CLEVELAND, Ohio Legends must start somewhere. And for Gerald Freedman, it was somewhere Lorain, Ohio.
He made history as the first Yankee to perform at the Shakespeares Globe in London and directed the world premiere of the American musical Tribal Love-Rock Hair. He taught Mandy Patinkin to Juilliard how to bring the truth to each party and continues to scare generations of northeastern Ohioans with his adaptation of A Christmas Carol for Great Lakes Theater.
But well before all that, Freedman learned all that it needed to know to be human and to make grow the theater in a magnificent Jewish house in the satellite of the small city of Cleveland.
His parents Barnie, a dentist, and Fannie, a history teacher, both emigrating from Tsarist Russia, raised their son with a steady regime of compassion, art and song, the lines of Freedmans’ extraordinary career who has covered theatrical genres as easily as the fingers of a virtuoso finds octaves on a piano.
He took art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and won a painting scholarship at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He first went on stage as a member of the Curtain Pullers of the Cleveland Play House and sang tenor solos with the choirs of Lorain High School and the Agudath Bnai Israel Synagogue.
Freedman never failed to credit his aesthetic incubation at Lorain for the renaissance man of the theater that he has become. His versatility was second to none, says Bill Rudman, founding director of the Musical Theater Project and member of the research committee of the Great Lakes Theater who courted Freedman for the position of artistic director in late 1984.
Who, after all, could follow the flamboyant wake of Vincent Dowling, the Irish native known for his daring staging of the eight and a half hours of Nicholas Nickleby’s life and adventures and for hiring a young Tom Hanks?
They were looking for a giant and they got one.
I don’t know of any other American director who has also produced Shakespeare classics from around the world, new plays, musicals, operas and even television, says Rudman. He did it all.
Until recently, says Rudman, his old friend still read the New York Times every day, despite a series of life-changing shots in 2011. Freedman died on Tuesday at his home in Winston-Salem, where he was Dean Emeritus of the Theater School of the School of Arts at the University of North Carolina. He was 92 years old.
Freedman, famous for his work, had no children, but only in the biological sense. He is the artistic father of too many to name, but among them they have created some of the most memorable arts of the 20th and 21st centuries in small and large theaters, on television and in film.
They are directors and designers. They are playwrights, producers and teachers. And they are actors: Patinkin and Patti LuPone; William Hurt and Billy Magnussen; Christine Baranski and Chita Rivera; and so many others.
I really feel like it gave birth to most of us in the game, wrote Patinkin, in a preface to The School of Doing: Lessons from Theater Master Gerald Freedman by Freedman sidekick Isaac Klein .
He is my artistic DNA. He is my artistic father. It’s my egg and my sperm all in one.
… were all parents, all of us in this business who choose to work Jerrys.
Inevitably, anyone who has ever collaborated with Freedman in New York Central Park or in a historic Broadway home or in the basement of a dilapidated block of the Ohio Theater YMCA where Freedman and its castings of the Great Lakes had the ‘habit of repeating have become part of his large and distant -flung artistic family.
They were all related, said Patinkin. … And what is this DNA connection? We have a greater sensitivity to the human condition … we all have the same genetic code.
Some have said in the past: You should be a rabbi. I am. Theater is my pulpit to illuminate joy, love, compassion, joy and empathy for the human condition.
Gerald Freedman, in an address to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 2008.
After graduating from Lorain High School, Freedman trained as a singer and classical actor at Northwestern University, where he fell in love with mentor and star designer Alvina Krause, a theater professor who also trained Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, Garry Marshall and a host of other notables.
Diploma in hand, Freedman boarded a train in Lorain and found himself at Grand Central Station the next morning. He paid rent in the 1950s in New York, painting sets, singing in churches, and playing the piano in a cocktail bar. He landed a concert to direct a production of As You Like It, his first stab at Shakespeare, drawing the attention of a Hollywood scout among the audience.
Soon, he was under contract with Columbia Pictures, working as a dialogue coach with idolized hid stars as a boy from the Midwest to go to the nickel cinema in Lorain: Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford and the great comedian actress Judy Holliday of celebrity Born Yesterday. Holliday was on his way to New York to do his first Broadway musical, Bells Are Ringing, with Jerome Jerry Robbins. Freedman would he come?
