THE BOOK SHELF: "Jack Be Nimble" by Jack O'Brien

By Steven Suskin
18 Jun 2013

cover art
cover art

This month's column looks at award-winning director Jack O'Brien's memoir, "Jack Be Nimble."

*

One would expect Jack O'Brien — the three-time Tony Award-winning director of musicals (Hairspray), dramas (The Coast of Utopia), and a host of other memorable shows — to be a warmly entertaining fellow with myriad tales to tell in his memoir, "Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director" [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. What is unexpected, though, is that he turns out to be a very good writer as well. "Jack Be Nimble" is an ever-interesting chronicle offering a perceptive overview of the dramatic stage of the 1960s and 1970s, but it is enhanced by being written so enjoyably well.

Comparisons to Moss Hart's "Act One" are, under the circumstances, unavoidable. Hart placed his spotlight on the legendary playwright/director George S. Kaufman. O'Brien had a similarly outsized mentor dominating his career, influencing his decisions, and ultimately becoming an obstacle: Ellis Rabb, a flamboyant and wildly (but not consistently) talented actor/director. Rabb poured his creative energies into the A.P.A. [Association of Producing Artists], a non-profit repertory company which was born in 1959, broke through to Broadway in 1965, and died in 1969.

Born in 1939 in Saginaw, Michigan, O'Brien was your typical Broadway-obsessed lad; he was, he tells us, "self-trained practically from the pediatric ward in the role of Hajj." (Readers who are similarly Broadway-obsessed will know that he is talking of Kismet, which wasn't written until 1953, but you get the point. O'Brien, mind you, was not the Alfred Drake type, then or now.)



He made his way to the theatre department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where in 1961 he intersected with Rabb, his actress/wife Rosemary Harris, and the fledgling APA. O'Brien joined the company as an auxiliary member, a student actor playing bit roles; maintained contact with the APA family when they moved back to New York; and ultimately left a teaching job at Hunter College to become assistant to Ellis and Rosemary.

The job was all encompassing, with his duties including myriad artistic, business and personal activities. This included serving as loyal confidant to both Ellis and Rosemary during their painful divorce in 1967; O'Brien offers a first-hand account of the violent-yet-somehow grandly theatrical battle that ended the marriage, at which he was an unwilling observer.

O'Brien describes the life and death of an ambitious rep company, recalling the highs and the lows nostalgically, humorously, and sometimes with a raised eyebrow. As time passed, he was handed scenes to stage; as Rabb became increasingly unreliable, O'Brien found himself an accidental director. Thus is was that in 1968 he was assigned Sean O'Casey's Cock-a-Doodle Dandy during the APA residence at Ann Arbor. The play came to the Lyceum on January 29, 1969 — with a cast including Donald Moffat, Richard Easton, Frances Sternhagen, Barry Bostwick, and Rabb himself — and the 29-year old O'Brien suddenly found himself a Broadway director.

 Continued...