Bernadette Peters, Martin Short, and Neil Simon Reveal Behind-the-Scenes Challenges and Joys of The Goodbye Girl

From the Archives   Bernadette Peters, Martin Short, and Neil Simon Reveal Behind-the-Scenes Challenges and Joys of The Goodbye Girl The stars and creators of the the tuneful but short-lived 1993 musical talk about the unexpected challenges of adapting the 1977 film for contemporary theatre audiences.
The_Goodbye_Girl_Broadway_Production_photos_1993_Martin_Short_Bernadette_Peters_HR-2.jpg
Martin Short and Bernadette Peters Martha Swope

On June 26, Kate Baldwin, Santino Fontana, and original Broadway cast member Carol Woods will perform a concert version of the Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch-David Zippel musical The Goodbye Girl at Feinstein’s/54 Below at 7:30 PM and 9:30 PM. Get tickets here.

To celebrate the concert, Playbill digs into our archives to unearth articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.

The Goodbye Girl Playbill - Color, March 1993
The Goodbye Girl Playbill - Color, March 1993

One of the most-anticipated musicals of the 1992-1993 Broadway season was the stage adaptation of Neil Simon’s Oscar-nominated 1977 film comedy The Goodbye Girl. On paper the production looked like a sure-fire hit, with Simon adapting his screenplay for the stage alongside an award-winning team including composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist David Zippel. At the helm was Simon’s frequent collaborator Gene Saks, who earned Tony Awards for directing Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, and had just earned a nomination for Simon’s 1991 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play Lost in Yonkers.

The musical also boasted the major star talents of Bernadette Peters and Martin Short in the central roles of Paula and Elliot, who bicker and battle until they ultimately fall for each other in classic musical comedy form.

The Goodbye Girl, however, endured a troubled and highly publicized Chicago-out-of-town try-out. Major revisions were required, including the removal of an offensive gay stereotype held over from the film, and Saks was replaced with director Michael Kidd by the time the musical arrived on Broadway February 13, 1993, at the Marquis Theatre. It opened March 4 to chilly reviews from New York Critics, closing five months later on August 15.

(For theatre fans who are unfamiliar with the musical, the original Broadway cast album is definitely worth a listen. There is much to enjoy in Hamlisch and Zippel’s melodic and witty score, while performances from Peters—in excellent voice—and Short are well preserved.)

Neil Simon is the lord and master of Broadway comedy, but when it comes to writing a musical, what matters most to him is the emotion. “What you look for,” says the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, “is where you can sing emotional songs, the love songs, the songs about a caring relationship.”

That’s why he knew from the start that his hit 1977 film comedy, The Goodbye Girl, had the potential to be a good one. “It’s full of emotion,” Simon says. “It’s all there.”

And a lot more. The $7 million 1993 musical version of The Goodbye Girl says hello to Broadway’s Marquis Theatre with a prize-winning cast and creative team that would fill the soul of any theatre devotee with great expectation. The principals include Bernadette Peters and Martin Short, composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist David Zippel, director Michael Kidd (who replaced Gene Saks early in the show’s Chicago tryout), choreographer Graciela Daniele, and, of course, Simon himself.

The movie version, which starred Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, was a huge success. It got five Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture and nods for Mason and Simon; Dreyfuss won the Oscar as Best Actor. But Simon, whose more-than-30-year Broadway career includes The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, Tony Awards for Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers (which also won the Pulitzer) and the musicals Little Me, Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises and They’re Playing Our Song, knows that an Oscar-winning movie is no guarantee of a Broadway hit.

The_Goodbye_Girl_Broadway_Production_photos_1993_Bernadette_Peters_HR.jpg
Bernadette_Peter Martha Swope

“We’re not trying to put The Goodbye Girl movie on the stage,” Simon says. “What we’re doing is using the movie as source material. The stage automatically changes everything simply because it’s a different medium. In the first version I wrote, I stuck to the dialogue in the movie, and after I finished I decided that only a little of that dialogue worked well. So I had to make adjustments. Some of the things that happen on screen in the film are only sung about in the musical. Some things have been left out. Some characters who were tangential in the movie have become full-blown characters. In fact, the more we get away from the movie per se, the better I think it becomes.”

The basic story is the same. Paula McFadden (Mason in the movie and Peters onstage), a former Broadway dancer with a young daughter, is suddenly abandoned by her live-in boyfriend, who has sublet her Upper West Side apartment out from under her to Elliot Garfield (Dreyfuss in the film and Short at the Marquis), an actor from Chicago who is to make his New York stage debut in an Off-Off-Off-Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Elliot arrives one rainy night to find Paula determined not to be moved. They reach a compromise and decide to share the apartment. The domestic battles begin. But before long, and to no one’s surprise, they decide to share much more.

1993, however, is not 1977, and some of the changes Simon has made have more to do with a different era than a different medium. In the movie Paula does not have a job; in the musical she becomes a television choreographer. “Paula is a more liberated woman,” Simon says. “She doesn’t take the route the character took in the film, where she was waiting to be taken care of by some man. Now she’s a working woman. She doesn’t look to be married to be rescued from life. She wants an equal partnership.”