Freedman quickly established himself as an interpreter and convenience store for Robbins, capable of navigating the mercurial moods of the brilliant and brutal director / choreographer, whom he helped in West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959).
I went to repair Jerrys’ damage with actors, said Freedman in the biography of Robbins Dance With Demons.
I don’t mean that in a negative way. It was just because he didn’t know how to talk to them.
Freedman did it. His ability to connect with any veteran actor like Hal Holbrook, tapping into Lear’s rage to betray his children, kid playing Tiny Tim and demanding that they push harder and dig deeper, have made of him a mentor sought in his last years, and a talent in demand at the beginning of his career.
He also knew how to speak to the fearsome Robbins.
Freedman stood up to the author at the start of their relationship after turning fiercely like a burrow against me, Freedman told Robbins biographer Greg Lawrence.
… I was scared like hell. … but I said, Jerry, you can’t talk to me like that … and after that I somehow earned his respect.
Robbins did not prosecute people maliciously, said Freedman, but in pursuit of perfection.
It was a goal that the men shared, as anyone who has worked with Freedman can attest. They also shared a bravado that led to one of Freedmans’ most satisfying roles: a first American translator of the Bard.
After watching a New York Shakespeare production of As You Like It with George C. Scott, Freedman sent a letter to producer Joe Papp, writing, I think I can do a better production.
Freedmans The Taming of the Shrew for Papp in Central Park in 1960 prompted New Republic critic Robert Brustein to declare: Loud, irreverent productions, the native approach to a familiar classic instantly delivered us from years of slavery to British models.
Bob saw that I had synthesized the worlds of vaudeville and musical theater with Shakespeare, said Freedman in his speech at the Kennedy Center. After all, Shakespeare was also a commercial playwright writing for a popular audience.
There is no better example of the remarkable lineup of Freedmans than the 1967-68 season, when he staged the bloody Titus Andronicus of Shakespeares in the park and the musical rock Hair to open the public theater in the two months apart.
Hair not only launched the audience, but the rock musical, fueled by Freedmans’ continued commitment to authenticity. Freedman captured the true spirit of the flower children littering St. Marks Place, and their movement to make love not war, by casting many pieces with coffee singers and sidewalk musicians.
Among the productions he directed as artistic director to the Public from 1967 to 1971 were Hamlet, with Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst, Sam Waterston and Raul Julia; and Much ado about nothing, with Kevin Kline and Blythe Danner.
I learned more about Jerry’s Shakespeare game than anyone else, remembers Keach in The School of Doing.
He shared my own feeling of making Shakespeare accessible to a modern audience, in a contemporary way, without violating the technical responsibilities of the text. To understand. Make Shakespeare, which is like a foreign language for many people, perfectly understandable in terms of behavior, in terms of expression of a line.
It was during these years that Freedman developed a Shakespeare approach to actors that truly reflects an American sensibility, wrote Great Lakes Theater playwright Margaret Lynch. Freedmans directing Shakespeare was extremely democratic, designed to reach everyone, from the scholar in the crowd capable of quoting couplets to the newcomer who learned English.
This skill, among other things, attracted Rudman and the search committee to Freedman as hippies at the East Village.
Freedman was open to movement. He wanted a home port where he could build a set of works. But Rudman thinks there was another selling point. He fell in love with the Ohio theater, says Rudman. Designed in spectacular neoclassical style by architect Thomas Lamb and built in 1921 as a Broadway home in Cleveland, his chance to lead in Ohio was a big reason why he wanted this job.
He was my theater father, he told me I could do it, so I did it.
Victoria Bussert, resident director of the Great Lakes Theater and responsible for the musical theater program at Baldwin Wallace University.
During her tenure from 1985 to 1997 at what was then known as the Great Lakes Theater Festival, Freedman used the bonds forged in her past life to bring renowned names to Playhouse Square: Olympia Dukakis embodied Mother Courage in 1992; Delroy Lindo raged and cried as Othello in 1993; and Tony Randall put on a powdered wig like the inflexible Sir Peter Teazle in The School for Scandal in 1995. Freedman then brought his production of Scandal to the New Yorks Lyceum Theater, one of his 15 directors on Broadway.
