And the theater name on everyone's lips this week is... George Abbott?
George Abbott is one of the biggest names in American theater history. He had a new show opening on Broadway nearly every year between the mid-1920s and the mid-1970s. It helped that Abbott was a triple-threat talent: He wrote, he directed and he produced. He also lived to be 107 years old. He died in 1995.
Some of the shows Abbott directed — the musicals Call Me Madam and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Neil Simon's The Star Spangled Girl among them — were first seen at the Shubert in New Haven, during their pre-Broadway try-outs. Others became mainstays of celebrity-studded summer stock theaters such as the Westport Country Playhouse used to be. The WCP opened in 1931; George Abbott was there by '33, co-directing a play he'd also co-written, Heat Lightning. As a producer, Abbott tried out numerous new shows at Westport. He continued to use the playhouse as a resource as late as the mid-'60s.
George Abbott's still making his name known in Connecticut, and in Westport. This week the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam announced that it will open its 2014 season next spring with a new "Red Sox version" of Damn Yankees, the musical Abbott adapted from the baseball fantasy book by Douglass Wallop, and also directed the original production of in 1955.
But there's a George Abbott show you can see right now — Room Service, the 1937 laugh riot by Allen Boretz and John Murray that ran for 500 performances in New York and remained a summer stock and community theater staple for decades afterwards. The thing that likely most affected its continued popularity is the daunting size of its cast.
Westport Country Playhouse, which is doing Room Service October 8-27 as the final show of its 2013 season, is using an ensemble of 11 actors, two of whom handle five small roles between them.
Room Service itself is about changes in the way shows are produced. It is about the challenges of entertaining the masses during the Great Depression. It's also about the incursion of realist and socially conscious dramas from the likes of Clifford Odets chilling the razzle-dazzle buzz of old Broadway.
Mostly, it's about escaping creditors and lining up financial backers so that a promising new play even has the chance of being seen.
Room Service's original rewriter and director, George Abbott had a good feeling about the play from the start, as he recounts in his autobiography Mr. Abbott!:
"Gar Kanin urged me to take over Room Service, which Sam Harris had tried out in Philadelphia and abandoned. Gar insisted that the play was full of funny stuff and that if I got the story straightened out we would have a hit. He was right. … After the opening night [Abbott's wife] Neysa thought I would want to stay in the city until the reviews came out, but I told her that I was sure it was a success and that we might as well drive straight to the country, because we had an important croquet game in the morning. As I suspected, Room Service was a big hit. We had the usual road companies and a London production, and it was sold to RKO for the highest price ever paid for a picture property up to that time."
Was that Room Service movie ever made? It sure was, overhauled as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers, to the benefit of neither the play nor the brothers. The film begins the Marxes' downturn from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races toward cheesier exercises such as At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store. It also affected the fortunes of the play, which wasn't written for such boisterous leading men — Eddie Albert starred in the first Broadway production, Jack Lemmon in a '50s revival.
Yet Room Service, like later backstage comedies such as Michael Frayn's Noises Off! or Tom Stoppard's Rough Crossing or Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, is still a magnet for directors and actors who are up for a little manic self-mockery.
Michael McCormick, who plays the imperious representative of the hotel where an impoverished director and cast are holed up while preparing their surefire Broadway hit, describes the atmosphere: "We have stopped dead in our tracks with tears of laughter in rehearsal. We're having so much fun!"
Director Mark Lamos — who in a long career as both an artistic director (of Hartford Stage before Westport) and as a freelance director surely has many chaotic backstage adventures of his own to relate — noted in a recent e-blast to WCP subscribers that "Our dialect coach Deb Hecht said that other fast-paced plays of this era, including The Front Page, were actually rehearsed with a metronome in the room. I believe it! We're having a total blast, lots of laughs."
The Room Service cast includes Westport Country Playhouse veterans Donald Corren (Souvenir), Michael McCormick (She Loves Me) and Frank Vlastnik (All About Us) and some inspired character actors from all over, like Richard Ruiz (who was the Clown in The Winter's Tale at Yale Rep and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys & Dolls at Long Wharf).
By John Murray and Allen Boretz. Directed by Mark Lamos. Oct. 8-27 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. (203) 227-4177, westportplayhouse.org