When Frank Galati was a sophomore in high school, he wrote a play inspired by a strange old woman who lived in his neighborhood outside of Chicago.
The old woman loved to tell stories from her past, and Galati, a dreamy bookworm, was the kind of kid who didn’t mind sitting still to listen.
Enchanted by the woman’s stories, Galati recorded the ramblings in a notebook. He took artistic liberties with certain details, making up characters and scenes where he saw fit, first crafting a monologue and later a full-blown script.
At the urging of his drama teacher, he staged the play during his junior year at Glenbrook High School. It was called “Hallelujah to the Stars,” and it marked his directorial debut.
Had he not been given the opportunity to present the work, the 67-year-old director says he might not have pursued a career in theater.
“We put it on for the whole school,” Galati recalls. “It was absolutely thrilling for me.”
As the memory washes over him, Galati’s eyes widen under a pair of tinted glasses. A boyish grin spreads across his face, and the full white beard that for years has evoked the director’s likeness to Santa fans out in a kind, grandfatherly way.
“I was brought up in a culture that revered the text and the playwright,” Galati says. “I loved reading and talking about stories. I learned early on how intricate and complicated they are.”
This is the place where Galati is most at home: storytelling.
It’s where he energizes actors and audiences, costume makers and lighting designers. It’s what brings him back to his roots, to his modest childhood in an Illinois suburb, where he once formed a small theater troupe with high school buddies and performed Christopher Fry’s “The Lady’s Not for Burning.”
It’s likely what earned him an Oscar nomination in 1988 for his screenplay adaptation of “The Accidental Tourist,” which he co-wrote with Hollywood screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (“The Bodyguard”). And it’s at the heart of the two Tony Awards he nabbed in 1990 for his adaptation and direction of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Seated in the front lobby at the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the loquacious director reflects on his reputation for staging epic literary adaptations. In the late 1990s, he directed Broadway’s “Ragtime,” which was based on an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name.
“For the longest time I saw my future as a college instructor,” Galati says. “My doctoral dissertation was on Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire.’ All of my main intellectual interests involved studying narratives. I was in story land for a long time before I got involved in theater.”
Some might say he’s still in story land.
His latest project — directing the Asolo Rep’s season-opener, “My Fair Lady” — has reignited the director’s fascination with George Bernard Shaw, whose famous rags-to-riches play, “Pygmalion,” inspired the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical.
“It’s perfectly crafted in every way,” Galati says of the production. “It’s timeless and universal in its themes. Sadly, Shaw’s critique of the social contract … the enormous gulf that separates the rich and the poor still rings a bell today.”
Galati is a larger-than-life presence to have around the theater. Lucky for the company he’s not leaving Sarasota when the show closes.
After retiring in 2006 from Northwestern University, where for nearly four decades he worked as a professor in the department of performance studies, Galati and longtime partner and fellow theater director Peter Amster bought a place in Miami.
They thought they’d work at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
“But within six months of us moving, the Playhouse went belly-up,” says Galati, who’s still a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. “Then Peter got hired to work on a few shows at the Asolo and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to work here?’”
The couple was so taken with Sarasota that they sold their Miami home at a loss and purchased a condo near downtown Sarasota.
When Asolo Rep Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards got wind of this development, he jumped at the opportunity to employ Galati; he hired him to direct last season’s “12 Angry Men.”
“He’s done a lot of amazing musical theater work,” Edwards says. “When I asked him if he’d ever directed ‘My Fair Lady,’ he said, ‘You know what? No one has ever asked me.’”
Twenty-four hours after reading the script, Galati was on board.
“It’s obviously triumphant having him here,” Edwards says. “‘My Fair Lady’ has been on my to-do list for a long time, but I was never able to get the right director until now.”
The musical has a special place in Galati’s heart.
In 1958, he boarded a bus with his high school drama club to see a touring production of the show at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre.
It was the first time he had seen a professional musical.
“In those days, the music from the great Broadway shows was like pop music to us,” Galati says. “The songs were broadcast on the radio. We all had the albums. It was a part of the culture, a part of the weather.”
He’s not the only one who feels this way.
Last week, when actors Andrea Prestinario (Eliza Doolittle) and Jeff Parker (Professor Henry Higgins) performed numbers from the show during the Asolo Rep’s Starry Night Dinner Series, the director was so busy studying what he calls the crowd’s “rapturous” reaction to the music, that he was almost unaffected by his own nostalgia.
“Stories about the human heart will always be relevant,” he says, humming a few bars from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” “Eliza Doolittle has a dream and it’s one everyone understands. She doesn’t want diamonds or gold or to be an aristocrat. All she wants is someone’s head resting on her knee … warm and gentle as can be.”
IF YOU GO
“My Fair Lady” opens Nov. 18 and runs through Dec. 23, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre. For tickets, call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.