The King of Broadway: Jerry Zaks ’67
Falling in love was the last thing sophomore Jerry Zaks expected to happen when he took a blind date to a production of Wonderful Town at the Hop one night. But just a few scenes into the musical, he suddenly realized he was head over heels. “I’d never had any interest in the theater before, but I experienced something so ecstatic that night, it changed my whole life,” he says. And the girl? “Oh I don’t know,” he adds. “Never saw her again.”
Five decades later, Zaks is as smitten as ever with the stage. As the director of 24 Broadway shows, including long-running musicals such as Guys and Dolls, Anything Goes, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe and plays such as The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation, he’s won four Tony awards and last year earned his eighth nomination for Hello, Dolly! “They just don’t make ’em like this anymore,” raved Variety of the hot ticket revival.
Zaks isn’t just a name that savvy audience members are happy to see in the playbill. He gets high praise from his cast and crew members as well. “Working with Jerry is like stepping in a comfortable room,” says Dolly costar Victor Garber, who first worked with Zaks in 1988 in a play at New York’s Public Theater. “He is involved in every aspect of his shows, and he’s very paternal in how he shapes and molds our performances. But if you see him watching the show, it’s like watching a kid. He loves it.”
At the back of the Shubert Theatre, while a couple of dancers rehearse a fast-paced number on stage, Zaks does indeed get a look of childlike wonder on his face. “I’m just giddy,” he says, beaming as he watches the action on stage. “And it’s not drug-induced! Sitting in these chairs, in this theater, with them rehearsing and me talking to you, even though you probably can’t hear me over the music—it’s the best.”
Zaks could be referred to as Broadway’s “it” boy if it weren’t for the fact that he’s 71.
It’s no wonder Zaks is feeling rejuvenated. With not one but three hit shows playing in the 2017-18 season (Meteor Shower, written by Steve Martin; A Bronx Tale, codirected with Robert De Niro; and, of course, his revival of Hello, Dolly!) he could be referred to as Broadway’s “it” boy if it weren’t for the fact that he’s 71. “I’m having a great Act II, aren’t I?” he says with a grin.
He’s hesitant to pick a favorite from his many productions through the years, but directing the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls was one of his proudest gigs. And the one he was the most worried about delivering on. “I had so many people tell me, ‘Guys and Dolls is my favorite show,’ ” he says. “And I knew that was code for ‘Don’t f*** it up!’ ”
He didn’t. The show was nominated for eight Tony awards and won four, including Zaks’ win for best director. But the real prize for him is knowing he’s given theatergoers an experience they won’t forget. “I’ve been lucky to hear the roar of an audience’s gratitude several times in my life, and there’s nothing like it,” says Zaks. “The shows that induce those cheers are the ones I love most. When you get it right, it’s hard to describe the joy.”
As talented as he is as a theater director, he wasn’t as self-assured behind the camera when he took a five-year intermission (2002-07) to call the shots on TV shows such as Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond. “I felt like a stranger in a strange land,” he says. “I didn’t have the tech skills, and I didn’t bother to learn them. Here, I can fix anything. Or at least I think I can.”
He was asked to do exactly that in 2009, when he was hired to revamp a couple of productions that were in critical condition: The Addams Family and Sister Act. Then in 2015, over dinner with his partner, Faye Fisher, and Hollywood producer Scott Rudin and his husband, Zaks was offered his dream gig. Rudin had just purchased the rights to Hello, Dolly! and asked Zaks if he wanted to take it on. He didn’t even have to think about it. Dolly was the first Broadway show he saw as a college student, with Donald Marcus ’68, who remains a close friend. This fall Zaks is guiding its national tour as well as the tour for A Bronx Tale. He’s also staging a play at Lincoln Center by writer John Guare that opens early next year.
