Most out-of-town try-outs of New York-bound productions run for about a month. Take the Broadway mega-musical Wicked, which recently celebrated its 12th year and 5,000th Broadway performance. Before beginning previews Oct. 8, 2003 and opening at the Gershwin Theatre Oct. 30, the musical ran at San Francisco's Curran Theatre June 10-29, 2003. These out-of-town runs can be integral for creators to revise the production in front of an audience, but away from the pressures of the New York theatre community.
The Off-Broadway comedy, Shear Madness, which opened at New World Stages Nov. 11, has had a much longer out-of-town try-out: 36 years. After more than three decades, Shear Madness has performed for more than 11 million people worldwide. 42 productions have played in cities across the country, with 36 years in Boston, 28 in Washington D.C., 18 in Chicago, five in San Francisco and five in Philadelphia, Finally debuting in New York, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shear Madness is the longest-running play in United States history.
First Look at Jeremy Kushnier, Lynne Wintersteller and Cast in NYC Premiere of Shear Madness
Created by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan in 1976, the play was inspired by Paul Pörtner's 1963 work, Scherenschnitte. Its title translates to "scissor cuts." Set in a unisex hair salon, six characters must solve the offstage murder of a concert pianist. Abrams and Jordan adapted the murder mystery, and Shear Madness first premiered at a theatre in Lake George in 1978. The plan, says Jordan, who also serves as director, was to bring the show to New York from Boston in 1980, but instead the show kept touring. And, on the afternoon following the play's first preview Oct. 22, Jordan, described the performance as simply a "wonderful time."
Unlike in Scherenschnitte, this time it is the old lady living above the salon who is unexpectedly murdered. Setting the story in the salon, a place where everyone goes, grounds the action, Jordan says. Jeremy Kushnier plays Eddie Lawrence, an antique dealer and the mystery man in the play. Known for such Broadway musical credits as Footloose, Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar and Jersey Boys, Kushnier is making his Shear Madness debut and adds that the many sharp instruments of destruction in a barber shop heighten the whodunit drama.
The script for Shear Madness was initially more of a plot outline, in which the cast improvised and interacted with the audience to solve the murder. And, 37 years since its inception, the play is still a work in progress. Each production evolves with the addition of new topics and location-specific references to the script. For example, now opening in New York, the salon is set on 50th Street and Ninth Avenue, just down the block from its theatre at New World Stages. One of the lead actors also wears New York Mets baseball team sportswear, Jordan says. As times goes on, that clothing will change to support the Jets or Giants football teams. Adapting the show to its surroundings makes it more accessible for diverse audiences. "People like to laugh at the familiar," Jordan says.
The play is always set in real time, on the date of the performance. Often before a performance the actors will work as writers and collaborate on a new joke about something that, for example, either happened that day in the news, or about a special audience group. "You can't tell a joke about what happened on "Knots Landing" [a television series, which aired from 1979-1993] last week," Kushnier says.
Shear Madness veteran Patrick Noonan plays the police officer investigating the murder. He has to act like he's in charge, though he still makes jokes about New York City police. If this sounds like a potentially controversial group to poke fun at, Noonan says the audience is already on the actors' side. "The comedy doesn't have to be funny. It just has to be fast."
"The thing you're always looking for is, 'Did the new jokes work?'" Jordan says. Each performance is an opportunity to continue to improving the play.
Although the show is never frozen, the plot itself doesn't change. The real whodunit, keeps the story moving forward, while the audience response dictates how the murder mystery is resolved and which character is convicted. Forget the fourth wall: In Shear Madness, Jordan says the audience has more say over the ever-changing outcome than actors onstage.
"There are endless options of who's guilty. Even the policeman could be guilty... We are in New York," Noonan says. But "no matter who you play," Kushnier says, "you want people to think you're innocent."
And therefore, no two performances are ever the same. The felon from a performance in Philadelphia, likely won't be the character who the audience finds guilty at another show in Boston. To see the show, and then to see it again one month later, Jordan says, is a completely different experience.
However, keeping the show in constant state of flux is "artistically tough as nails," Noonan says.
To prepare for interacting with the audience, Jordan plays the audience in every rehearsal, even making a turkey gobble sound to simulate their laughter. The script now comes with a list of 73 potential audience questions, which the actors should be prepared to answer. And even though there is only a cast of six onstage, what keeps it fresh for the actors is playing with a new character — the audience — each night The audience is a new seventh character every night, and they don't know their lines, Noonan says.
Prepared as they are, on the first New York preview, one audience member surprised the cast, asking a character about where he parked. "It was a red herring," Noonan recalled, or a distracting or misleading literary device, which forced Noonan and his cast to be even more engaged with the crime at hand.
What Jordan and his cast is not worried about is how New York audiences will receive the show. They are "sophisticated enough to know that this is silly," Jordan says. Kushnier agrees, "If you can't have fun in this show, there's something wrong with you."
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