Theatre director Lee Breuer, who spent most of his time creating new works that subverted industry expectations, died January 3. He was 83. His death was confirmed to The New York Times by his wife and frequent collaborator, Maude Mitchell.
Mr. Breuer was a co-founder of Mabou Mines, an Off-Broadway company that created new adaptations of popular works. Among the more recent productions were Peter and Wendy at the New Victory Theatre in 1997, Mabou Mines DollHouse at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2003, Red Beads at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in 2005, and La Divina Caricatura, Part 1, The Shaggy Dog at La MaMa Experimental Theater in 2013.
While preferring to spend his time in the world of experimental theatre, Mr. Breuer also found success in larger venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and the Comédie-Française in Paris.
His mainstream breakthrough came in the 1980's with The Gospel at Colonus. Set in the context of a black Pentecostal service, the adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus celebrates the 2,400-year-old myth of Oedipus’ redemption with a gospel and blues score. Mr. Breuer wrote the book and lyrics with Bob Telson providing the music.
The musical debuted at the BAM Harvey Theater as part of the inaugural Next Wave Festival in 1983. Mr. Breuer and Telson were co-finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985, and the show debuted on Broadway in 1988 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The production earned a Tony nomination for Mr. Breuer’s book.
“The Gospel at Colonus is the masterpiece of the populist side of [Mr. Breuer’s] work, a brilliant merging of Greek tragedy and biblical traditions and an astonishing meditation on death and life,” said Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis in 2018, when a revival helmed by Mr. Breuer was staged at the Delacorte. “I first walked into The Public Theater as a student (and groupie!) of Lee Breuer’s. Joe Papp had given his theatre company, Mabou Mines, a home here and over the next few years Lee and his colleague JoAnne Akalaitis became central figures in The Public Theater family.”
Born Esser Leopold Breuer in Philadelphia, February 6, 1937, Mr. Breuer was the only child of architect Joseph Breuer and newspaper columnist Sara Leopold Breuer. The director finished secondary school by the age of 16 and then enrolled at the University of California–Los Angeles to study English. While in college, he began writing plays and met his first wife, performer Ruth Maleczech. The pair founded Mabou Mines with composer Philip Glass, director JoAnne Akalaitis, and performer David Warrilow in 1970. Ms. Maleczech passed away in 2013.
In 2019, Stephen Nunns explored the theatre maker’s work in the book Getting Off: Lee Breuer on Performance. More recently, Mr. Breuer signed a contract to sell his archives to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Mr. Breuer is survived by Mitchell; his daughter, Clove Galilee; his sons, Lute Ramblin Breuer, Alexander Tiappa Klimovitsky, Mojo Lorwin and Wah Mohn; and three grandchildren.