His biggest fans are his daughters, Hannah, 29, and Emma, 35. “He did anything to make us laugh growing up,” says Hannah. “And he’ll still do anything to embarrass us. We’ll be walking down the street, and he’ll pretend to trip just to get a reaction from people. He loves seeing that moment of panic in them before they realize he’s okay.”
He certainly gave his wife quite the scare during a trip to Florida when their kids were little. Jill was snoozing on a lounge chair at the beach with a towel over her head, and her mischievous husband quietly crumbled some nacho chips onto her stomach to see if a bird would come eat them. As he, Hannah, and Emma watched from a few yards away, a giant crow landed on her and started pecking away. “She bolted up and started screaming. My dad was laughing so hard,” says Hannah.
With antics like that, it’s probably for the best that Zaks didn’t fulfill his parents’ dream that he become a doctor. Following that fateful blind date at the Hop, Zaks switched paths from premed to the arts, much to the dismay of his parents, Lily and Sy, who had their hearts set on him becoming a doctor or lawyer. As newlyweds living in Poland during World War II, both were seized by the Nazis. Lily was taken to Auschwitz, and Sy escaped his captors and masqueraded as a gentile. After the war they reunited in Stuttgart, Germany, and moved to the United States when their son was 2 in hopes of finding a secure life for him.
“To them, me wanting to be an actor was cause for grieving,” says Zaks, who was raised in Paterson, New Jersey, where his father owned a kosher butcher shop. “It was forbidden in my family to be in the arts. That was something for gypsies, whores, and thieves.” (His younger brother Allen became a lawyer, so at least one of their sons had a respectable profession.)
The decision to follow his dream transformed Zaks. At Dartmouth he went from being a “fat, scared kid—I was raised thinking that Nazis were around every corner, so I was afraid of everything”—into a confident and determined young man who emceed shows at Green Key, took roles in every play he could, and was elected into Casque & Gauntlet.
“Don’t get me emotional,” he says, wiping his eyes before wagging a finger at me. “It’s like I finally got happier at Dartmouth. I finally had an identity.”
In 1999 he returned to Hanover to receive an honorary degree, a moment he’ll always treasure. He still beats himself up over missing his 50th reunion last summer. It was the same weekend as the Tonys, and Dolly was up for eight awards, including his first nod for best director in 11 years. “It was not an easy decision,” he says. “I feel such a bond with my classmates and wanted to see everyone, so it was a huge disappointment to not be there.”
After receiving his A.B. in English (there was no drama major in the 1960s), Zaks was accepted into the M.F.A. program at Smith College. By the end of his schooling, he was 40 pounds leaner than when he left high school. Before he started taking directing jobs, he spent a number of years acting. After doing some commercials and guest parts in TV shows, he got his first major stage role, as Kenickie in the original production of Grease on Broadway (1973). It was also his first show his parents came to see. But the most meaningful night to Zaks was a few years later, when they saw him play the tailor Motel in Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel in the lead role as Tevye.
“My father was a huge fan of Zero’s and spoke to him in Yiddish after the show for about 20 minutes,” says Zaks, pausing to find a picture on his iPhone. It’s a photo of his parents at the show, taken just a year before his father died. They both look very proud, smiling for the camera with their son and Mostel. “This means so much to me because it was taken right after my dad asked Zero, ‘So, is my son going to be all right in this fakakta business?’ And I heard Zero tell him, ‘Yes. He is going to be more than all right.’ ”
BE NICE, OR ELSE
Jerry’s Rules of Rehearsal
“Rehearsal is where actors must feel free to create and play without fear of embarrassment,” says Zaks. “A place where they can experiment with no concern about being judged. My job is to protect the process by creating a safe environment.” These are his rules.
(1) No outsiders observe rehearsals.
(2) Actors do not direct each other. Ever.
(3) If an actor has an issue, he or she expresses it to me privately.
(4) No one’s personal agenda will upstage the work.
(5) Be nice or get out.
Jennifer Wulff is a contributing editor to DAM.
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello