b. George Francis Abbott, 25 June 1887, Forestville, New York, USA, d. 31 January 1995, Miami Beach, Florida, USA. An important director, author and producer, whose distinguished career in the American theatre spanned more than seven decades and gained him the title of ‘Mr. Broadway’. Abbott wrote his first play, a comedy-farce entitled Perfectly Harmless, while studying at the University of Rochester in 1910. Three years later he made his Broadway debut playing a drunken college boy in The Misleading Lady. He continued to appear in productions such as Lightnin’, Hell-Bent For Heaven and Holy Terror until 1925. In the same year he launched his writing career with The Fall Guy, and in 1926, with Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em, he began to direct. Shortly after that, he became a producer for the first time with Bless You Sister. Abbott subsequently served in some capacity in well over 100 Broadway productions, including a good many musicals. In the 30s and 40s there were shows such as Jumbo (1935), On Your Toes (1936), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), Too Many Girls (1939), Pal Joey (1940), Best Foot Forward (1941), Beat The Band, On The Town (1944), Billion Dollar Baby, Barefoot Boy With Cheek, High Button Shoes (1947), Look Ma, I’m Dancin’, Where’s Charley? (1948) and Touch And Go (1949).
Although he produced the smash hit Call Me Madam (1950), A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1951), and a revival of On Your Toes in the early 50s, for the rest of the decade, and throughout the remainder of his career, Abbott gave up producing musicals in favour of directing, and writing librettos. Although it was a time when the number of new musicals on Broadway was beginning to decline, Abbott was involved with some of the most memorable - and one or two he would probably like to forget - including Wonderful Town (1953), Me And Juliet (1953), The Pajama Game (1954), Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl In Town (1957), Once Upon A Mattress (1959), Fiorello! (1959), Tenderloin (1960), A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962), Fade Out-Fade In, Flora, The Red Menace (1965), Anya, How Now, Dow Jones, The Education Of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, The Fig Leaves Are Falling (1969), The Pajama Game (1973 revival), Music Is, On Your Toes (1983 revival), and Damn Yankees (1986 revival). George Abbott was 99 years old when he revised and directed the latter show, and Broadway celebrated in style during the following year when he became an extremely sprightly centenarian.
He received a special Tony Award to add to his collection, which included six other Tonys (one presented in 1976 for lifetime achievement), the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers Award of Merit (1965), and the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fiorello! Over the years, Abbott’s contribution to the Broadway musical was immense. He introduced the fast-paced, tightly integrated style that influenced so many actors, dancers, singers, and particularly fellow-directors such as Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. Another disciple was Hal Prince, arguably the leading director of musicals during the 80s. At the age of 106, George Abbott advised director Jack O’Brien on revisions of his original book, for the 1994 Broadway revival of Damn Yankees, and in the same year, BBC Television devoted a fascinating Omnibus programme to his work. When he died early in 1995, all the lights on Broadway were dimmed in tribute to one of the district’s legendary and much-loved figures.