Opinion

Frank Galati, Mainstay of Chicago Theater, Dies at 79

Frank Galati, a writer, director and actor whose work in Chicago, especially his celebrated adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” furthered that city’s international reputation in theater, and whose long résumé included directing the Broadway hit “Ragtime,” died on Monday in Sarasota, Fla. He was 79.

His husband, Peter Amster, said the cause was complications of cancer.

Mr. Galati was a towering figure in Chicago-area theater for decades, working with the Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters and other houses there and teaching at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He specialized in adaptations, and in 1988 his version of John Steinbeck’s dust-bowl epic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was a hit for Steppenwolf.

He both wrote and directed “The Grapes of Wrath,” though it took work to persuade Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine Steinbeck, to release the rights. She told The Chicago Tribune in 1988 that once she saw what Mr. Galati had done with the novel, she was glad she did.

“I took the script to bed with me,” she said. “As soon as I started reading it, I sat bolt upright. I didn’t think it would be that good.”

It was good enough to make the trip to Broadway, with Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Lois Smith leading the cast. When it opened at the Cort Theater in March 1990, Frank Rich reviewed it for The New York Times.

“The production at the Cort,” he wrote, “an epic achievement for the director, Frank Galati, and the Chicago theater ensemble at his disposal, makes Steinbeck live for a new generation not by updating his book but by digging into its timeless heart.”

The production earned Mr. Galati two Tony Awards, for best direction of a play and best play.

Gary Sinise, left, and Terry Kinney in Mr. Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The production’s run on Broadway in 1990 earned Mr. Galati Tony Awards for both writing and directing.

Later in the 1990s Mr. Galati directed another high-profile show, the musical “Ragtime.” Based on the E.L. Doctorow novel and adapted by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, it opened in Toronto in December 1996 to acclaim, and in January 1998 it settled in for a two-year run on Broadway. Mr. Galati received a Tony nomination for best direction of a musical.

Those were just two highlights from a career that stretched back to his college days at Northwestern, where, at the School of Communication, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1965, a master’s in 1967 and a doctorate in 1971. For the Forum Theater in 1973, he adapted “Boss,” the Chicago columnist Mike Royko’s book about Richard J. Daley, the city’s longtime mayor, into a musical, for which he also wrote the lyrics; it won a Joseph Jefferson Award (Chicago’s version of the Tonys) for best new play. Other Jeffersons followed, with Mr. Galati winning for directing, writing and acting.

Adaptations were a specialty — in addition to “The Grapes of Wrath,” the works he adapted included two books by Haruki Murakami, “Kafka on the Shore” and “after the quake” (Mr. Murakami’s only demand, Mr. Galati said, was that the title be rendered in lowercase letters), as well as William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and numerous others. He and Lawrence Kasdan even shared an Oscar nomination for adapting Anne Tyler’s novel “The Accidental Tourist” into the 1988 film of the same name.

“Almost every novel conceals a drama,” Mr. Galati told Stay Thirsty magazine in 2014. “Some of those dramas are very hard to coax out, some jump out of the book and run up onto the stage. Of course, if the novelist creates scenes that play through brilliant dialogue, that’s half the battle. That’s very true of Steinbeck. The scenes in his books are completely stage worthy. Other writers, like Henry James, are much harder to adapt.”

If he had success as an adapter, he told The New Haven Register in 2006, when “after the quake” was being staged at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., it was because he was “not afraid to keep much of the narrator’s voice.”

“Long narrative passages don’t scare me in performance,” he said.

Countless actors knew of Mr. Galati’s touch as a director, and many issued tributes on learning of his death.

“Every actor will know what I mean when I say Frank waited for me,” Molly Regan, a member of Steppenwolf, said in a statement. “He waited for me. He cast you, and then he trusted you. Sometimes he knew me as an actor better than I knew myself.”

Last year, when Mr. Galati was inducted in the Theater Hall of Fame, he returned those kinds of compliments.

“I’m honored, I’m humbled, I’m grateful,” he said in his acceptance speech, “but I cannot accept this honor for myself. Rather, I dedicate this honor to my students, and to every single actor I have been inspired by and learned from. The rehearsal hall is where I have spent the happiest hours of my life.”

A scene from the Broadway production of “Ragtime.” Mr. Galati’s direction of the show earned him a Tony nomination.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Frank Joseph Galati was born on Nov. 29, 1943, in Highland Park, Ill., north of Chicago. His father, also named Frank, was a dog trainer and boarder, and his mother, Virginia (Cassel) Galati, was a saleswoman with Marshall Field, the department store.

He grew up in Northbrook, Ill., and enrolled at Northwestern, where one of his earliest notices resulted from his appearance in a faculty and student talent show in 1964.

“A born comic, Frank Galati of Northbrook, a junior in the school of speech, made eight appearances,” The Chicago Tribune wrote. “In one, he portrayed a professor who spent so much time telling his class how far behind it was that he never caught up with the class schedule.”

Mr. Galati had a lifelong fascination with Gertrude Stein, which he incorporated into his theatrical life beginning in the mid-1970s, when he directed a reading of some of her works called “Have They Attacked Mary. He Giggled.” — a title borrowed from a Stein work. In 1976, for the Chicago Opera Theater, he directed “The Mother of Us All,” the Virgil Thomson opera for which Ms. Stein wrote the libretto.

In 1987, at the Goodman, he staged perhaps his most ambitious Stein-inspired piece, “She Always Said, Pablo,” featuring Ms. Stein’s words and Pablo Picasso’s works — the one a writer who expanded our view of language, the other an artist who changed our way of seeing. Richard Christiansen, reviewing it for The Tribune, called it “a high point of Galati’s work as an interpretive artist.” The production was later seen at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Mr. Galati said he found Ms. Stein’s texts mesmerizing.

“They’re just beautiful to listen to,” he told The Tribune in 1987. “They gallop, leap, jump and tinkle in our ears.”

Mr. Galati and Mr. Amster, who had been together for 52 years and married in 2017, relocated to Florida in the mid-2000s, about the time Mr. Galati took emeritus status at Northwestern. At his death they were dividing their time between homes in Sarasota and on Beaver Island in Michigan.

Both have been active in the Asolo Repertory Theater of Sarasota. Mr. Amster is directing its production of “Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers,” which opens Jan. 11. Last year Mr. Galati, reuniting with Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty, directed the premiere of a new musical there called “Knoxville,” based on James Agee’s autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family.” Mr. Galati, of course, did the adaptation.

In addition to Mr. Amster, he is survived by a sister, Franny Clarkson.

At the Theater Hall of Fame induction, Mr. Galati was introduced by B.J. Jones, artistic director of Northlight, a Chicago-area theater for which Mr. Galati directed the inaugural production in 1975 when it was known as the Evanston Theater Company. Mr. Jones singled out a moment in Mr. Galati’s long career that, he said, showed “the depth of his humanity”: his insistence that Susan Nussbaum, a young actress who was in a wheelchair since being hit by a car a few years earlier, be cast in the role of Gertrude Stein in the premiere of “She Always Said, Pablo.”

Ms. Nussbaum, who became a disabilities-rights advocate and died last year, often cited Mr. Galati’s support as pivotal to her post-accident life. In an interview in 1994, when she was playing the Stein role at the Kennedy Center, she credited him with “always going beyond the vision that other people have seen.”

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