Hi, folks…remember me? I haven’t been very prolific, as a blogger, in recent years — but that’s just because I’ve been busy with wonderful projects like these:
MARXFEST: I am delighted to be on the organizing committee for Marxfest, New York City’s first Marx Brothers festival, to take place in all five boroughs of this town, throughout the month of May, 2014. There are many exciting Marx-minded events on the schedule, and we haven’t even announced some of the most exciting ones yet! If you love the Marx Brothers, do whatever you can to be in the city of their birth this May! And whatever happens, don’t let another minute go by without following Marxfest on Twitter and Facebook. Check the official Marxfest site every five or ten minutes!
I’LL SAY SHE IS: All of the Marxfest events are exciting, but this is the one closest to my heart. I’ve spent the last five years researching, reconstructing, and adapting I’ll Say She Is, the 1924 Broadway debut of the Marx Brothers, and the only one of their three Broadway musicals never to be filmed or revived. This year, on the 90th anniversary of the original New York opening, I’ll Say She Is returns to the stage — first with a semi-produced reading, May 23 and 25, at Marxfest (tickets and details here); with a full production this fall. I’ll Say She Is is produced and directed by the great Trav S.D.!
I’ll Say She Is should be of interest not only to Marx Brothers and vintage comedy fans, but to devotees of American musical theatre — it’s a real 1920s plotted revue, highly characteristic of its era, and full of great stuff that hasn’t been seen or heard for almost a century.
Below is a short essay I’ve written for the I’ll Say She Is website. There’s more there, and more details soon. I hope to see you in May!
For almost as long as I’ve loved the Marx Brothers, I’ve been intrigued by the legend of I’ll Say She Is.
We think of the Brothers as figures of the 1930s, when they made their classic films. But they had been major cultural icons of the twenties, too. They began that decade as one of the biggest acts in vaudeville; achieved Broadway stardom with I’ll Say She Is (1924), The Cocoanuts (1925), and Animal Crackers (1928); made films of the latter two — and then went out to Hollywood and made all those Marx Brothers movies.
The Marx Brothers as Broadway stars in New York in the 1920s — this is the stuff my dreams are made of. Harpo chumming around with Alexander Woollcott and Dorothy Parker; Groucho writing for The New Yorker in its infancy; the boys performing Animal Crackers every night on Broadway at the 44th Street Theatre, then dragging themselves out to Queens every day to film Cocoanuts.
Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers exist. You can read the published librettos, and you can watch the film adaptations. Frequently, you can see them produced on stage. Those two musicals represent the earliest available Marx Brothers comedy. But I’ll Say She Is has been just out of reach.
Over the years, my passion for the Marx Brothers has informed almost everything I’ve done. But I’ve thought that perhaps it was all in preparation for some big Marx Brothers project, something that served not only to express my love for them and my desire to keep their flame burning, but to contribute something significant to the catalogue, to give all Marx Brothers fans a great big present.
About five years ago, I began a period of intense research into I’ll Say She Is. I wasn’t entirely sure of my intentions, but I hoped that one way or another, this work could be willed back into existence, seen on stage again, and made to occupy its rightful space on the shelf next to Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers.
My primary source was Will B. Johnstone’s 1923 rehearsal typescript, which is housed at the Library of Congress. Assisted by Mikael Uhlin, I obtained a copy of this sacred document: thirty-two pages of rough dialogue, with song titles and cues, but no songs. The typescript is more an outline with dialogue than a working libretto. It was committed to paper in the spring of 1923, prior to the Philadelphia opening, a full year before the show reached Broadway. Undoubtedly, it was embellished in rehearsal and performance.
I interpolated material from other extant versions of certain scenes. I filled in moments and details culled from firsthand recollections of the show. I unearthed hundreds of news clippings related to the original production, some of which described scenes and quoted dialogue. I retrieved whatever ad-libs had been recorded, and filled in the gaps with surviving fragments of the Brothers’ vaudeville repertoire, the earlier Johnstone revues, and the newspaper prose of Will B. Johnstone. I filled still more gaps with my own Marxist intuition, adding things out of necessity or desire or both.
The new score of I’ll Say She Is is an amalgam. I managed to obtain sheet music and/or recordings of about half the songs from the original production. That left a handful of missing numbers, for which I had only the titles, narrative context, and, in some cases, descriptions. I recreated these songs by writing new lyrics to existing music from other Johnstone shows of the period, using phrases and ideas from the Johnstone typescript whenever possible.
In wrestling with the book and lyrics, I was aided invaluably by my great friend and collaborator West Hyler, and by Margaret Farrell, an ethnomusicologist who also happens to be the great-granddaughter of Will B. Johnstone, keeper of his diaries, and a singular source of information and inspiration.
The result is my adaptation of I’ll Say She Is. I can’t claim that it’s a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original. That would be impossible. But when you see it, I hope you’ll agree that it feels right, and that you relish as much as I do the thought of being able to say, “I’ve seen I’ll Say She Is.”