In 1963, Mike Nichols directed his first Broadway play, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. It was the playwright’s third time at bat after his 1961 comedy Come Blow Your Horn and 1962 musical Little Me ran 667 and 257 performances respectively. Not bad for the new kid on the block… and then came Barefoot which produced a monster hit. This one-set, five-character comedy holds the record as the remarkably prolific Simon’s longest running show, closing in 1967 nearly four years after it opened.
If you’re not familiar with it, the play’s basic conflict consists of a series of extended quarrels between two young newlyweds striving for compatibility while trying to live in their first apartment together. It’s based on the real-life story of Simon and his first wife Joan, who was something of a muse for him on more than a few plays. Barefoot’s journey to Broadway tells a terrific tale, told with more than a touch of brio when, in 1984, the Dramatists Guild hosted a discussion with Nichols, Simon and Mildred Natwick, one of the stars of the original production who repeated her role in the 1967 film and received an Academy Award nomination. Moderated by five-time Tony Award winning playwright Terrence McNally, this column quotes extensively from these principals’ memories, aided by a transcript of that talk, published in 1985 in a now out-of-print book titled Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers discuss their hits.
Robert Redford as Paul and Elzabeth Ashley as Corie
in “Barefoot in the Park” (1963).
To begin, as Simon writes in his 1996 first volume of autobiography Rewrites, that upon Barefoot’s eventual producer Arnold Saint Subber finishing the first draft in his office (while Simon patiently in the waiting area), Subber appeared in the doorway and told Simon:
“I think I have a brilliant director… Mike Nichols.”
“Mike Nichols? He’s not a director. He’s a comic. Has he ever directed.”
“No. But he wants to.”
This exchange would be the beginning of what would become the chief reason for the phenomenal success with which the play was met. Formerly part of a team with the glorious Elaine May, Nichols was a shining star until she backed out of their partnership permanently in 1962, leaving him a bit stranded. Agreeing with his producer that Nichols was an inspired choice to direct Barefoot came out of a smart hunch by Simon: “I admired Nichols and May so much, my instincts told me anyone that funny had to be brilliant.” What resulted was Nichols’ unique method of staging the play in a wholly organic way, making it appear as if the hilarity unravelling was occurring in the moment; not pre-planned and “set,” therefore bypassing a glibness that often substituted for truth in Broadway comedies of the day. Of course, this all came out of Nichols’ training in improvisation, which is the way he aided the actors in discovering genuine comic business in rehearsal that he could mine for eventual performance. Critics and audiences alike were struck by the honesty in the way the actors behaved on stage, so much so that it would prove a bellwether. From that day forward, Nichols became the master of this art, directing many actors to Tony Awards, as well as bringing four home for himself (for five plays) between 1963 and 1972, resulting in an eventual count of nine Tonys for both directing and producing, before his death in 2014.
The original ad in the New York Times, September 22, 1963.
Top ticket on Friday and Saturday night: $7.50.
As one example of the revolutionary way with which the show was staged, during one rehearsal, Simon was observing one of the play’s fight scenes and cozied up to Nichols, who was seated in the audience. “I think we should leave,” Simon said. “This is too private a moment.” As he further explains: “It was so private, I didn’t think we should intrude on it, and I knew then it was spectacular.” Nichols was aided in his efforts by the casting of the twenty-six year-old Robert Redford and the twenty-four year-old Elizabeth Ashley, who became break-out stars after Barefoot, even though it wasn’t the Broadway debuts for either (Ashley had, in fact, won a Tony the previous season for Take Her, She’s Mine, as old school a comedy as Barefoot was new).