I saw the Marx Brothers on the New York stage during the Fourth of July weekend.
Well, I could have sworn they were the Marx Brothers.
If one knows of them one is likely to think of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo. One might also think of their great movies like A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, or Animal Crackers. My New Year’s Day is never complete without a healthy dose of the Marx Brothers.
Yet the Marx Brothers would never have been stars of the silver screen if they had not been stars of the Great White Way. During much of the 1920s, the Marx Brothers ruled Broadway with three smash hits. Two of them, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers would be adapted into films for Paramount Studios. Yet somehow their very first Broadway hit I’ll Say She Is never got the celluloid treatment and in time would recede into obscurity.
Why is a mystery. Did Paramount fear that movie audiences weren’t quite ready for the Marx Brothers? Before I’ll Say She Is premiered on Broadway in May 1924, it was staged in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto. As Charlotte Chandler recounts in her biography of Groucho, Hello I Must Be Going, the mustachioed Marx Brother recalls a chilly reception for I’ll Say She Is north of the border. “When we got to Toronto, it was ten below, and the audience was forty below,” quipped Groucho.
But after I’ll Say She Is, the Marx Brothers could write their own ticket especially Harpo. Alexander Woollcott, the Dean of New York Theater critics, was so enamored with the mute Marx Brother that he invited him to be part of the Algonquin Round Table, a cadre of writers and intellectuals that met at the famed Algonquin Hotel. Harpo would enjoy the company of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Ruth Gordon, Noël Coward, George S. Kaufman, Bernard Baruch, Will Rogers, Helen Hayes and Ring Lardner and it led to opportunities to meet with literary giants like W. Somerset Maugham and George Bernard Shaw. I guess these talking heads needed a silent partner.
Yet all of these figures have gone silent and with the passage of time their works are known to fewer and fewer people and have been all but lost and forgotten. But thanks to Noah Diamond (as well as NRO contributor Deroy Murdock, who served as one of the show’s producers), I’ll Say She Is has been restored to the Marx Brothers canon and has just completed a five-week run at the Connelly Theater, an Off-Broadway venue in the East Village. Dad, his friend Bill, and I were present at what turned out to be the play’s final performance.
Diamond adapted the original script written by brothers Will B. Johnstone and Tom Johnstone into a 30-page outline, which he augmented with material from the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville routines, newspaper accounts of I’ll Say She Is, and first-hand accounts of those who participated in the revue. I should also mention that Diamond plays Groucho and looks like a spitting image of him, which is probably more than he expectorated. If Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo were still with us I am sure they would more than appreciate the efforts of Matt Roper, Seth Shelden, and Matt Walters. Roper plays the piano like Chico, Shelden can play the harp like Harpo, and Walters can play the straight man like Zeppo. I’ll Say She Is, however, revolves around a society girl named Beauty (Melody Jane) with “suppressed desires” who is “looking for a thrill.”
I should say though there were some things that were less than thrilling. First and foremost, there was the co-ed bathroom. I’m not sure how long this state of affairs has prevailed at the Connelly. But I can tell you there was a single bathroom consisting of three stalls and a sink and I think all of us had a sinking feeling. If Groucho were around he might say, “It’s a Brave New World and they can have it.” However, Diamond made a point of having Groucho (dressed up as a fairy) say he wouldn’t be allowed in a bathroom in North Carolina, which generated a cheap pop among the East Village socialists who were considerably less enthusiastic when nature came calling.
It also didn’t help matters that the start of the play was delayed nearly 20 minutes. I joked that Chico perhaps was meeting with his bookie, which amused neither Dad nor his friend. The play also went on too long, ending just before 11 p.m. There was simply no need for an intermission.
But let me not leave a negative impression. The show was very enjoyable. Diamond and company made the Marx Brothers come alive. The Napoleon scene was particularly hilarious. Groucho plays Napoleon going off to war only to repeatedly return to check on Josephine’s virtue or lack thereof. “I come home and all of France is with you.” Kathy Biehl and C.L. Weatherstone performed well as foils for Groucho. Biehl’s performance as Beauty’s mother was reminiscent of Margaret Dumont. As Groucho put it, “I wish I could hold you in someone else arms.” Weatherstone played several roles, but most notably a footman with a bad hairpiece to whom Groucho commented, “There will be hell toupee.” I’ll Say She Is also featured Harpo with all the silver falling out of his jacket including the coffee pot (which would be revived at the climax of Animal Crackers). The music, dancing, and choreography was quite good and Groucho’s improvisations would have made Groucho want to be a member of this incarnation of The Marx Brothers.
It is unclear where I’ll Say She Is goes from here. Broadway has not come calling just yet, with audiences prepared to wait years to see Hamilton. But if the fortunes of one of our Founding Fathers can be revived on stage, then why not the fortunes of the Founding Fathers of American comedy?