By Joy Bergmann
Last week, Gov. Cuomo gave Broadway the green light to move toward resuming performances. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more excited about that than four-time Tony Award-winning director and long-time Upper West Sider Jerry Zaks who has two musicals in production: Mrs. Doubtfire starring Rob McClure and The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.
Born to Holocaust survivors in Stuttgart, Germany, Zaks, 74, grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. Once he caught the theatre bug as a teenager at Dartmouth, there was no going back.
WSR recently spent a laughter-filled hour with Zaks talking re-opening optimism, the “pure joy” of Marvin Gaye, the pleasures of Barney Greengrass and the unthinkable notion of retirement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
WSR: Broadway tickets are back on sale! How are you feeling?
JZ: Cautiously thrilled. Thrilled because this is what I love to do. In 50 years, I’d never been forced to stop working. I say cautiously because nobody really knows if people are going to sit next to each other. If I had more confidence in people’s willingness to get vaccinated, we’d have this licked in a heartbeat.
WSR: Mrs. Doubtfire had three preview shows before lockdown. What has to happen to get everyone back up and running before previews resume October 21st?
JZ: Everything was left in the theater — the sets, the costumes, the computers all programmed for lights and sound. We’re now trying to get all of the cast who are able to come back to join us again. As we speak, the writers are in Tennessee and London working together on specific areas of the show. Until I see pages, I won’t know if those might involve scenic changes — it’s a whole process. But I’m confident we’ll get into rehearsal in September, which allows me to get Doubtfire ready before we start rehearsing Music Man in anticipation of its first preview December 20th.
WSR: You’re quite the multitasker. Two big shows to get open…
JZ: As long as I don’t have to be in two places at the same time, it’s eminently doable. I’ve been doing my homework on Music Man for two years now.
WSR: What are you most looking forward to?
JZ: The first company meetings. It’s meet and greet, coffee and bagels with everybody. And then, at a certain point, I get a chance to talk privately with the actors and stage managers. That’s the moment that I’m living for. Because I’m able to say, ‘Look at how lucky we are, look at what we get to do, we’re going to do something that I believe is close to religious.’ You know, I always expected something to happen to me in synagogue when I was a kid that never really happened, but it’s happened to me in the theater.
WSR: That ecstatic experience. When was the first time you felt it?
JZ: When I was still living at home, a family friend gave me a stack of promotional 45s, little records, remember those? The first one I listened to was Marvin Gaye’s “Taking My Time.” That moment was just pure joy! I was a husky, frightened kid, scared of Nazis real and imagined. But singing that song in the mirror, alone in our basement, transformed me. Then came the Everly Brothers, Johnny Nash, I became rock-n-roll obsessed. But it was my little secret.
WSR: You were a pre-med student at Dartmouth.
JZ: I was a good boy. But then I went to see Wonderful Town during Winter Carnival. It was earth shaking. The lights and the music and the laughter and the spectacle — it was magical. And from that moment on, I started auditioning to act in shows. I dropped the pre-med and entered this life of uncertainty because I was having such a good time.
WSR: Of course you launched your professional career from the Upper West Side.
JZ: Yes! 1969. My first apartment was a fifth floor walk-up at Amsterdam and 101st. The rent was $75 a month, split with two other guys. And I was lucky enough to get the first job I auditioned for, with an Equity children’s theatre. I didn’t have to take a day job.
WSR: That’s success right there. What’s kept you on the Upper West Side for the better part of 50-plus years?
JZ: So many things. I love the parks. I’m so happy walking in Riverside Park, exploring. And Central Park! The miracle of it, all this prime real estate dedicated to people’s enjoyment. It’s magnificent.
I also love being able to walk to, say, a rehearsal on 43rd Street, or get anywhere in a blink of an eye via the 1, 2, and 3 trains.
Of course, Lincoln Center, including the NYPL Performing Arts Library’s Theatre on Film & Tape Archive. Do people know about this? They have recordings of original productions, including many of mine. You can see how audiences experienced so many shows, going back decades. It’s incredible.
This neighborhood has such a wonderful mix of people, most of whom are very decent and are not schnorrers.
WSR: But we do love to eat. Where are your go-to spots?
JZ: I start my day at Silver Moon Bakery with a rustic baguette and coffee; it’s from heaven. Zabar’s because the nova is the best ever. The product is exquisite, as is Barney Greengrass. I love meeting a friend there for a bialy and a cup of coffee. You go into a place like that on the Upper East Side, you could die at the prices, you could die reading the menu.
WSR: Any of these joints could make for a great new comedy…
JZ: Ha! Just standing on line at Silver Moon, trying not to become impatient. What’s essentially dramatic about living here is related to something I always preach to actors: Find the behavior that will protect the possibility of a happy ending. Watching people try to stay civilized while you’ve got trucks and buses and people asking for money and people being loud on their cell phones, always something coming at you. You gotta be alert. You get through a day on the UWS, you’ve accomplished something.
WSR: And you do it with a terrific head of hair. Can we plug your stylist?
JZ: Jie from Kenny’s Styling Salon on Amsterdam near 85th. She’s terrific.
WSR: OK, circling back to theatre, how can WSR readers help jumpstart the community’s recovery?
JZ: Buy tickets. And not just Broadway. There’s a whole vibrant world of theatre that really needs support. Places like Ensemble Studio Theatre that’s dedicated to new works, new writers, very socially conscious. Manhattan Theatre Club does wonderful work. And everything at Lincoln Center.
WSR: You’ve got to be the busiest septuagenarian I’ve ever met. Does retirement even cross your mind?
JZ: No. Never. I’m not even close. I’m so lucky to have found something I love that I get to do…working with the best of the best. Bette Midler, Hugh Jackman, Rob McClure, Nathan Lane — you know what they all have in common? They are the hardest working people. They make it look so incredibly effortless because they work harder than you could ever imagine.
WSR: So inspiring to be around.
JZ: Who would give that up? I’ve had ups and downs in my career, but the ups have been so ecstatic. There’s an indescribable sound at the end of a show that’s really worked. It’s a roar, a roar of appreciation, 1200 people saying: thank you. Whoa! Where else do you get that in life?