All of which is just fine with Bernadette Peters. A native of Ozone Park, Queens, who has been in show business since childhood, Peters more and more has come to be considered the quintessential Broadway musical star of the day. And she says she considers Paula a quintessential New York woman of the ’90s. “Paula is a fascinating woman who grows a great deal in the course of the show,” she says. “Paula evolves during the show from the goodbye girl, from someone who is constantly picking the wrong man, to a woman who finally understands what she has been doing and learns to trust herself more in life. And from that trust she finds her emotional fulfillment, with a healthy, happy equal.”

The star’s most recent critical hurrahs have come from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance, for which she received the Tony as Best Actress in a Musical, and Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, which brought her a Tony nomination for the latter. Peters, who would not disclose her age (“I never used to lie, and now I’m going to—some stories have me older than I really am and some have me younger—let’s just say I’m 35 in the show”), says that even thought she has been in many musicals, she never tires of them. “They’re all different,” she says. “I guess I don’t do things that are predictable or easy. But that makes it interesting. Without a challenge things would be awfully boring.”

For some performers, essaying a role largely identified with another actress, as Paula is with Marsha Mason, would be just a bit daunting. But Peters says she is not concerned. “I saw the movie years ago,” she says, “but I didn’t see it again before starting rehearsals. I remember a couple of things from it but not clearly. I didn’t want to see it again because I’m playing what’s in the script today. I really wanted to have a fresh approach to this Paula, on this page, which is different from the Paula that Marsha Mason played. I didn’t want to copy anything, even subconsciously.”

The_Goodbye_Girl_Broadway_Production_photos_1993_Martin_Short_Bernadette_Peters_Tammy_Minoff_HR.jpg
Martin Short, Bernadette Peters, and Tammy Minoff Martha Swope

Her co-star, Martin Short, also says he is not really bothered by possible comparisons, in his case with the Oscar-winning Dreyfuss. “I think that Richard Dreyfuss is a great actor,” Short says, “and you’ll get compared or not get compared, depending on who’s doing the writing. That just exists. But what makes this very different is the medium. If they were doing a remake of the movie and they asked me to play Elliot in the film, I would be terrified and I’d say no. But when it’s on a stage and it’s a musical, the character is different just because the necessities of the medium. I’m sure that if Richard were playing this role now, he’d be playing it differently from the way he did in the movie.”

Short, who is 42—“I’m on the cusp of young”—is making his Broadway debut. But before making it big in comedy television on SCTV and Saturday Night Live and the in the movies in Three Amigos!, Innerspace, and Father of the Bride, he spent most of the 1970s traveling around his native Canada performing on the stage.

“This was really what I did for the first seven years of my career,” he says. “From 1972 to 1979, pretty much all I did was musicals or stage comedy. I performed in Godspell, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and The Apple Tree and a show called Cole Cuts, featuring the music of Cole Porter. I spent two years with the Second City comedy troupe in Toronto. People who don’t know me ask the logical question, ‘Can you sing?’ But for people who know me, this is the logical thing for me to do.”

Until The Goodbye Girl opened its out-of-town tryout in Chicago, Short had not been in a play or musical since 1979. It is, he says, great to be back. “It’s remarkable,” he says. “You’re immediately swept back. It’s like meeting an old friend whom you haven’t seen in 15 years, and in 15 minutes it’s like you’ve never been apart.

“This has been a dream of mine,” he adds. “The reason I wanted to do television was because I thought it was a faster way to get to the stage.”

Short was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the youngest of five children. His father was vice-president of Canadian Steel, and his mother was concertmaster of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, “the first female concertmaster in North America,” he says. “So I did grow up with the idea of rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal all the time. She was always going off to rehearsal. It’s just that it was a classier kind of rehearsal than the kind I ended up going to.”

The_Goodbye_Girl_Broadway_Production_photos_1993_John_Christopher_Jones_Martin_Jones_Denise_Faye_Nancy_Hess_HR.jpg
John Christopher Jones, Martin Jones, Denise Faye, and Nancy Hess Martha Swope

In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Elliot is forced by his director to portray Richard III not as a humpbacked villain furious at society for mocking his deformity, but as a prancing, lisping old-fashioned stereotype of a homosexual. Because of objections by the gay community about stereotypes, Richard is no longer gay but is now a woman—but a woman disguised as a man.

[The Chicago pre-Broadway try-out of The Goodbye Girl was met with public protests for its inclusion of the offensive stereotype, and the scene was revised—somewhat reluctantly by Simon—prior to the show’s Broadway revival. Direct references to homosexuals were removed from the scene, but New York critics noted that the stereotype remained, only slightly disguised. The scene is captured in “Richard Interred” on the show’s original Broadway cast album.]