And it was Freedmans’ idea that Hal Holbrook, who had survived the spiritually empty price of televised work, feasted on the psychologically rich texts of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Arthur Miller in Cleveland.
As Lynch tells in The Fifty-Year History of Great Lakes Theater, hear that Holbrook was rehearsing his solo show Mark Twain Tonight! in a Playhouse Square theater in 1987, Freedman decided to stop. When the director entered the house, the actor was auditing while reciting passages from King Lear. Freedman immediately invited him to play the role in the Great Lakes …
Together, they staged an enviable trio of great works: Lear in 1990, Oncle Vanya in 1991 and Death of a Salesman in 1994.
As Holbrook told author Isaac Klein, he never forgot the lessons he learned from Jerry.
I was there, trying to make a scene, and I thought I was fine and Jerry stopped me and said … You are acting, Hal! You act! … Now start again and stop playing.
I did it again, about four times … and it was a … moment of recognition for me that I still had a lot to learn, and Jerry Freedman opened that door for me and invited me to go through there. … In your career, you need people who are eloquent enough, brave enough, who care enough about … dare to help you.
The uncompromising Freedman also brought new talent to the Great Lakes in the protg Victoria Bussert, now in her 34th season with the Clevelands Classic Theater Company. The two met while she was a graduate student at Northwestern, in a production of The Threepenny Opera. Bussert and other actors came together to hear criticism from the guest directors.
He didn’t like it. I was shocked! Bussert wrote on Facebook the day his mentor died. I had never heard anyone speak with so much passion, so directly about a production, I remember precisely wearing him on the soles of completely new Street Singers shoes (he was completely inappropriate for the character of this musical). At the time, I was probably offended at how daring he was to be so honest about a university production, but at the same time, I had to admit that I was somewhat intrigued. How was it possible to notice the sole of certain shoes in a theater with 1000 seats? Why was he so adamant on every detail? What was going on here?
The detail. the homeworksays Rudman, who served as associate director of education during the Freedman years.
Jerry was totally research-oriented, as was set designer John Ezell, says Rudman. If we were going to do [Federico Garcia Lorcas] Blood Wedding, which we did in 1988, the two had to go to Spain, for the love of God. You couldn’t do the room justice if you didn’t know the culture, the colors of the culture, all the visual aspects of the culture.
Often the design team draws inspiration from the paintings of modern artists. For an entirely white production of Cyrano de Bergerac, Freedman wanted a look inspired by the pure and playful cutouts that Henri Matisse created towards the end of his life, wrote Lynch.
When Ezell complained to Freedman that he couldn’t design like Matisse, the director replied: Don’t design LIKE Matisse. … Be Matisse!
In the 28 productions he makes, the only imperative is to aim higher than anyone would think.
In an interview for The Sound of Applause released in 2014 in honor of Freedmans A Christmas Carol’s 25th anniversary production, artistic director producer Charles Fee summed up Freedmans’ legacy.
The repertoire that Jerry created with this company … I must tell you that this is an absolutely amazing list of world theater. That’s it, from Dybbuk to Bakkhai via The Most Happy Fella; from Shakespeare to musicals to Shaw and Chekhov, Fee continued. Jerrys’ work was what we all grew up in theater and theater training aspired to do.
It’s hard to be a good artist, and you have to have people who force you, who challenge you. So we still live, I think, with Gerald’s challenge to be better.
WCPN FM / 90.3 host Dee Perry left the last word to Freedman. What would Gerald Freedman say about himself? she asked.
The old master stopped.
It was not him that he wanted people to remember. Only work. Always work.
I want them to fall in love with the good art of theater well theatrical art, not just performing. I never feel like I’m doing a show. It must have a deeper meaning and cover more people than shown. The best of theater explores all of these things in human nature, and I try to make them exist.
Legends must start somewhere and end somewhere too. Freedman will return home to Lorain County to be buried at the Salem Jewish Cemetery in the township of Sheffield, Ohio.
But his artistic sons and daughters, too numerous to name, will continue to make good theatrical art, just as he taught them, encouraging others to do the same, as long as the curtains go up.
Commemorative donations can be made to the Gerald Freedman Excellence Endowment Fund at the UNCSA Foundation, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem, NC 27127, or online.
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