THEATER : Covering All the Bases : Jack O'Brien, the energetic artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, segues from his record-breaking 'King Lear' to a Broadway-bound revival of the 1955 musical 'Damn Yankees'

Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer

Jack O'Brien was rehearsing Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" at the Old Globe Theatre here last year when managing director Thomas Hall interrupted with a question. Would O'Brien be interested in directing a major revival of "Damn Yankees" at the Old Globe?

"I just lit up and said, 'Absolutely, I'd love to,' " recalls O'Brien. "Then I went on with my rehearsal."

It was business as usual for the Old Globe's energetic artistic director. "Damn Yankees" opens at the Old Globe on Friday, starring Bebe Neuwirth, Victor Garber and Jere Shea. And it does so right after O'Brien concluded a triumphant production of "King Lear" starring Hal Holbrook.

O'Brien is, at 54, both busy and versatile. Here at home, he can pack the house for Shakespeare, Neil Simon and risky new plays. On Broadway, he received a 1976 Tony nomination for a revival of "Porgy and Bess," then another earlier this year for Richard Nelson's "Two Shakespearean Actors" at Lincoln Center.

"He's got good theater smarts," observes Bernard Gersten, Lincoln Center Theater's executive producer. "He's dramaturgically smart, he's actor-wise and he has a good feel for what plays."

Sometimes what plays best for O'Brien and the Old Globe is Shakespeare, helped along by a familiar name such as Campbell Scott in "Hamlet" or, more recently, Holbrook in "King Lear." Tickets often sell as if the Bard were Andrew Lloyd Webber: "King Lear" broke the Globe's box-office record for weekly sales--despite a playing time of more than three hours.

But what also plays well here, not to mention nearly everywhere else, are musicals, and O'Brien's production of "Yankees" is expected to open on Broadway next spring. With revivals like "Guys and Dolls," "She Loves Me" and "Carousel" either on Broadway or en route, O'Brien is getting his shot at reviving a musical classic.

"When anybody does a musical, people say, 'Why don't you hire Tommy Tune, Jerry Zaks, Mike Ockrent or Michael Blakemore,' " says Mitchell Maxwell, lead producer on the Broadway production of "Damn Yankees." "The only difference between those four directors and Jack O'Brien in terms of talent, expertise, taste and style is that they have each had a big, big hit musical on Broadway.

"When I discussed who was the equivalent and equal in talent but didn't have the 'reputation,' who hadn't created the musical yet to make his mark, the most important people in our business said 'Jack O'Brien.' "

"Damn Yankees," based on Douglas Wallop's 1954 novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," ran more than two years on Broadway, toured the nation, played London and emerged on screen. The Tony-winning show, which weaves the fable of a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil to help the Washington Senators trounce the Yankees, introduced such songs as "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" and "(You've Got to Have) Heart."

"When I looked at the skeleton of 'Damn Yankees,' I saw an indestructible story, absolutely original characters, one of the freshest, sassiest American scores of the century, and some outmoded equipment," the director says. "I saw a piece of furniture that should be stripped, hardware that should be dunked and shined, and drawers that should be oiled."

Legendary showman George Abbott, "Yankees' " 106-year-old co-author and original director, apparently agreed with him, and the two have met several times. As he puts it, Mr. Abbott--which is how O'Brien always refers to him--"knows what I know: If you've got a better idea than I do, I'll use it. And that has made all the difference."

The show is still set in 1955, but O'Brien has rethought characters and relationships as well as staging. A revised orchestration accommodates some new choreography and a smaller orchestra (which will be augmented on Broadway). The book has been edited to minimize scenes that essentially hid scenery changes.

"There is no question in my mind that a certain amount of modernizing is a good idea," says director Harold Prince, who produced the show in 1955 and has informally followed the revisions. "Theater design has changed enormously since 1955, and you want to take advantage of progress."

Not that O'Brien knew going in that change would work. "I'll tell you the truth," O'Brien confides. "I never thought I'd get this far. It has been my experience, through 'Porgy and Bess' and 'Kiss Me Kate' (which he adapted for the Old Globe in 1984) that people are intimidated by change. When push comes to shove, they want it done exactly the way it was."

