NEW YORK — George Abbott briskly entered a busy office overlooking Broadway, profusely apologized for being a few minutes late for an interview and politely but firmly made clear he wanted to get right to the business of answering a few questions.
The breezily obliging and forthright manner would not be so surprising in a man of the theater who's produced more than 100 plays and musicals on Broadway and in regional theaters and has written or co-written 31 plays and books of such musicals as "Damn Yankees" and "The Pajama Game." But Abbott has been working for more than 70 years and turns 99 years old today.
Despite a slight limp from a recently broken hip, he showed no signs the other day of slowing down. He said he was writing a book for a musical version of the melodrama, "Broadway," and is about to start rehearsals in Los Angeles for a remounted production of "On Your Toes," the 1930s Rodgers and Hart musical that marked Abbott's debut as a director of musicals and was revived on Broadway three seasons ago. It opens July 22 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
"If I didn't wake up in the morning with some problem to solve, however minor, I'd think life was pretty empty," said Abbott of his life here and at his year-round home in Florida.
He said he was still making changes--in motivations, sets, entire scenes--in "On Your Toes," beyond those he made for the updated, 1980s version of the antique classic. "I wanted to make changes in the original, but I was new at musicals and greatly in awe of Rodgers and Hart, so I was loath to do anything radical," he said.
In a free-wheeling but perfunctory discussion of the Broadway musical, past and present, and the theater generally, Abbott made it clear he doesn't "pine away for the past. I just think, 'How do you get on board.?' "
He said he sees no great changes in musical theater, except for the astronomical rise in production costs which he believes is at the root of the present sad state of the form. He pointed out that "On Your Toes" cost $150,000 to produce originally, in contrast to the latest "$3-million-plus" version.
"This makes things tough for the time being on those of us who work in (the theater), and it is too bad we can't have good musicals for an affordable price," he said.
"People are also less willing to take chances than they were before, because audiences want stars, as well as extravagance," he continued, noting his own "courage to cast new people" in starring roles. "I immediately know a good actor when I see one. I always have."
Abbott first started out in the theater as an actor, after graduating from Harvard only to find that "I wasn't going to sell all the great dramas I'd write right away." He debuted on Broadway as a playwright in the 1920s with "The Fall," about a young man out of work, co-written with James Gleason. A decade later he made his directorial debut with a Paris production of "The Skin of Our Teeth," starring Helen Hayes, which later played on Broadway.
"Since then, there have been a string of hits and plenty of failures too," Abbott recalled. "There is no rosy road. It's wonderful if you succeed, and I'd prefer success, but if you fail, you have to close the book and go on. And I haven't had any heartbreaks."
Characteristically a man of few words, Abbott said, by way of advice to those who follow, "Generally, you have to be sure, not that you've learned so much, but that you can still learn."