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Side by Side With Jack O'Brien
by Bruce Janiga

Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to directing?

I'm a child of the A.P.A. repertory company which was the late Ellis Rabb's baby in the 60's. Ellis just died about two weeks ago. A lot of people don't know who he is but he was married to Rosemary Harris for ten years. Many people don't know who he is; he had a major repertory company which became A.P.A. Phoenix and on Broadway. It was basically the only repertory company that NY had on boards since Eva Le Gallienne had Civic Rep in the thirties. I met this company which was an itinerant group of roaming actors when they had a residency at the University of Michigan when I was a graduate student. I fell in love with what they were doing and eventually, although I was teaching, I joined them. At that time I wanted to be a lyricist. I was working with jazz artist Bob James, a Warner Brothers keyboard artist. We were college roommates and we wrote a couple of musicals, won a couple of prizes and I wanted to be a lyricist and then I wanted to be a playwright. While I was doing all that Ellis said, "Join the company and be my assistant." So I worked in the 60's with Ellis Rabb, Stephen Porter, John Houseman, Eva Le Gallien and Allan Schneider. I was the only assistant in that company so I had quite a post-graduate career. Helen Hayes was in that company and Nancy Marchand and Keith Curtis. It was an extraordinary group of actors. By the time they disbanded in 1970 I was a director and was about to make my living doing that. I did write a musical in 1972 with Bob James called The Selling of the President that lasted five performances and was a disaster and it sent me scurrying back into directing and I've been there ever since.

You've done mostly non-musicals, but there have been some musicals, and even operas in there. Do you have a preference?

I like the thing I'm working on, don't you? I'm always in love with what I'm working on. I've been a very lucky guy. I did have extensive opera credentials in the 70's and 80's. I've done musicals on Broadway and out here. Damn Yankees was a big success for me. I'm going to do, I think, St. Louis Woman for Encore in late April, early May. Porgy and Bess was what really kicked my career off. It's very interesting because the East Coast does not know my classical work, the West Coast does not know my opera or musical work. So I'm a classic Gemini and that's what I am.

You've been artistic director at the Old Globe since 1981?

I came out in 81 and took over in 82.

What does that mean? As artistic director what are your responsibilities?

With Craig Knowle, who is the founder of the theater and at age 82 is still active and directing, and Tom Hall, the managing director who is my theatrical partner here, I'm responsible for choosing the repertory, hiring the actors and the directors, approving the designers and the designs, and usually directing two or three production myself a year as well as my other career.

How did Getting Away with Murder (then The Doctor Is Out) come to the Old Globe?

Steve and I have been friends for a very long time. Not close personal friends but professional acquaintances and friends and it started intensely when he and James Lapine brought Into the Woods and started it here. And then Steve and I began dealing directly with one another as opposed to just socially. He liked the company, he liked, I think, me. He had particularly liked Hapgood, which I think got his attention and George's because it was so difficult. And he had expressed a great deal of appreciation and compliments about that. I was at my desk one day and a script came on, and it said, and I quote, "Years from now when you talk of this, and you will, please be kind." And, "What do you think?" I know that they had a reading of it at Lincoln Center that Andri Bishop had arranged and I read the play. I was looking at that time for something to close my season with. I had intended to do a major reworking of Carnival. But it didn't work out; we couldn't get the rights to do the kind of changes I felt were necessary, so I had an empty spot at the end of my season and here came Stephen and George's play and I thought, "God, this is good." I called Andri and he said, "It is good." And I called Steve and said, "Let's do it!" And he was thrilled and so was George.

How did you come to direct it?

It was given to me, I think, with that in mind. I think they were looking more for me than they were for the Globe at that point. I don't think they had gotten to the point of where are we going to do it. I think he sent it to me to see if I was interested.

Was it pretty much a finished work when you got it? Or close to it?

No, that's never true. We had a lot of wonderful working sessions about it. The thing that is important about Getting Away With Murder is that it was crafted by the two of them structurally before I ever got, or anybody got involved. By that I mean they had this idea of the seven deadly sins, they had this idea of burying that idea of the seven deadly sins and they started to construct it like a puzzle. So, interestingly enough, they shuttled this across the country. George sent it to Steve, Steve made notes, sent it back to George. It went back and forth like a badminton shuttlecock before I reached up and grabbed it. So a great deal of work, particularly the physical structural work of it, had been done before I got it.

Were there any special challenges to putting this show together?

Yes. They created three rooms on stage, a hallway and two rooms and partially another hallway, which had, according to the way it was written to be visible by everybody in the audience all the time. When you put a ground plan down and realize that if you're in this room and somebody's in that room there's a wall between, yes, those were the first problems; how do I present to the audience so that they can see what the guys meant. And that is how we worked.

