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Joseph Papp
Born Joseph Papirofsky
June 22, 1921
Brooklyn, New York
Died October 31, 1991
New York City, New York

Joseph Papp (June 22, 1921 - October 31, 1991) was an American theatrical producer and director. Papp established The Public Theater in what had been the Astor Library Building in downtown New York (still viable in 2009). "The Public," as it was known, had many small theatres within it. There, Papp created a year-round producing home to focus on new creations, both plays and musicals. Among numerous examples of these creations were the works of David Rabe, Ntozake Shange's " For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" and Papp's production of Michael Bennett's Pulitzer-Prize winning musical, "A Chorus Line." At Papp's death, The Public Theatre was renamed The Joseph Papp Public Theatre.

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Early life

Papp was born Joseph Papirofsky in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Yetta (née Miritch), a seamstress, and Samuel Papirofsky, a trunkmaker.[1] His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. He was a high school student of Harlem Renaissance playwright Eulalie Spence. Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954 with the aim of making Shakespeare's works accessible to the public. In 1957, he was granted the use of Central Park for free productions of Shakespeare's plays. This legacy of Papp's has continued (through 2009) at the open-air Delacorte Theatre every summer in Central Park.

Founder of the Public Theater

Papp spent years of entrepreneurial zeal and dogged persistence promoting his idea of free Shakespeare in New York City. Papp's 1956 production of Taming of the Shrew, outdoors in the East River Amphitheatre on New York's Lower East Side, was pivotal for Papp, primarily because Brooks Atkinson, known as the dean of American theatre critics, went downtown to see it and endorsed Papp's vision in The New York Times. Actress Colleen Dewhurst, who played Kate the shrew, recalled the beginning of the shift in fortune (in an autobiography published posthumously as a collaboration with Tom Viola): "With Brooks Atkinson's blessing, our world changed overnight. Suddenly in our audience of neighbors in T-shirts and jeans appeared men in white shirts,jackets and ties, and ladies in summer dresses. Suddenly we were 'the play to see,' and everything changed. We were in a hit that would have a positive effect on my career, as well as Joe's, but I missed the shouting. I missed the feeling of not knowing what might happen next or how that play would that night move an audience unafraid of talking back."

By age 41, after Papp had established a permanent base for his free Summer Shakespeare performances in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, an open-air amphi-theatre, Papp looked for an all-year theater he could make his own. After looking at other locations, he fell in love with the location and the character of Lafayette Street’s Astor Library. Papp got it, in 1967, at a reported one dollar yearly rental from the City. It was the first building saved from demolition under the New York City landmarks preservation law. After massive renovations, Papp moved his staff to the newly named Public Theater, hoping to attract a newer, less conventional audience to new and innovative playwrights.

At the Public Theater, Papp's focus moved away from the Shakespearean classics and toward new work. Notable Public productions included Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody (the first off-Broadway show, and the first play by an African American, to win the Pulitzer Prize) and the plays of David Rabe, Tom Babe, and Jason Miller. Papp called his productions of Rabe's plays "the most important thing I did at the Public.[2] Papp managed to produce plays that spoke to their own time. Just as Rabe's work reflected the concerns of its time (Vietnam and American imperialism), Papp's production in 1985 of Larry Kramer's play "The Normal Heart" dared to address, in its time, the prejudicial political system which was turning its back on the AIDS crisis and the gay community.

As festival designer Ming Cho Lee put it, “With the new playwrights, the whole direction of the theater changed. Joe changed direction and none of us realized for a while that he had changed direction. The Public Theater became more important than the Delacorte. The new playwrights became more interesting to Joe than Shakespeare."

Among the myriad plays and musicals Papp produced, Papp is perhaps best known for four productions which transferred to commercial Broadway runs: the original version of Galt MacDermot's Hair, a star-studded production of The Pirates of Penzance, self-proclaimed black feminist Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf" and the anomaly that was A Chorus Line.

A Chorus Line originated with a series of taped interviews of dancers' reminiscences, down at the Public, overseen by director/choreographer Michael Bennett. Papp had given Bennett the kind of entrepreneurial support for which he was known, trusting Bennett with the time and space to flesh out his dream. Previously, Papp had not kept his producer's hands on the rights to Hair and did not gain from its Broadway transfer. Not so with this one. After this ground-breaking musical (which theatricalized its performers' true-life stories) transferred to a highly lucrative Broadway run, the show's earnings became a continuous financial support for Papp's work. The show received 12 Tony Award nominations and won nine of them, in addition to the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It ran for 6,137 performances, becoming the longest-running production in Broadway history up to that time. Its Tony Award for the Best Musical of the Year 1975 went to Papp, its producer. Its workshop system for developing musicals, which Bennett and Papp had pioneered, revolutionized the way Broadway musicals were created thereafter, and many of the precedents for workshops' aesthetics and contract agreements were set by Papp, Bennett and "A Chorus Line."

