I am the director,” a young man protested to Dame Edith Evans as she was giving instructions to the other cast members of a play in which she starred.

“Never mind,” she answered. “We’ll find something for you to do.”

Jack O’Brien offers this (likely apocryphal) anecdote while making  two points – that the profession of director wasn’t invented until the twentieth century, and that people still don’t know what directors do.

O’Brien says he isn’t sure either, nor can he spell out how to do it well; he believes it’s mostly a matter of instinct. But the 83-year-old veteran Broadway director promises to try to explain it anyway in Jack in the Box: Or How to Goddamn Direct (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pages) 

As it turns out, “Jack in the Box” is not anywhere near an instruction manual. The bulk of it is taken up with extensive anecdotes from his almost six-decade career that have little to do with the art of directing, stories that amount to mild celebrity takedowns (of George Abbott, Andrew Lloyd Webber) or effusive fan mash notes (to Marsha Mason, Mike Nichols.) or a combination of takedowns and mash notes (about Jerry Lewis and Neil Simon) as well as a neutral tale involving Stephen Sondheim.  Perhaps that superfluous “Goddamn” in the title is a clue, or a warning: This is not going to be a dry how-to guide; I’m going to entertain with the full flower of my personality.

One might expect “Jack in the Box” to be a sequel to O’Brien’s 2013 memoir Jack Be Nimble The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director , which focuses on his early life and the beginning of his career up to 1969. But O’Brien tells us almost nothing about his personal life, and doesn’t even mention (much less detail) any but a handful of the many shows he’s directed over the last half century. A timeline in the back of the new book offers a truly impressive list of his director credits since 1968, among them the many shows he directed at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego while serving as artistic director there from 1981 to 2007, and the more than two dozen on Broadway, including a dozen for which he received Tony Award nominations, three of which he won, for “Hairspray,” “Henry IV,” and “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy. (The timeline ends before “Shucked,” which starts previews at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater next month.)

The handful of his productions that he does write about are the most rewarding passages in the book. One chapter chronicles his experience directing two productions of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” – one with John Goodman as Falstaff at Old Globe, the other with Kevin Kline as Falstaff on Broadway.   It not only offers some tantalizing specifics about the way he works, it also features some of his strongest writing. When Kline abruptly backs out of the role, O’Brien’s first impulse is to replace him with Albert Finney, but quickly changes his mind: “All my career I had struggled to give those great roles not to British expats with a predilection for comfortably swanning about in their own pumpkin hose, but to rawboned, assiduously trained Americans who almost never were entrusted with such acting plums.” He contacts Kline directly, and learns that the actor was upset that O’Brien was planning to use the same approach he had used with Goodman, of having him first appear on stage as himself, and gradually putting on the fat suit and costume in front of the audience. O’Brien had devised this for Goodman as a way to ease the audience into accepting their beloved TV star (then in the hit series “Roseanne”) in a classical role.  But Kline, distraught, told O’Brien: “I can’t appear before an audience like myself, thin, gaunt, fucking transparent, practically, And then put on fat padding and all the rest of it: they’ll never believe me.” O’Brien saw his point, and completely redid his approach.

There is also much about his relationship with Tom Stoppard, and the challenges of directing his difficult plays: “measuring up to the vast challenge of Tom’s multifaceted imagination can be daunting, to say the least.” He offers several examples of how he went about it, including this passage about how  he approached  “Invention of Love,” with the help of his frequent collaborator, the scenic designer Bob Crowley:

“We read the play aloud to each other, alternating roles and scenes, and at the conclusion of each scene, tried to define what it was we’d just heard. Was this a romantic scene? A satiric scene? An extended metaphor? Kitchen-sink realism? What bound this disparate collection of differing dramatic encounters into a whole? Each individual scene got a “color” of Post-it affixed, to categorize what we thought we’d just experienced, and a way to possibly render it more clearly. And that’s the way we made our way through the entire intellectual thicket … pink, green, blue, white … giving us a map, courage, and an original way to look at deciphering a dramatic work that didn’t reveal itself as immediately comprehensible. The result was liberating and ravishing, with Crowley giving full bent to his extraordinary imagination.”

(This passage would have worked better if he hadn’t repeated it in two different chapters, one of several obvious mistakes that an editor should have caught.)