It was an incredible set.

Wasn't it amazing? I love the fact that it got slammed in New York for being expensive since the Globe built it and sent it exactly the way it was to New York. A non-profit

Did you do anything special to prepare for the show?

We had to work out the practicality. This was a double double problem. There was the problem of the crime and then there was the fact that they were in completely in love with the fact that the first part of it was a canard: that a false ending was revealed at the end of the first act. I was very worried about this and worried straight through the run until we opened and closed. Because during the course of the evening we left some people behind who did not buy that convention. But they were determined to do it. The three of it looked at it very carefully and particularly Steve said, "No, that's the way we want to do it" and so my job was to shore it up as best as possible and make that as palatable as I could.

You had a really strong cast in New York. How difficult was it to cast? What sort of decisions went into whom to cast in what role?

Christine Ebersol joined us in New York, some of the other people joined us in New York. Kandis Chappell, Kerry and John were all here. I had Chuck Cooper in San Diego but not in New York. Frankie joined us in New York. There were some differences in New York. It was difficult to cast but not impossible because the trick was they had to be "types" but they also had to have dimension and they also had to be comedians. I found it best to research my casting through musical performers because that's the cadence Stephen hears.

Did you find it intimidating to be directing Sondheim's first non-musical?

Not really. Steve is intimidating but he's a real collaborator. He's a real partner. He's incredibly enthusiastic. I knew that they really liked me, that they really liked the setup here and we had a wonderful time doing it. So the intimidation factor, I think, only works if you're insecure and none of us were really insecure.

I will go to my death thinking that we were pretty much harshly dismissed. I think in another season or if you put two other names on that, particularly not Steve's. Even Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon, they would have had a better time with the show. Steve, as you probably know better than anybody else, his critical faculty is waiting for the next Motzartian masterpiece. And they did not want him to take a diversion. They also thought that he was getting off easy from their own agenda's points of view. That show at least should have at least played over the Summer and into the Fall, if not a full year. And amazingly enough until those reviews came out we were doing boffo stuff on the stage and as soon as the audiences read that they weren't suppose to like it they didn't like it. So that's an intimidating factor that is cruel to Steve, I think.

Did the show change much in rehearsals?

Not substantially, structurally it didn't. We changed tone, we changed gags, we changed rhythm. The usual amount of work but it wasn't open heart surgery.

What were rehearsals like in California and New York?

We had a great time. I had a great cast in both cities. We all had a great working relationship. We had a lot of fun working on it. It was fun to do. Solving the problems of nailing it down, covering our tracks, that was great fun.

Were the authors there tinkering a lot?

They were intermittent. They came and went. And that's usual with an new play anyway.

How much say did you have in adjusting things and changing things?

I was right there, so if I was concerned about something... As I said, except for the moment at the top of the second act that I was always worried about because I didn't think the laughs were big enough. We always disagreed on that and we are still disagreeing about it, I think.

Originally there was no plan to transfer to New York, is that right?

Yes, I did it for the Globe.

Why did that change?

It was a huge success here, for one thing.

How long did it run?

It did our usual six and a half week run which is a subscription audience. But it was a big success. People loved it; we got a lot of interest in it and Steve was wildly enthusiastic about it.

And how were the critics out there?

I'll be frank with you. I don't read critics all that much. When you do thirteen plays a year, as we do out here, all you want to know is was it good, bad or indifferent. I can't remember. I think the reviews were positively mixed, as they were, with the exception of the Times, someplace else.

And the audience reacted very well?

They loved it. They had a great time.

Did you come to New York with pretty much the same show?

I would say so. We refined it, we bent the show into far more individual performances because the people I had in New York had different rhythms and sounds than the people that I had out here. So we did a great deal of detailing.

But there were no major script changes?

No structural script changes. We changed some of Kandis Chappell's tone and her look but she ended up loving it.

How about the title change?

That was the original title, "Getting Away With Murder". Then we heard that there was a movie coming out so we had to back off it and so we fiddled around until we found "The Doctor Is Out". We never liked "The Doctor Is Out". So when that movie, and I think it was a Kevin Kline movie, it was never released, I may be wrong about this, but it was something like that. When it didn't come out, we thought, "the hell with it. We're going for it too."

Was it tougher working in New York preparing for a Broadway opening?

Broadway is a tough road to hoe. The Broadhurst Theater on Broadway is not the kindest place to put your first non-musical. I'm not sure that had we not been smack dab in the middle of Broadway we wouldn't have been more kindly received. But there was no stopping everybody. Roger (Berlind) wanted to go there, Steve wanted to go there. Everybody seemed to think it was the right idea. The stakes are high in New York, but that's what you do.

The ending changed dramatically from first preview to opening night.