O'Brien, however, prefers "a reverent backward glance." Otherwise, he says, "you can't make a commitment to the material. You see it as something in a museum, and it doesn't seem to touch you. My job is to surprise you into realizing, as I try to do with Shakespeare, that people have never changed."

Consider King Lear's daughter Regan, whom O'Brien chose to make an alcoholic. "Do you really think there weren't alcoholics in the 16th Century? Of course there were. My feeling is to underscore the fact that the human dilemma changes its venue and clothes but never its intent. People always loved the same, felt disappointment and passion, betrayal and elation."

But don't misunderstand, he cautions: "I'm not a director who feels I should be in your face all the time. I really want you to watch the actors and listen to the play. I don't think I should be telling you every 10 minutes what to think. I like to leave the audience alone with the magic. I tend to trust the material or I don't do it. "

That's how O'Brien talks, making his point by speaking in italics, rolling his eyes or leaning in to whisper a confidence. Doing a two-minute riff on why his hair loss persuaded him to abandon acting, or noting how his Norwich terrier Pumpkin is "known to the industry as Punky," the director welcomes a visitor with the chatty, blithe manner of a musical-comedy character.

His office reflects that same shameless theatricality. O'Brien's corner of the Old Globe is smallish and has very little empty wall or desk space. The gray walls are covered with drawings, photos and other theater memorabilia--a cluttered testimonial to friends, philosophy and theater life.

O'Brien was so much a showman, even as a child, he says, that teachers employed him to keep younger kids quiet. He's no slouch today either, whether punctuating his frequent monologues with French words and phrases or spinning intricate tales of his life.

He was reared in Saginaw, Mich., and played piano by ear at 5 years old and swears his parents told him he was carrying a tune at 9 months. His businessman father sang in a barbershop quartet and was a frequent event host, telling jokes and stories.

After his father died, says O'Brien, "I found a notebook filled with the first three paragraphs of over 150 stories but none of the punch lines," he says. "If he got the story started right, he knew where to go."

So does O'Brien, who acknowledges the parallels in his own career. "I just translated (the storytelling) into another medium. I weave the company into what we laughingly call 'Jack's novel.' I write this novel for them about who they are and what's going on in their world. When I had 90 people in 'Porgy and Bess,' each had a story, history and family relationship."

On "Lear," for instance, Holbrook recalls the crucial scene in which Lear has already been cast out by one daughter and is about to be rejected by the second. "I look around," says Holbrook, slipping into character. "He has the stage filled with people, and each has a life and strong attitude about Lear. His stage pictures (provide) all these reactions to what Lear is doing, so they help the audience understand what's going on."

O'Brien says he learned from the best. "Part of why I'm sitting in this chair is that I was given a huge gift. In the '60s, right out of college, I was sucked into Ellis Rabb's APA (Assn. of Producing Artists) repertory company--Rosemary Harris, Will Geer, Nancy Marchand, Keene Curtis, blah, blah, blah. The sine qua non of their generation, a band of merry pranksters going from theater to theater doing mostly classical work."

The University of Michigan was one of their residencies, and student O'Brien reviewed their production of "The School for Scandal" for the Michigan Daily. Then, just a few years after graduation, he caught up with them again in New York and left a job teaching at Hunter College to become Rabb's assistant.

"I took a 50% pay cut to go for coffee for Rosemary and Ellis (who were married then), to walk the dog, iron sheets, serve dinner, write checks, pay bills. I cooked. I cleaned. I did whatever was necessary. I was like a personal servant. And I took notes and learned. I soaked it up.

"Most of that classical American theater tradition narrowed to an isthmus in the '60s, and I was the baby. They told me everything. They showed me everything. They encouraged me and berated me. They instructed, goaded, teased, confided in and inoculated me."

When APA disbanded in '69, he says, "I was a bona fide professional." He hooked up with college pal Bob James, with whom he'd created two musicals while at Michigan. The two men turned Joe McGinniss' "The Selling of the President" into a musical that played first at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, then went on to Broadway.

The show lasted just five performances on Broadway, and, disheartened, James concentrated on jazz, where he remains a well-known pianist and composer, while O'Brien set writing aside for directing. He free-lanced, then spent time as associate director of John Houseman's Acting Company.

