Before seeing the staged reading of the reconstructed Marx Brothers musical I’ll Say She Is back in May, I’d known the Marx Brothers only through their classic movies, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. What Noah Diamond and his team of Marx Brothers enthusiasts taught me is that those movies were based on the comic quartet’s popular Broadway shows of the 1920s.
One of those shows has been lost to history for 90 years. According to director Trav S.D.’s program notes, I’ll Say She Is was “a potpourri of sketches from the Marx Brothers’ vaudeville act, combined with new material by writer Will B. Johnstone, and songs by Johnstone and his brother Tom…plus specialties, such as dance numbers, and so forth.” As such, it never got the movie treatment, and has come down to us only in outlines and fragments.
Diamond, who plays Groucho in the reconstruction, and musicologist Margaret Farrell, great-granddaughter of Will B. Johnstone, have used Johnstone’s 1923 rehearsal typescript and a wide assortment of other sources to patch together a reconstruction now receiving its first “full” production as part of the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival.
While it’s still a work in progress – no sets, piano accompaniment only – and there’s an amateurish quality to parts of it, the show will be of great interest to anyone interested in early Broadway history, and is definitely a real hoot for Marx Brothers fans.
There are a lot of Marx Brothers fans. Yesterday’s Sheen Center main stage performance was sold out, elderly gentleman scrounging for tickets along the queue outside, which ran down Bleecker Street, around the corner and then down Mott Street. Two performances remain; find info at the Fringe online and the show’s website.
As for the show itself, it is indeed a melange of skits, musical numbers, and physical comedy routines strung along a thin “plot” about a rich young woman named Beauty (the charming and charismatic but sometimes pitchy Melody Jane) who is bored with her life of uptown splendor and seeks “thrills.” The Marx Brothers come to the rescue, of course, with trips to Central Park, Wall Street, Chinatown, and – no surprise – the police station.
Interesting period details (Chico is a hypnotist; Beauty has “complexes”) mingle with lots of comic business, notably the extended “Napoleon” sequence. The songs range from sweet (“I’m Saving You for a Rainy Day”) and funny (“The Inception of Drapery”) to joyous (the title track, which I couldn’t get out of my head as I walked home) and trippy (“The Dream Ship,” performed under red lights in a Chinatown opium den).
Adding to the zaniness are suitably over-the-top vaudeville costumes by Juliann Kroboth; a financial-district parody, including an appearance by the Wall Street Fairy herself, that hardly seems dated at all; and the occasional modern aside from Groucho. Diamond (Groucho) and Seth Shelden (Harpo) give especially good performances. Kathy Biehl is stodgily amusing as Beauty’s aunt Ruby Mintworth (gotta love the names), as is C.L. Weatherstone as her butler and in several other small roles.