Joseph Papp took risks in theater productions from Shakespeare to 'Chorus Line'

A LIGHT GOES OUT

November 01, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

To American theatergoers, he was the Bard's best huckster, the ultimate showman, one singular sensation.

Joseph Papp, who died of prostate cancer yesterday at age 70, was the epitome of theater in America. As founder and producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, he brought Shakespeare to Central Park and "A Chorus Line" to Broadway (where it became the longest-running show ever). He was a cigar-chomping, Brooklyn-born guardian angel who boosted the careers of actors and playwrights including George C. Scott, Kevin Kline, David Henry Hwang, Wallace Shawn and Ntozake Shange. Under his aegis, Shakespeare Festival productions garnered 28 Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes.

How did he do it? Above all, he took risks. More than that. He courted danger. Along the way, he made enemies ranging from the House Un-American Activities Committee to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Interviewed in 1984 in Washington, where he was directing Victor Rozov's "The Nest of the Wood Grouse" -- which he imported from the Soviet Union after doggedly pursuing the rights for years -- Mr. Papp insisted that theater had to contain "an element of danger. . . . If there's nothing risked, who cares?"

During the interview, he was attempting to eat dinner in his hotel room, but the more loquacious he became, the less he ate. And although he complained about the difficulty of trying to do two things at once, he was clearly accustomed to it. That and chutzpah -- sheer nerve -- undoubtedly explains how Joseph Papp accomplished so much in one lifetime.

"Chutzpah" is a word Mr. Papp would have known as a child, long before he got to know Shakespeare. The son of a Polish trunk-maker and a Lithuanian seamstress, he spoke Yiddish at home and learned English as a second language. In fact, he last visited Baltimore in 1989 when he received an honorary doctorate and delivered the commencement address at Baltimore Hebrew University. At the time, Baltimore Hebrew president Dr. Leivy Smolar cited him for his dedication to Yiddish and his "intensive" return to his Jewish heritage.

His childhood in the tough Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was followed by four years in the Navy, and both probably contributed to his populist approach to theater. His desire to bring theater to the masses reached fruitition in 1956 when he began presenting free outdoor Shakespeare productions in New York. A year later, the flatbed truck carrying his touring productions broke down in Central Park; he claimed squatters rights and never left, presenting free, summer productions that draw thousands per performance.

In 1967 the Shakespeare Festival found permanent, indoor quarters in a five-theater complex in the landmark Astor Library. The opening production was the trend-setting musical "Hair." Among the many memorable risk-taking plays that followed were Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," one of the first plays about AIDS (to which Mr. Papp lost a son in June); "Aunt Dan and Lemon," Wallace Shawn's biting commentary on right-wing politics; and a host of dramas about the Vietnam War, including David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones" and John DiFusco's collabortive work, "Tracers."

However, while Mr. Papp made many selections reflecting his strong social conscience, he also appreciated the value of pure entertainment, represented by such Broadway transfers as "The Pirates of Penzance" with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," and, of course, "A Chorus Line," whose profits financed many years of chancier productions. His wide range of interests even included a brief foray into opera, bringing him to Baltimore in the early 1960s to direct two productions at the Peabody Conservatory.

And no matter what else he was up to, Mr. Papp never forsook his commitment to popularize Shakespeare. Not only was he a major proponent of cross-cultural casting, but he also believed that the Bard's Elizabethan English was better spoken by American actors than their British counterparts, whom he claimed made it "too sing-songy." In 1987, the Festival embarked on an ambitious project of producing all 36 of Shakespeare's plays.

In August, Mr. Papp made what was to be his last gutsy theatrical move. He appointed avant-garde director JoAnne Akalaitis to succeed him as artistic director. Perhaps aware that there was no one else like him, he chose someone completely different.

Mr. Papp is survived by his fourth wife, the former Gail Merrifield, and four children from his first three marriages. Broadway theaters will dim their lights in his memory at 8 o'clock tonight -- an understated but fitting tribute to the flamboyant spirit who helped them shine so brightly for so long.

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