Comedy — with sharp edges

Comedy — with sharp edges

Jerry Zaks, once of Paterson, now of Broadway, gets lifetime honor from Folksbiene

On opening night for “Meteor Shower,” from left, playwright Steve Martin, stars Jerry Shamos and Keegan-Michael Key, and director Jerry Zaks all beam at the camera.
On opening night for “Meteor Shower,” from left, playwright Steve Martin, stars Jerry Shamos and Keegan-Michael Key, and director Jerry Zaks all beam at the camera.

Jerry Zaks is happy.

But then again — who wouldn’t be?

The actor-turned Broadway-director — who grew up in Paterson — is having a career year, with three successful productions igniting audiences on the Great White Way.

It’s not like the four-time Tony winner — he’s been nominated eight times — hasn’t enjoyed success before. But after a lengthy dry spell — more on that later — there is a sense of redemption, further validated (as if that possibly could be necessary) by a special award for lifetime achievement he just has been given by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

Though satellites, cell towers, and transmission lines stand between us, there is no mistaking the bubbles of joy in his voice. “It feels good,” Jerry Zaks understates. “It feels very good.

“I could go on, but I’ll tell you, I’ve just been doing what I’ve always been doing, material that appeals to me.

“Somehow there was a confluence of the stars and I got to do my dream show, ‘Dolly.’ Then there was the [musical] ‘Bronx Tale,’ something I’ve loved ever since I did the one-man [dramatic] show with Charles Palminteri and the third one is ‘Meteor Shower,’ which gave me an opportunity to work with Steve Martin, the hardest working, most talented and least precious writer I’ve ever worked with.”

Which is saying a lot, considering he’s directed the works of Neil Simon (“Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” “45 Seconds From Broadway,”) John Guare (“House of Blue Leaves,” “Six Degrees of Separation”), and Abe Burrows (“Guys and Dolls”). And that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg of a four-decade career.

Mr. Zaks, 71, was born in Germany, the son of survivors. His mom, Lilly, made it through Auschwitz; his dad, Sy, a butcher, survived in hiding. The family moved to Paterson, where Jerry was raised.

“I grew up in a house where people were very wary of anyone who was different than us,” he said. “Also I grew up scared, and I had to learn how to manage those fears.

“Both my parents had a ferocious determination to survive, and I like to think I inherited that gene. No amount of bad shows that don’t work, the ones I did in that difficult period, made me give up.

“I think that has a large part to do with the gift my parents gave me.”

Mr. Zaks spent the first decade of his career as an actor, principally as a co-founder and member of the prestigious Ensemble Theater Company. In the late 1970s, a fellow Ensemble member said he’d come across a script he wanted to act in and asked Mr. Zaks to direct.

“I did, and discovered that I loved orchestrating the lives between actors on stage,” Mr. Zaks said. Shortly after that, he directed EST’s critically acclaimed “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You” by Christopher Durang — and it was off to the races for him.

In quick succession, Mr. Zaks directed “Blue Leaves” (and won a Tony), “The Front Page,” “Anything Goes,” “Lend Me a Tenor” (and won another Tony), seemingly ad infinitum.

But then the success went to his head.

“I was arrogant,” Mr. Zaks said. “I thought I couldn’t do anything wrong. I had this string of successes, and I thought anything I touched would turn to gold. I didn’t really understand role the writers and performers and every other aspect of theater played.

“I only appreciated what I did to make them special. Nothing else mattered except my work.

“And I fell out of fashion.”

From 2011 to last year, when he worked with Robert DeNiro and their musical version of “A Bronx Tale” opened on Broadway after its well received debut at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, there was no Zaks presence on the Great White Way. Mr. Zaks kept busy mostly by doing television comedies.

Then, phoenix-like, his career rose from the ashes.

“I had a great Act One and a tough intermission,” Mr. Zaks said. “Now, all of a sudden, I’m having a great Act Two, because people in this business have a short memory. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have to take everything that’s offered.

“I get sent a lot of s—t, and I’m not going to say yes to something I don’t like.”

That raises the question of whether there is such a thing as a Jerry Zaks play. “I would leave that to someone else to decide if there is a style to my productions,” he said. “I like to think that I insist on a level of truthfulness from the actors. I like to work with actors capable of creating believable life or death circumstances. I like comedy with sharp edges.

“Let me put it this way. I want all 1,500 people in an audience looking at the same place at the same time I’m hearing the same thing. I control that. It’s not a film. I can’t cut. So I need to control where people are looking in my staging. It’s all about the service of the story.”

But how great is that control? Mr. Zaks has been involved in many star vehicles. How does he handle that? “It depends if the star also happens to be a really great hard-working professional. Being the star means you are famous, but it doesn’t guarantee necessarily that you are a hard-working, skilled actor.

“The great thing about working with Bette Midler [in “Hello Dolly”] is that she is one of the hardest working actresses I’ve worked with. She was never a diva. She recognized that you have to create a full team. If one impression is demanding it can ruin a show.

“It was the same thing with Amy Schumer in the new play, ‘Meteor Shower.’”

It is how you make suggestions that makes a difference, he said. “I’ll do it in private in a way that is respectful.”

Mr. Zaks sees his role as much a conductor as director. When a musical or straight play, it has a rhythm, and it is his job to find it “controlling all aspects and maximizing the experience.”

Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, is thrilled to recognize Mr. Zaks for his lifetime achievements. “He’s at the shpitz of his career,” Mr. Mlotek said. (According to our friend Google, that’s Yiddish for apex. Pinnacle. Height.) “With three shows running on Broadway at the same time!”

And there’s more, Mr. Mlotek said.

“He is a real mentsch.”

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