By the time the 1950s came along, George Abbott had already had a career as a major Broadway producer, director, and writer. Abbott had been involved in numerous hits and innovative shows, including in the 1940s Pal Joey, On the Town, and High Button Shoes. It seemed as if he could do no wrong, or at least, very little, wrong.
The New Decade
Abbott kicked off the decade of the 1950s by directing Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. With choreography by Jerome Robbins, music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the musical opened at the Imperial Theatre in NYC on October 12, 1950. It ran for 644 performances after garnering strong positive reviews.
One of his biggest hits of the decade, The Pajama Game, opened on Broadway on May 13, 1954. It ran for 1,063 performances. It was a typical Abbott production. He directed it, but he also got partial credit as book writer. Richard Bissell, who wrote the novel 7 ½ Cents, on which the musical was based, also received credit for the book. The lyrics and music were by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, although others contributed to both.
There was an amalgamation of talent associated with The Pajama, including two choreographers, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. John Raitt, Janis Paige, and Carol Haney starred. This is the production in which Haney broke an ankle during the run and a relative newcomer named Shirley McClain replaced her and found herself on the way to stardom.
But in the 1950s, it was the 1955 hit musical Damn Yankees, with book by Abbott and Douglas Wallop, music by Richard Adler, and lyrics by Jerry Ross, that stood as Abbott’s biggest achievement. Abbott directed, Fosse choreographed, and Hal Prince produced. It was nominated for nine Tonys and won seven. Damn Yankees ran for 1,019 performances and became a mega-hit movie.
Late 1950s- 1960s
As the 1960s drew near, the hits would come harder for Abbott. He was certainly still a vital and important power in the theatre. In the late 50s, he was associated with New Girl in Town (1957), Once Upon a Mattress (1959), and Fiorello! (1959). He directed all three and was involved in writing the book for all but Once Upon a Mattress.
By the time his last major hit appeared in a Broadway theatre, which was the original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Abbott, who directed, was 75 years old. Hal Prince produced the show, which had music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. The musical, which ran for close to 1,000 performances, won numerous Tonys, including garnering Abbott one for best director. This was not George Abbott’s swan song. But it was the last time he would enjoy such success.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, 10 more Broadway projects would follow. His last production involved Abbott working on revisions on the book for Damn Yankees for the 1994 revival. He died the next year at the age of 107. For George Abbott, the Broadway stage had given him a truly amazing career, and for eight decades he had given life to hit after hit and had entertained millions of Broadway theatergoers. It is a career in the American theatre that is unprecedented.