“It’s very funny,” Short says. “Elliot put all his trust in his director. His instinct says this is not going to work. But it’s necessary for him to believe that everything will work out, and this makes him feel that maybe the director is right. Actors relate to that. There’s a lyric he sings to himself when he knows he’s bombing: ‘I’m dying. I’m dying. I told myself this tragedy would have a happy ending. I was lying.’ It’s the great innocence of being an actor.”

Elliot is like that, Short says. “He’s a wonderful optimist. He’s a dedicated actor. He’s immediately likable and energized. In a way, he’s like Puck.”

And in a way, he’s like Short. “This has been so exhilarating,” Short says. “This is my very first Broadway musical, and the first time you experience anything is the greatest. It can be repeated, but never with the same excitement, whether it’s the first movie you make, the first television show you do, the first time you have sex. Anything. I’m right in the middle of that first time, and I’m smart enough to understand why I should be smiling.”

One of the first people to realize that The Goodbye Girl might make a good musical was David Zippel, whose own Broadway debut as a lyricist for the witty and clever detective-spoof musical City of Angels led to a Tony Award for Best Score with his partner in that show, Cy Coleman.

“After City of Angels I wanted to do something really romantic,” Zippel says, “and I thought The Goodbye Girl would be perfect. I heard that Neil had liked my work, so I took a shot and sent him a letter. I told him I thought the characters were interesting and intelligent and it would be easy to put words and songs in their mouths.”

A few years earlier, Zippel says, the producer Emanuel Azenberg had suggested the idea to Simon, but nothing came of it. Azenberg, a co-producer of The Goodbye Girl, has presented every Neil Simon play on Broadway since 1972. “Manny thought it was a great idea,” Zippel says, “and this time Neil was ready to do a musical. They asked me if I would work with Marvin Hamlisch, and I said, ‘Of course I would.’”

Zippel, 37, grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania, and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School.

“I always knew I wanted to write songs,” he says, “but it’s such an unlikely profession, one in which very few people make a living. Law interested me, and I figured it was something I could do if I wasn’t lucky. It was a way to hedge my bets.”

For Hamlisch, a Tony and Pulitzer winner for A Chorus Line, and the recipient of three Oscars (in one year, 1973, for The Way We Were and The Sting), his work on The Goodbye Girl marks a reunion with Simon. The two collaborated on the Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song—which was actually based on the relationship, romantic and professional, with Carole Bayer Sager, who did the lyrics for the 1979 Broadway success and with whom Hamlisch wrote the hit song “Nobody Does It Better.”

The Goodbye Girl, like They’re Playing Our Song, is what Hamlisch calls an “old-fashioned musical,” in that it has a written libretto, as opposed to a through-composed show like Les Misérables, a style he thinks is going to become even more common in the 1990s. “But being old-fashioned creates a lot more laughter for the audience,” he says, “because you have scenes and people talking and wonderfully humorous situations.”

For The Goodbye Girl, Hamlisch says, he has tried to create music that is “all very character-motivated. I just tend to think what kind of characters are these, and what would come out of their mouths. I don’t really have an overall stylistic thing.”

Zippel says that in writing the lyrics, the challenge was essentially the same as it is for most musicals: “to try to create in the song a style that matches the book, to make sure the lyricist and the book writer are speaking the same language, so that the character doesn’t change when he or she is singing.”

The way it usually works, Hamlisch says, is that “the idea for the song—what it is going to try to accomplish—is somehow put on the table, either initially by the lyricist, or by me, or by somebody else. Then the lyricist and I usually get together, and I tend to come up with a feel for the song—is it going to be fast, is it going to be slow, whatever.”

The_Goodbye_Girl_Broadway_Production_photos_1993_Bernadette_Peters_Martin_Short_HR-2.jpg
Bernadette Peters and Martin Short Martha Swope

Once that happens, he says, every kind of permutation is possible: “The lyrics can come first, or the music can come first, or the title can come first. There are absolutely no rules.”

Hamlisch says that he has enjoyed working with Simon and Zippel—“I can’t say every day has been the Fourth of July, but I will also tell you it has been a very good collaboration”—and Simon says the feeling is very mutual. “Marvin can sit down at the piano and right away say that he knows what I mean,” the playwright says. “He’ll start to paraphrase music that immediately gives you an indication of what the character should be saying. He’s playing the character on the piano while I’m writing the character on the page. And his primary goal is not to write a hit song—what he’s looking to do is to make a hit show.”

Simon also says that even after more than 30 years, he still gets his greatest creative pleasure from the stage. “It’s so malleable,” he says. “I can see things on the stage and think they’re working great, and a few days later decide that those things aren’t really working as well as I would like and change them, try to make them better and better. In the movies I can shoot a scene and think it’s good, but if much later in the cutting room I decide it doesn’t work, all I can do is have it wind up on the cutting room floor.”

The process of creating a work on the stage can be very difficult, Simon says, but most of the time it’s a lot of fun, and the results are usually worth the intensity and the labor.

“That’s why I love the theatre so much,” he says. And that’s why for three decades audiences have loved him back—and are lining up to fall in love with him again in The Goodbye Girl.

Flip through photos from the Broadway production below:

Today’s Most Popular News: