Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain in George & Tammy
Abe Sylvia Does Tammy Times Two
On the heels of his Oscar-winning The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a dancer-turned-producer puts his spin on George & Tammy.
Twenty years ago, in a talk at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, director Rob Marshall explained how the experience of dancing in Cats on Broadway had led him to rethink his career. Abe Sylvia, creator–executive producer of Paramount Global's George & Tammy, was at that talk — and he remembers it well.
"Marshall said, 'I don't know if any of you can relate, but I was the first cat to enter. I had to jump onto the trunk of a car, roll on my belly and hold a handstand. I thought to myself, 'What the hell am I doing with my life?'" Sylvia, you see, had held that exact same handstand. "I wanted to scream out, 'I relate!'"
Sylvia had also started out dancing in Broadway shows, and Cats was one of them. But he wanted a new path. Twelve years ago, he churned out a spec script that chronicled the ups and downs of country music legends Tammy Wynette and George Jones as a tumultuous love story — the Sid and Nancy of country music.
He already knew who his Tammy should be. In 2011, he'd seen Jessica Chastain in her breakout film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and told himself, "That woman should play Tammy Wynette." Chastain signed on as both leading actress and executive producer. During the development wait, the duo also embarked on a feature film — the Tammy Faye Bakker biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye — for which Chastain won a best-actress Oscar earlier this year.
Of the singing star and the televangelist, Sylvia notes, "Both liked their pills, but they're very different Tammys."
Viewers will get significantly more time with Tammy Wynette, because Sylvia realized that George & Tammy would work better in a TV format. (He's worked on several series, including Nurse Jackie, The Affair and Dead to Me.) Featuring Michael Shannon as Jones, it will run as a six-episode limited series, premiering in December on Showtime.
Since the show is filled with hits ("Stand by Your Man," "D-I-VO-R-C-E," "Why Baby Why"), Sylvia revisited his roots in musical theater to structure it.
"George & Tammy is very much a musical," he says. "But we never sing just to sing. The songs come out of dramatic situations, and we end every song in a new place, story-wise."
With Sylvia and Chastain clearly on a roll, what could be next? The life story of Broadway legend Tammy Grimes would complete a Tammy trio, he muses. Or not.
"I think we've reached our quota of Tammys!"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022, under the title, "Tammy Times Two."