"The aim of musical comedy, of course," says George Abbott, "is to please." Abbott, who has co-authored and produced fifteen musicals and directed ten others, has a reputation in the theater as a ruthless perfectionist whose formula of pace plus "p-zazz" results in a hit nearly every time. This week he has set up out-of-town headquarters at the Ritz Hotel and the Shubert Theater during the pre-Broadway trial of Tenderloin, the tale of "the trial of a boy's soul" during New York's Gay 90's.
Tenderloin stars Maurice Evans in the role of a minister who wishes to woo wastrels from the brothel they love. "It's a serious story," Abbott says. "The fashion of musical comedy has changed so much . . . you can't get away with the spring tra la routines wedged in between unrelated dialogue. The current term is 'integrated' musical comedy." An equally serious show about New York's Mayor La Guardia, "Fiorello," won Abbott a Pulitzer Prize this spring.
A tall, spare, and handsome man with a soldier's bearing, George Abbott began his career as an actor in 1913, after doing post-graduate work at Harvard. "I took Baker's famous playwriting course, English 47," he recalls. "Harvard is a fine university, the finest we have. A very funny thing happened to me there. . . . All year I sat next to the same man; he took laborious notes, I didn't. At the end of the year this fellow turned to me and asked me why I brought the notebook to class at all. I told him that I used my notebook as a kind of decoy. 'Excuse me,' replied this fellow, 'but isn't it pronounced decoy?" Anyway, I thought that was a very Harvard story."
The list of George Abbottt successes stands as a theater legend: "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Wonderful Town," "Call Me Madam," "Where's Charley?" "Once Upon A Mattress," "Damn Yankees," and "Pajama Game" are some recent "smash hits" with his magical polish. Although he gave up acting for writing and directing in 1919, he returned to the stage to co-star with Mary Martin and Helen Hayes in "The Skin Of Our Teeth," which, the critics agreed, testified to his undiminished acting ability. "It was very hot playing to summer audiences in a fur coat," he remembered. "I could have been playing golf in Puerto Rico."
Unlike many people in his profession, George Abbott does not drink or smoke or talk about himself. He enjoys taking pretty girls out dancing and is especially expert at the cha-cha. Once widowed and once divorced, he has one talented daughter, Judith, and several grandchildren. He drives a new Cadillac and plays good golf for a beginner--he took it up this spring, leaving his tennis cronies looking for a fourth.
Abbott objects to repertory theater on professional grounds. "I don't believe you can put on a good play that way. I believe in type casting, you see, and you can't type cast in repertory. People like it because they think it's arty." He does not, however, object to Off-Broadway, although "it will never take the place of Broadway because the two standards are so different. I don't include the Phoenix Theater in this." About the future of the theatre, George Abbott feels pleased. "American theater is the best in the world now. We have the most ideas, the finest acting. Of course the fashion may change tomorrow. The pendulum may swing back any time."