As I'm currently directing a production of A Funny Thing Happened to the Forum in summer stock, I have comedy on my brain. It's forced me to recall some of the wonderful comedies I saw on Broadway in my youth, as well as affectionately steal bits and pieces from them to add to this Forum, a show which lends itself to "everything but the kitchen sink" humor.
Over the last twenty to thirty years most laughter that emanates from the Broadway stage comes when attending a musical. Gone are the days of Neil Simon offering 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 plays like 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 which explored darker themes by means of comedic take-downs, as in his award winners, Biloxi Blues and 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 Broadway run of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor, way back in 1989, which needs no reminding was a long time ago. Occasionally Charles Busch, or someone like him, will craft a comedy along the lines of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, well-made and close to being old-fashioned. It's one of the reasons I so enjoyed Christopher Durang's Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike as it resembled many plays back when I was a teenager. Elements like actors making exits timed to generate applause—no small accomplishment—was a throwback bonus.
Television first endangered and then all but destroyed this once hearty brand, beginning back in the 1950s, when sitcoms became one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Why pay for something everyone was now getting in their living rooms for free? This forced producers to get audiences out of their homes via the misguided notion that somehow big-named stars (mostly from the movies) would do the trick. Of course, many times it would be discovered that certain actors didn't know their way around a stage (or worse, thought they did). Every season would see an ad or two trumpeting the celebrated return (or debut) of some luminary, then for that show to never make it into town.
And the titles of some of these 50s and 60s comedies tell the story of their time, don't they? It's fun to contemplate the sort of plays behind such titles as:
For Crying Out Loud (1952, closed in New Haven)
Pardon Our Antenna (1954, closed in Chicago)
Strip for Action (1956, closed in Pittsburgh)
Cool Off! (1964, closed in Philadelphia)
What Do You Really Know About Your Husband? (1967, closed in New Haven)
And my personal favorite: Everybody Out, the Castle is Sinking (1965, closed in Boston).
New York Times ad for a show that never made it to New York.
This stinker (or sinker) was written by the husband-wife team of Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Its plot had to do with a famous movie star who decides to move his wife and six children to Switzerland and live atop a mountain. Complications ensue since his wife is determined, now that he is out of the spotlight, to make the children he's fathered with her legitimate because— they've never married! Hilarious, right? The Ephrons should have known better as their previous Broadway comedy, Take Her, She's Mine, ran for over 400 performances. (Its main character, by the way, loosely based on their daughter Nora, who went on to her own very successful writing and directing career). But plays of this ilk by the Ephrons and others were slowly becoming a dying breed and have now morphed over the years into more risky modern-day comedies like last season's Hand to God, by Robert Askins. Foul-mouthed and offensive, this play's balls-out attack on the once-taboo subject of (gulp!) religion was one of the funniest plays I have seen in a very long time.
Yes, laughter is alive and kicking on Broadway, but the vehicles which contain them have shaped and grown in directions that could never have been predicted. I'm sure there are those who yearn for the days of a more innocent time when a play like Barefoot in the Park could be a hit again. Personally, I was bummed when it was revived ten years ago and no one was interested in seeing it (although this was a misguided production in almost every sense of the word). But what's wrong with some young playwright writing their own Barefoot in the Park? I say "never die." After all, the play was etched in truth, with Neil Simon mixing fact and based on his own days as a newlywed. It's easy to imagine someone doing something in a similar vein today, albeit in a new and fresh way.
It brings to mind the adage that "everything old is new again"? And unless I miss my guess, that expression (and sentiment) will never die either.
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