"I'm not really a Broadway person, but I'll always remember the first Broadway show I ever saw," says Paul Reubens of Milk and Honey, Jerry Herman's 1961 musical about an American pilgrimage to Israel. "My grandmother took my sister and me, and it was like nothing I'd seen before — completely mind-boggling and life-altering. We bought the cast recording LP and played it over and over.... I was obsessed."
Now, nearly five decades later, it's his turn to create a Broadway obsession with The Pee-wee Herman Show, a campy, candy-colored homage to classic children's variety shows like "Howdy Doody" and "Captain Kangaroo." Hosted by Pee-wee Herman, a man–child character Reubens created as a member of the Groundlings comedy troupe, the parody first became a cult sensation in 1981 at West Hollywood's Roxy Theatre, where it was filmed for an HBO special. Plaid-clad with quirky pals and kooky catchphrases, Pee-wee continued to help define the '80s in two films and five seasons of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," a Saturday morning children's show on CBS.
The Broadway premiere of The Pee-wee Herman Show, directed by Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) with music by Jay Cotton and puppetry by Basil Twist, is playing the newly rechristened Stephen Sondheim Theatre for a limited run that follows a brief sold-out engagement in Los Angeles earlier this year. Reubens has retained the plot of his original stage show for the updated version, adding a houseful of characters — Chairry! Globey! Mr. Window! — from the subsequent television series. He has also given Pee-wee's pad a modern renovation. "We're a little late to the game, but the Playhouse is finally getting a computer," Reubens reveals.
Does Reubens, who also makes his Main Stem debut, find Broadway intimidating? "I wish you hadn't asked that, because now I'm going, 'Oh, my God!' Yes, I'm terrified, but I'm excited and energized more than anything. I never talk like this because I'm very tough on myself, but I feel like a little kid, walking around New York with a big secret: Nobody knows but me just how amazing the show's going to be. And now I'm being interviewed for Playbill? Nothing says Broadway to me more than Playbill, so that's almost the most exciting part about this entire thing!" Reubens makes no secret of the fact that a major reason for resurrecting his stage show was to spark interest in a third Pee-wee movie, which is currently in development with Judd Apatow. "But the real truth behind it all is that I missed my fans," Reubens admits. "I hadn't been Pee-wee for a very long time, so it just felt right."
Though it's been 20 years since his popular morning show ended, Reubens, 58, never worried about the possibility that these aging fans might have outgrown Pee-wee's childlike sense of humor. "A lot of people who watched the TV show as kids told me they had 'an out-of-body experience' at the Los Angeles show — it transported them back to their childhood."
Followers old and new should feel comfortable bringing younger playmates to see Pee-wee. "There's still a lot of double-entendre," says Reubens. "But if you're a kid who gets one of those jokes, you already knew something that I didn't teach you."
When it comes time for the Broadway tradition of greeting fans at the stage door, Reubens isn't sure whether he'll emerge as himself or as his alter ego. "[The film] 'Big Top Pee-wee' opens with a stage door scene where I leave the theatre disguised as Abraham Lincoln, so I'm toying around with that idea," he deadpans — and without Pee-wee's maniacal trademark laugh, who knows if it's a joke?