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Jack O’Brien’s memoir captures a backstage portrait of a pivotal period in theater history. In the early 1960’s, the Association of Producing Artists (APA) Repertory Company launched a theater program at the University of Michigan that used nationally recognized actors to develop innovative productions that would transfer to Broadway.
On Broadway, O’Brien won his first Tony Award for Hairspray in 2003, as well as nominations for The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Currently, he is the director of Douglas Carter Beane’s comedy/drama The Nance starring Nathan Lane. But Jack Be Nimble isn’t about O’Brien’s more recent fabulous accomplishments. The memoir is about O’Brien’s induction into theater through the APA, his movement from an actor into a director, and his emergence as a major presence in the theater world in the 1970s.
As a student, O’Brien was active in the theater community at the University of Michigan as an actor, an accompanist, and the writer of two award-winning collegiate musicals. O’Brien assumed that he was on his way to becoming a Broadway playwright and lyricist in the style of Alan Jay Lerner. But Ellis Rabb, a major actor and director, needed something more immediate for the APA Repertory Company. Rabb hired O’Brien as an assistant and then quickly became his mentor, allowing O’Brien to witness the politics and baroque paths of theater rehearsals and production. This began a years-long education by Rabb in the art of theater direction, which O’Brien compares to an experimental laboratory rather than a classroom. During this early period, O’Brien learned to recognize the power of excellent acting as well as the effects of actors’ personal lives, such as affairs and petty jealousies, on the roles that they bring to the stage.
Rabb was married to the star Rosemary Harris, and much of the memoir covers O’Brien’s personal work for both of them in Michigan, New York, and California. O’Brien was an inside witness to the marriage, which was a successful collaboration for many years. He includes descriptions of Rabb’s bisexuality and sometimes manic behavior, Harris’s rise to stardom and savvy ability to look past her husband’s gay affairs, and the eventual differences in fame that split the drama-prone couple.
Two major highlights of Jack Be Nimble include full descriptions of Rabb’s hugely successful “by the book” revival of You Can’t Take it With You and Ghelderode’s farce Pantagleize, with Rabb’s increasingly stripped-down production values that served as inspiration for other directors. While the memoir offers gossipy portrayals of John Houseman, Eve Le Galliane, Uta Hagen, Helen Hayes, and Nancy Walker, it does not shy away from chapters about O’Brien’s later Broadway bomb The Selling of the President and his eventual alienation from the troubled Rabb.
Jack Be Nimble also chronicles a disastrous trip to Europe with Rabb, the appearance (and disappearance) of O’Brien’s only toupee, and O’Brien’s embrace of his gayness with a long term partner.
Theater fanatics will love the juicy details of famous productions and the early appearance of several noted stars (as well as the decline of a few, too). Less knowledgeable theater fans may be temporarily lost at the shower of minor actors (Christina Pickles? Ralph Williams?) and obscure titles (The Show Off? Judith?) sprinkled throughout the book, but will learn about the complexity of casting and directing, and a significant amount about this acclaimed director who continues to entertain theater goers off-stage with his witty memoir.
Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director
by Jack O’Brien
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780865478985, 335 pp.