Director Jerry Zaks already owns four Tony Awards and one of the most eclectic careers on Broadway. He does musicals: Smokey Joe’s Café, La Cage aux Folles. He does plays: Six Degrees of Separation. House of Blue Leaves. He does revivals: Anything Goes. The Front Page. All of those were in an almost bygone era. Today, he’s up for leading the revival of Hello, Dolly! which, as you may have heard, stars Bette Midler in a performance that has prospective customers auctioning off limbs and unwanted relatives to secure a pair of tickets. For good measure, Zaks also co-directed, with Robert De Niro, this season’s sleeper hit A Bronx Tale, the musical adaptation of Chazz Palminteri’s solo play-turned movie (directed by De Niro) that was stiffed by the Tony nominators but has been killing it at the August Wilson Theatre box office.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Zaks start out small and go very, very large since the late 1970s, when he appeared in a teeny off-Broadway revue called Tintypes and sang a Yiddish-inflected “Aym A Yenkee Doodle Deeandee” and staged the original production of Christopher Durang’s maniacally blasphemous Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. As with every great director, Zaks has had monster hits and dry spells; through it all he’s balanced a career that comfortably embraces brand-name shows like Guys And Dolls and new work like the latest John Guare play they’re planning. Dolly!, however, clearly ranks as of a higher order altogether, and it revolves around two love stories, as he told me in a conversation earlier today.
Deadline: How did this one fall into your lap?
Jerry Zaks: Oh, this is a good one. Two summers ago, we met for dinner in East Hampton, [producer] Scott Rudin with John Barlow and me with my Faye. “Guess what we did today?” Scott asked. “We got married!” We sat down, and he said, “I’ve got the rights to Dolly, do you want to direct it? It didn’t hurt that I love the show so much.”
Zaks: Fifty-two years ago I was a recent med school dropout and I’d decided I was going to be an actor. I came to New York and stood in the back of the St. James to see Dolly. I can’t even describe to you what happened. I went back again. And again. It was everything I ever wanted. Laughs and music and lights and joy. I cried – I was 18 and the f!cking show made me cry.
Deadline: What was your plan for the show?
Zaks: What I was determined to do from Day 1 was turn it into a two-handed love affair. That is to say, they both fall in love with each other. So that it’s not just about Dolly landing Horace, it’s about Horace falling in love with Dolly as well. That’s why I insisted on inserting four to six bars of music at the very end, where Horace and Dolly just dance. They used to continue singing “Hello, Dolly.” We put in a little musical break. She takes his hand, he puts his arm around her waist, they look at each other. They don’t move, and then they begin to slowly dance as the set disappears.
Deadline: It’s such a rich moment.
Zaks: It was partly due to necessity. We never used to have the set withdraw, but that made the curtain call take forever. We were dying getting into the curtain call, because we had to move the set once the curtain came down. So now we pulled it away while they dance – and it turned into this magical moment. And I always knew it was a great love story.
Deadline: Of course we want to know how it went, working with Bette Midler.
Zaks: First of all, she’s a great actress, with immense pride in what she does, and who is so self-aware. So we met, we talked about the work, she confided in me her concerns, what she was afraid of. She’s used to calling all the shots in everything she does, and she said, “It’s hard for me to let go of that.” I said this is the way I work: Allstate. You’re in good hands. You don’t have to worry about any of that. She was very good at letting me make the decisions that normally she would feel compelled to make. We trusted one another. And she’s the hardest working person that I’ve ever spent time with. Nathan Lane is about the same level of relentless pursuit of getting it right. Working with a star, you do it moment by moment, there’s no magic bullet, there’s no formula, just let’s do the work.
Deadline: And then?
Zaks: I forgot about all that until the invited dress. The roar when she appeared, I’d never heard anything like it. I thought I’d heard a roar when Faith Prince sang “Adelaide’s Lament” [in Guys And Dolls] and a few other times in my life – but nothing like this.
Deadline: In one of your first acting jobs, you played Motel the Tailor opposite Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof on tour. What do you remember of that?
Zaks: I got the job because another actor became ill. It led to three months of working with Zero, which, I’m telling you, was the best experience. I got stories of him giving me notes on stage, but he was always right, the son of a bitch. He was great if he liked you. He was undirectable, incorrigible and fearless. The combination was scary.
When he entered his little house during rehearsals, he would kiss the mezuzah [a sacred ornament on the door posts in Jewish homes.] The director, Jerry Robbins – Zero loathed Jerry – said, “Z, you don’t have to kiss the mezuzah.” “I don’t have to kiss the mezuzah?” he muttered. The next time he entered, he crossed himself. From then on, he kissed the mezuzah. The guy was magnificent, please.
Deadline: So many shows you’re identified with are being revived today, including this season’s Six Degrees of Separation. Does that feel strange? Especially when you’re working on Guare’s new-ish play, Are You There, McPhee?
Zaks: No, partly because John [Guare] was a mensch. He called and told me they were doing Six Degrees, and I was there on opening night. It was like visiting an old friend. They got the pulse of the play right. I thought Trip [Cullman, the director] did a fine job. And now I’m working on his new play. I saw it about six years ago in Princeton, it was meshuggah, you know? But there was something in there that made me go, “John, we’ve got to work on this.” And we did. He is fantastically relentless and he finally cracked it. I’m excited about it. Gotta stay busy, you know?
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 11, beginning at 8 PM New York time.