It certainly did, it was changing until last previews. We kept trying to figure out how to button that ending. It was an accidental moment in rehearsal that John Rubinstein threw himself into the elevator shaft and we fell over we laughed so hard. So we decided to go with it.

Were there any other major changes?

Not really. That's where were trying to figure out how to land the ending. We were never successful enough in getting the ending that we wanted and we felt that that gave us... there was a whole thing about who gets away with it and is it moral, for the audience. The audience enjoyed that. Are we making a moral stand? Is this a boulevard comedy? What's the tonality that you really want to reach your widest audience with, and I think that's really what we were grappling with right up to right before the critics started coming.

Many people who saw it in previews were disappointed when the ending changed.

I know, and other people weren't. So it was doomed to be, or destined rather, to be one of those plays that depended on your point of view. Some people didn't make the turn after the intermission. They were angry with that. Some people loved it, it was much blacker when we first started it, and less farcical. But the pressure in New York to sell tickets and to reach your widest audience prevails, and that's why you make some of the decisions you make.

But he doesn't get away with murder?

There is also a philosophical or a rhetorical question: is it possible to succeed in getting away with murder? And also, since you were going to jerk the rug out from under the audience at the end, why not jerk it again? That was the other possibility, if they all didn't get away with it. There were people who loved that part of it and people who hated it, it was a coin toss actually.

Do you know why both endings were printed in the script?

I have no idea.

How about the reviews?

The reviews were far from positive. After the reviews came out the audience had a different feel. I was at a few previews and at opening night and then when I came back near the end of the run there was a different energy level in the house.

What was it like dealing with a cast after those reviews with an audience that was coming expecting to see something that wasn't good based on the critics?

It was dental surgery without any help. When on Friday night you play a show that's gotten steadily better, and by that I meant, steadily reached its audience, and up to the point that we froze the show that was true. And then we played opening night and it plays absolutely great and the next night its absolutely quiet; it is one of the worst things that can happen in the world.

And as director how do you handle that?

You try to be as supportive and as loving and as kind and as understanding and philosophic as possible. What was very interesting is that we began to get our audience back again. We never recovered what we had, but we got them back from the first four days after the reviews to a certain degree. That's all you can do. It's grace under fire.

It seemed after a while you started to have fun with it: the gargoyles in the ads...

That was the advertising, it had nothing to do with us, we didn't even know it was happening. Suddenly the gargoyle got all the attention and that was just fine. You have be an idiot not to realize you've been absolutely slammed upside the head, so we enjoyed that part. We thought it was very funny.

When a show closes that quickly do you do something like a post mortem, evaluating what went wrong?

No you don't. You've done all the analysis before you open. You've second guessed, you've tried to make the adjustments. You've tried to accommodate as many points of view as you possibly can and then if that isn't good enough you say, "I'm terribly sorry ladies and gentlemen," and you go on to something else.

So you were satisfied with the show as you directed it?

I was satisfied with the professionalism everybody showed in getting the show up and in front of its audience. But I would have preferred the show to have been a rocketing hit and still to capacity audiences in New York. In that sense we did not succeed, any of us. We didn't succeed in either making our case for our audiences so that we could survive the reviews nor did we survive the expectation of Steve's first non-musical play. So we had two huge strikes against us in that respect. But if I may speak boldly I thought it was one of the best jobs of directing I've ever done. Just in terms of getting every single nuance out of the script and getting the problems of the script and its machinery in front of an audience.

Do you think Getting Away with Murder would work better as a musical?

Well it isn't a musical. Should it be adapted as a musical? Only Steve would be able to answer that and I rather think not or that would have occurred to him somewhere along the line. He's enormously perceptive about what sings and what doesn't sing. I think what fascinated Steve about this was that it wasn't a musical. So I think that its almost an academic question, if you know what I mean.

Are you a Sondheim fan?

I'd definitely say so.

Do you have a favorite show?

Well, he has different moods.

And you favorite show would probably be different tomorrow.

I'm sure it will. I think Sweeney Todd is monumental. I love A Little Night Music. I have always had enormous passion for Follies. When I saw a preview of Company, it was the only time in my life I wanted to go back to the box office and give them more money. So I have a lot of them.

Any chance that sometime in the future you'll be directing one of his musicals?

I think Steve would be the person to ask that.

There have been rumors of a future film for cable production, An Hour to Kill...

I've heard that too. I think George has done an adaptation and I think An Hour to Kill is a wonderful title. Steve mentioned to me but I've never seen it, so I don't know anything about it.

Do you think Steve would consider another project like this? Another non-musical?

I would hope so. He's a genius and I think geniuses should have the run of the playground, don't you?

Absolutely. Thank you Jack.

I'm happy to do it.

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