Outdoor performances at the Delacorte Theatre

Papp's Delacorte Theatre brought some of the most exciting actors and actresses in America, some celebrated, some not, to outdoor Shakespeare and to New York audiences for free. Among the memorable performances (including some from before Papp had the Delacorte for his Shakespeare) were George C. Scott's Obie-award winning Richard III in 1958; Colleen Dewhurst's Kate, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra (opposite George C. Scott's Mark Antony), and Gertrude; the Hamlet of Stacy Keach opposite Dewhurst's Gertrude with James Earl Jones' King Claudius, Barnard Hughes's Polonius and Sam Waterston's Laertes; Sam Waterston's Hamlet (opposite the Gertrude of Ruby Dee) with the Laertes of John Lithgow and Andrea Marcovicci's Ophelia; the Benedick and Beatrice of Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes in Much Ado About Nothing with Barnard Hughes's Keystone Kops version of Dogberry; the early work of Meryl Streep as Isabella in Measure for Measure; Mary Beth Hurt as Randall Duk Kim's daughter in Pericles; James Earl Jones as King Lear (1973) with Rosalind Cash and Ellen Holly as his wicked daughters; Raul Julia as Edmund in Jones' 1973 King Lear, as Osric to Keach's Hamlet, and as Proteus (in a musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona which transferred to a Broadway run). Julia also played Othello with Frances Conroy as his Desdemona and Richard Dreyfuss as Iago. And, in 1968, one year before his breakthrough in The Subject was Roses, Martin Sheen played Romeo.

The New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte was not exclusively for Shakespeare. Papp would sometimes vary the summertime fare. In the summer of 1977 Gloria Foster was Clytmnestra in the towering Greek tragedy "Agamemnon" followed by Raul Julia as Macheath in Richard Foreman's production of Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which later transferred to Lincoln Center. He was also a Gilbert and Sullivan lover. So, in 1980, to commemorate the centenary of The Pirates of Penzance, Papp mounted a souped-up, modernized version of the opera at The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. The show was a sensation, and Papp transferred it to the Broadway stage, where it ran for over 800 performances. It won Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Director, Wilford Leach, and Best Actor -- Kevin Kline -- and Linda Ronstadt was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical. The Papp production was much criticized in Gilbert & Sullivan circles. To make the opera more suitable for a Broadway audience, Papp's creative team wrote new orchestrations for a synthesizer-based orchestra. Musical tags were expanded or contracted, verses were transposed. The "fight scene" between the pirates and police, to which Sullivan had allotted only ten chords, was entirely rewritten. The Act II finale was restored to its first-night state. Liberties were taken with the dialogue too, though certainly not to the same degree as the music.

Papp's aesthetic included an egalitarian, political vision. He was a pioneer in a commitment to non-traditional casting, using a variety of ethnicities and colors of actors in his new plays and Shakespeare productions. Likewise, partly out of his relationship with his gay son Tony, Papp aligned himself with gay and lesbian concerns in at least two specific instances. He fought anti-obscenity provisions that Congress briefly imposed on the National Endowment for the Arts during the Reagan Presidency, and he chose to produce The Normal Heart, which passionately decried institutionalized "homophobia" as well as Mayor Koch's response to the AIDS crisis.

A complete listing of Festival productions is available in Joe Papp: An American Life by Helen Epstein.

Fostering the Growth of New York Theatre

In addition to founding the New York Shakespeare Festival, Papp played a key role in the fostering of theatre throughout New York, in particular, the development of numerous Off Broadway theatres throughout his years as head of the NYSF. Among the many theatres that Papp supported (often with funds from successful Broadway transfers, such as A Chorus Line) were Theatre for a New Audience, which presented several productions at the NYSF, and the Riverside Shakespeare Company, for whom Papp took a special interest, beginning with the sponsorship of the New York premiere of Brecht's The Life of Edward II of England in 1982, continuing with the financial underwriting of Riverside's New York Parks Tours of Free Shakespeare, including The Comedy of Errors in (1982), Merry Wives of Windsor in 1983, Romeo and Juliet in 1984, and Romeo and Juliet in 1985. In 1983, Papp dedicated newly renovated theatre of The Shakespeare Center with Helen Hayes.[3]

Humanitarian Fund Created in Papp's Honor

In 2000 the Joseph Papp Children's Humanitarian Fund was founded. The Fund serves as the humanitarian arm of international Jewish children's club Tzivos Hashem's, activities in the Ukraine. These projects include the[4] Esther and William Benenson and Family Homes for Boys and Girls,[5] The Marcia Wilf and Ira Yavarkovsky Children’s Medical Clinic,[6] Food on Wheels bus,[7] Wheels for Life bus,[8] Eye Care Center and[9] Kids to Kids Clothes, Gift, and Craft Drives. The Fund holds an annual silent auction in New York City as a fundraiser, drawing the endorsement, and often the attendance, of many contemporary celebrities.

Joseph Papp died of prostate cancer, aged 70. His fourth wife, Gail Merrifield Papp, his full partner in the Public Theatre, survived him. His son Tony did not, dying of complications related to AIDS only months before. On April 23, 1982, the Public Theatre was renamed The Joseph Papp Public Theatre. His biography Joe Papp: An American Life was written by journalist Helen Epstein and published in 1994. He is buried in the Baron Hirsch Cemetery on Staten Island.[10]

References

External links

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