Then, in the mid-'70s, came the chance to direct "Porgy and Bess" for Houston Grand Opera and later on Broadway. He may have been "the last person asked," he says, but he was nominated for a Tony and the show won a Tony as best revival.

O'Brien says he became a Shakespeare director "by some osmosis process," coming here first--"with the luggage"--in 1965 when Rabb directed at the Globe. The younger director was back in 1969 to direct "The Comedy of Errors," and directed several other Shakespearean productions as a visitor over the years.

In 1981, O'Brien took over the job of artistic director as well. Craig Noel, who had run the place since 1939, had been wanting to ensure artistic continuity. The need for a young, energetic artistic director became more urgent after the Old Globe burned down in 1979 and had to be rebuilt.

"There were some good names in the theater, but I felt Jack was at the right place in his career to be appointed," Noel says today. "Jack's a workaholic, and he's done great and wonderful things for us. I feel vindicated every day."

What intrigued O'Brien about the job? "I was 40. Although I loved New York and was comfortable, I didn't feel I could make a mark there. What I wanted to do, Joe Papp was doing, and there wasn't any room for me. I had to go somewhere else where there wouldn't be anybody like me so I could be heard."

Few places could be better to show off, not to mention test, O'Brien's versatility than the Old Globe, a place New York-based lighting designer David Segal calls O'Brien's "petri dish." The 58-year-old theater has 43,000 subscribers, many of them longtime residents who have been brought up on Shakespeare and theater.

Noel, O'Brien and managing director Hall, O'Brien's longtime production stage manager before they jointly joined the Globe, have apparently done well as a triumvirate. The Globe won the 1984 regional theater Tony, presents at least 12 shows a year and, with an annual budget of $8.4 million, is among the largest not-for-profit theaters in the nation.

Neil Simon calls O'Brien "the best thing that happened to San Diego and the complex there," and O'Brien indicates no plans to leave. Hall and he were interviewed a few years ago when the top post was open to run Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre--"at their invitation," says O'Brien-- and his name does pop up in short lists elsewhere from time to time. But he says he discourages such attention: "I don't really wish to run another company. I love where I am."

Actually, given the number of regional theater productions that wind up on Broadway these days, O'Brien can straddle both worlds from Balboa Park. The Globe has premiered future commercial shows about 10 times now--including A. R. Gurney's "The Cocktail Hour," Simon's "Rumors" and Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine's musical "Into the Woods"; Hall estimates the Old Globe has received royalties of nearly $500,000 from these shows to date.

Both Hall and O'Brien stress that they are producing for San Diego audiences first and foremost. O'Brien doesn't even want to talk about "Damn Yankees' " Broadway future--which was announced in New York a while ago--using "if" instead of "when" to discuss it.

Hall, in turn, says things like: "I'm very hopeful it will have commercial success beyond San Diego. But if it doesn't, we will still have provided our audiences with a large full-scale musical we couldn't otherwise have produced and done so without jeopardizing the financial future of the theater."

"Damn Yankees" will cost about $1.2 million to mount and run at the Globe--more than double "King Lear," says Hall. The Globe added 25% to its usual budget, he says, and also received $465,000 in enhancement money from "Yankees' " Broadway producer, Workin' Man Films.

The show is also expected to fare well at home. "Damn Yankees" is scheduled to close Nov. 14, but Hall says advance ticket sales already indicate a likely extension to Nov. 28. It can even be extended until Jan. 2, subject to actor availability.

What next for O' Brien? By the time "Yankees" starts Broadway previews next spring, the director will probably be rehearsing Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood" at New York's Lincoln Center Theater. And by the time that show is in previews, he should be back in San Diego rehearsing David Mamet's "Oleanna" for the Old Globe.

He has directed operas in San Diego and elsewhere as well as several shows for PBS' "American Playhouse," and appears to be eyeing film next. Saying he's been getting "bites and nibbles, usually when I'm not available," he predicts that within the next calendar year he'll become involved in film as well.

That's not all. Long a proponent of multimedia enclaves of acting talent, O'Brien calls it "an idea that is ready to happen. We have all the talent and technique to become our own miniature Merchant Ivory organization. All of the artists in and out of this theater have generous profiles in other media. If somebody gave us a chunk of money--virtually what they pay for postage in a studio--we could probably do a miniseries."

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