I have a few additional thoughts that have come up while directing The Producers this summer, the hysterically funny musical by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. With comedy on my brain on a daily basis for over a month, it’s been a joy working in all the ways this musical’s wonderful story can be mined for every ounce of potential laughs it contains. Doing so has put me to mind of all the great clowns in the great shows I saw live on Broadway in the fifty years since I began going to the theatre.As Nathan Lane wrote last week in a heartfelt note to the cast on our opening night, "The Producers is like a museum of comedy, from very high to very low. Everything you need to know is in the original film. It’s a movie that grabs you by the lapels and dares you not to laugh. Much like Mel himself. And, of course, Zero. He wrote it for Zero. There would be no movie without Zero. Or Gene Wilder. They ARE Max and Leo. We just borrow the parts for a little while."
Michael Caizzi as Max Bialystock in The Producers (Priscilla Beach Theatre, 2017).
Matt Kurzyniec as Leo Bloom in The Producers (Priscilla Beach Theatre, 2017).
Over the last twenty to thirty years most laughter that emanates from the Broadway stage comes via musicals. Gone are the days when Neil Simon offered a play a season guaranteeing (if not always a brilliant show) at least enough laughs to make the relatively low cost of a ticket well worth it. Now when you look at the last thirty years of Tony Award winners for Best Play, the few that could be classified as comedies are ones that offered serious thoughts on important subjects as well. I'm referring to Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport; Yasmina Reza's Art and God of Carnage and Terrence McNally's Master Class and Love! Valor! Compassion! It's interesting to note that Neil Simon never won a Tony for Best Play with any of his out-and-out comedies Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple or Plaza Suite, but for plays that explored darker themes by means of comedic take-downs, with depictions of racism in Biloxi Blues and mentally-challenged adults in Lost in Yonkers.
Of course, comedies once were a premium staple of Broadway: the definition of live theatre at its best. Precision timing on the stage is a marvel, especially with farce, when doors slamming amidst the chaos of mistaken identities rules. One of the best examples of this genre was the successful 1989 Broadway run of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor, which needs no reminding was a long time ago. Occasionally Charles Busch, or someone like him, crafts a throwback along the lines of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, but his 2000 comedy opened seventeen years this fall. It's one of the reasons I so enjoyed Christopher Durang's Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike from 2013, with its actors making perfectly times exits that generated applause—no small accomplishment—allowing for a nostalgic return to when I saw so many richly comic plays as a teenager. One I will never forget was Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the novelist's sole contribution to Broadway as a playwright. Though flawed and only sporadically praised, I fell out of my seat laughing. Featuring inspired comic performances from Kevin McCarthy, WilIiam Hickey and Marsha Mason, I paid to see it twice, something I rarely did back in the day when there was so much to see that squeezing in something a second time was a luxury.
Kurt Vonnegut in foreground with the 1970 Broadway company of his Happy Birthday, Wanda June.
It was television that first endangered and then all but destroyed the well-made comedy. Once the heartiest of brands, Broadway got overtaken by the sitcom which, in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, quickly became the most popular form of entertainment in the country. The Nielsen top ten rated shows were all comedies back then, from I Love Lucy to The Beverly Hillbillies to All in the Family. And why pay for something everyone was getting for free in their living rooms?
These days there are certainly shows to see on Broadway where you will find laughter alive and kicking (Larry David had no trouble filling the Cort Theatre nightly with his inferior, but laugh-filled play Fish in the Dark in 2015), but comedies have shaped and grown in directions that could never have been predicted from the days of a one-set comedy in the mold of Barefoot in the Park. So many taboos have been broken now that old fashioned funny can't cut it anymore. And in an odd way, a one-set comedy such as TV's All in the Family was one of the ground breaking, rule breaking shows that forced the theatre and its playwrights to catch up with the times and expand what could be done on stage in a comedy and still call itself one. In the 70s, while Norman Lear wrote hilarious epithets with which Archie Bunker could hurl his bigotry, playwrights took note, paving the way for stark comedy-dramas from the likes of David Rabe, who in his Tony Award winning Best Play Sticks and Bones created nothing less than a sitcom ripped inside out. After all, its main characters were named Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky (only poor David returned home blind from Viet Nam to his uncomprehending family, mired in their 50s ways).