Most of the time, however, when he talks about his experience as a director, it’s about the politics involved, such as getting the rights or fighting the producer, rather than his artistic choices in putting a show together – which I suppose is an implicit and perhaps unintentional message about what it indeed takes to be a director. Somewhat bizarrely (perhaps out of modesty?), his most in-depth description of a production is not of any he directed but one he witnessed early in his career that inspired him, “The Tempest” by Giorgio Strehler’s Italian theater company, Piccolo Teatro di Milano.

O’Brien does try on occasion to keep to the how-to promise of the title. There are two early and relatively dry chapters, one on the importance of blocking and casting, and the other on generalities about the “tricks of the trade,” devoting a page or so each to: casting directors, first day of rehearsal, the table  read, stage directions, note sessions, “care and feeding” (the importance of showing your appreciation for the cast and crew), curtain calls (how much he likes to make them into a “final essential gesture,” as did his two mentors, Ellis Rabb and William Ball),  and the associates, about whom he writes  “In the best of cases, we don’t choose them, they choose us…Dogs are often the same…. Four dogs have convinced me of that truth, and so, now that I think about it, have at least six exceptional associates.”  If it sounds like he’s equating associates with dogs, well,  “we’re talking not only loyalty here, but also the inscrutable element of human comfort as well, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all.”

There is a chapter in which he sets out to assess his flops and what went wrong. “No one intentionally starts out to do bad work,” he writes several times, but the thrust of his error in most of these flops was in taking them on in the first place. The musical adaptation of the novel “Time and Again” had a great score but an unfixable libretto, which taught him to read the libretto before listening to even a bar of the music, so as not to be seduced by the melodies.  And he did “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” for the money, even though it had a “dangerously underbaked” libretto. He didn’t even wind up making any money. Of the producer and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, he writes ”I thoroughly enjoyed him. And he was intolerable.” He offers accounts of two contretemps with Lloyd Webber, the second of which he lifts verbatim from his journal of the time – a serious mistake, since it goes on and on and much of it is virtually incomprehensible for anybody who hasn’t memorized “Love Never Dies.” The upshot: O’Brien and most of the Americans on the creative team were fired. If only he had rewritten that long passage with the purported aim of his book in mind, it could surely have offered some solid lessons.

If “Jack in the Box” might not be a terrifically useful guide for those contemplating a professional directing career, there are enough colorful stories in it to appeal to those readers whom O’Brien describes in the book as “those dreadful people with their tickets and their unrealistic expectations and their narrowminded resistance” – in other words, theatergoers.  

The chapter about his directing  Jerry Lewis in “Damn Yankees” is both funny and poignant. O’Brien speculates that the reason the comedian, who had a reputation as a difficult egomaniac, was so relatively well-behaved both on and off stage during the Broadway  run of the show, was connected to the “withering challenge” of his deceased father.  Danny Lewis was a vaudevillian who had “genuine contempt for every other aspect of show business, dismissing his superstar son with the adage, ‘Until you play Broadway, you’re nothing.’”

One of the few stories O’Brien tells about his 26-year tenure as artistic director at the Old Globe is his elaborate effort to revive and revise the 1961 Broadway musical “Carnival,” including his successful effort to persuade the suicidally depressed songwriter Bob Merrill to give him the rights, only to have the production nixed at the last moment by the sister of the deceased librettist Michael Stewart. With the promise of the show already printed in their brochure, and their annual gala planned around it, O’Brien was up a creek.  But the very same day that the show was shot down, he received an unsolicited manuscript in the mail of a new, non-musical play entitled “Getting Away With Murder” — by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth.

“Is it a musical? No, it isn’t, but quite honestly, it could have been written in Finnish haiku and my response would have been the same: We’ll do it!”  

Sondheim seemed pleased, even surprised, with the resulting production, but when it transferred to New York, it flopped. “[W]henever people discuss Sondheim’s few extremely elegant flops, including Do I Hear a Waltz?, Anyone Can Whistle, The Frogs, even the perennially revived Merrily We Roll Along, which begins to look as if it may eventually crawl out of its labeled status to its own survival after all, each one of which has a cadre of potent defenders, Getting Away with Murder is somehow never mentioned. Until his recent death, Steve and I lived close to each other in Connecticut, and I have to confess, we never mentioned it, either.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply