The Abbott Touch

Thomas Hischak
Methuen Drama

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The Abbott Touch

George Abbott was remarkable in many ways. He was an uncommon kind of theatrical quadruple threat, succeeding on Broadway as actor, director, writer, producer.

This might sound stressful, but Abbott clearly thrived on the stress and hard work that this entails, since he lived to the age of 107 and continued working decades beyond any normal retirement age. Indeed, his last directing gig occurred as a centenarian.

Anyone concerned that they might face a dry, academic treatise from retired teacher Thomas Hischak will be pleasantly surprised at a book that is beautifully written and eminently readable. In particular, this author has a knack of conveying the themes and impact of plays in a manner that makes you desperate to watch the best and avoid the worst.

After a brief biographical introduction, he begins by classifying Abbott’s work by themes, bravely leading early with a series of flops, primarily during the period when the subject was acting and directing, but frequently also doctoring scripts. The later chapters are then primarily run chronologically.

One strange facet of his subject’s career is the way in which Abbott morphed from one seemingly set phase to another, starting as an actor, taking up directing and gradually also fulfilling his early ambition to become a top writer and producer.

At different times, he became renowned for his skills in the fields of farce, then teenage plays and later the musical comedies for which he is best remembered today.

Over such a long career, there must inevitably be hits and misses but these were not always apparent at the time. It seems unlikely that many of those seeing a substandard comedy written by the barely known Maurine Watkins in 1926 would have expected Chicago to be transformed into one of Broadway’s best loved musicals a century later.

Abbott also had a brief spell working in the movies, first as an actor in silent films and then as a director and scriptwriter in talkies including work on All Quiet on the Western Front. However, he quickly decided that his future lay in live theatre, occasionally drifting back into the movies to convert a play for the silver screen.

While many today may never have heard of George Abbott, they will certainly recognise the names of some of his career highlights. As the subtitle of the book reminds us, he was responsible for Pal Joey and Damn Yankees. Mr Hischak could as easily have cited Where’s Charley, On the Town, Call Me Madam, The Boys from Syracuse or a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

As this selection suggests, he also worked with a wide selection of the great and the good, especially from the world of musical theatre, forming a particularly close link with Hal Prince, who was an early protégé.

There are a number of morsels that will surprise theatregoers in the 21st century. To pick a few of the more extreme:

  • George Abbott was involved in around 120 productions during an 80 year career, including approximately 100 on Broadway.
  • These included literally dozens of disasters.
  • The flops included no fewer than 13 shows that closed within a week, something almost unimaginable today.
  • Against that, he had what the author judges to be 14 hits and three blockbusters, though the that account seems very conservative.

Ultimately, readers of this book will be keen to establish what “The Abbott Touch” actually means. While judged from a long distance, it appears that George Abbott’s main talent whether as director, producer or playwright was as a doctor who could take a mediocre script or concept and improve it immensely, frequently conjuring a hit from nowhere.

This book is not only enlightening about a defining figure of 20th-century American theatre but is also a really good read and therefore comes highly recommended.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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