Friday, July 4, 2008

Born on the Fourth of July

I've been trying to think about what I should write for my Independence Day blog post - something patriotic, but also theatre-related. At the same time, I've also been looking over a list of the longest running Broadway plays, and I realized that the Fourth of July also marks the birthday of Neil Simon - one of America's greatest and most prolific playwrights.

If you look at Playbill's list of the longest-running Broadway shows, it's top-heavy with musicals - no surprise there. But I was curious about the longest-running plays, and there aren't that many in the Top 100. I counted 29, less than a third. Four of them - Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and Brighton Beach Memoirs - were written by Simon, who turns 81 years old today.

The honor for the longest-running Broadway play goes to Life with Father, based on the humorous stories that Clarence Day wrote about growing up in an affluent New York City family in the 1890s. Life with Father ran for 3,224 performances between 1939 and 1947 and ranks at number 14 on the list of the 100 longest-running Broadway shows. For comparison's sake, the longest-running show overall, The Phantom of the Opera, marked its 8,500th performance on Thursday. It's been running on Broadway since Jan. 9, 1988.

Ironically, Life with Father is followed on the list by Tobacco Road, at number 15, with 3,182 performances between 1933 and 1941. You couldn't pick two plays with more diametrically opposed settings. Tobacco Road tells the story of Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression.

Other plays in the top 50 are: Abie's Irish Rose, 2327 (1922-1927); Gemini, 1819 (1977-1981); Deathtrap, 1,793 (1978-1982); Harvey, 1,775 (1944-1949); Born Yesterday, 1,642 (1946-1949); Mary, Mary, 1,572 (1961-1964); The Voice of the Turtle, 1,557 (1943-1948); Barefoot in the Park, 1,530 (1963-1967); and Brighton Beach Memoirs, 1,530 (1983-1986).

Simon, born and raised in New York City, started out as a writer for Sid Caesar's landmark television comedy series Your Show of Shows. His first Broadway credit came in 1955 - he wrote sketches for a musical revue called Catch A Star. His first original play to make it to the Great White Way was Come Blow Your Horn, which ran for 677 performances between Feb. 21, 1961 and Oct. 6, 1962. Simon's most recent Broadway presence was a revival of Barefoot in the Park, which only ran for 109 performances in 2006.

In his career of more than half a century, Simon has won three Tony awards for Best Play - for The Odd Couple, in 1965; Biloxi Blues, in 1985; and Lost in Yonkers, in 1991. Lost In Yonkers also received the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and, most importantly for me, netted a young Kevin Spacey his Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

I've never seen a Neil Simon play on stage, but of course I've seen just about all of the movies, including works written for the screen, like The Out of Towners, and adaptations of plays, like The Odd Couple. And who doesn't love The Odd Couple, in all its incarnations? I'm hoping someday soon there'll be another Broadway revival of one of his plays and I'll get a chance to go. It seems like there should always be a Neil Simon play on Broadway, doesn't it?

I don't know if there's a natural successor to Simon today - another American playwright with the same stature, someone who writes comic plays with a broad appeal that make a smooth, successful transition to Broadway. I don't think there is anyone. I don't know where all the great comedic playwrights have gone - maybe they've all migrated to movies or television, or they're all working on their novels.

A great number of Simon's plays revolve around working-class life in New York City - most notably the semi-autobiographical trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. But his plays have a wide appeal because they're populated by people we recognize, situations we've been in. We're all slobs and/or fussbudgets at one time or another.

Jack Lemmon, who starred in The Out of Towners and The Odd Couple, said about Simon: "Neil has the ability to write characters—even the leading characters that we're supposed to root for — that are absolutely flawed. They have foibles. They have faults. But, they are human beings. They are not all bad or all good; they are people we know."

6 comments:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

If you ever have an opportunity to take in Lost In Yonkers, by all means go see it. Quite a heartfelt play.

StephenMosher said...

I love reading your blog!

Thanks for dropping by my own to say hi. I appreciate your comments.

The first play I ever saw on Broadway was the Neil Simon musical They're Playing Our Song. Since then, I've seen several of his plays onstage, both regionally and on Broadway. He sure has written some wondeful stuff. My spouse and I quote him all the time.

He's very quotable.

Cheers!

Thanks for the entertaining reading!

Ste

Esther said...

Ste,
Thank-you so much for all of the kind words. You have a great blog, too. You write with so much passion about the things that you love. And I loved what you had to say about Curtains!

I think that's great that Neil Simon has such an important place in the theatergoing experience for you and your spouse. Like you said, he's very quotable, and I think his plays, the characters he's created, are timeless.

I definitely need to look around for some regional productions. I'm sure there are lots of them, just not around where I live! And I think he's overdue for a Broadway revival.

Esther said...

Steve,
Thanks for the recommendation. If Lost in Yonkers ever comes my way, I will definitely go see it! Unfortunately, in all of my reading about what's coming up on Broadway, I haven't even heard a hint of a rumor about a Neil Simon revival. For a long time, his plays were everywhere. And really, I can't think of an American playwright with similar stature and success today - at least on Broadway.

Theatre Aficionado at Large said...

Plus his work on musical theatre libretti is quite stellar. (In particular, I love "Promises, Promises" - I wish there would be a revival).

I missed the revival of "Barefoot in the Park," but I love the film version.

Esther said...

Thanks, TAAL! I was so focused on Simon's plays that I hadn't thought about his work for musical theatre, like They're Playing Our Song, Promises, Promises, and Sweet Charity. Maybe that'll be my post for the next Fourth of July!