On a recent Saturday morning at Pearl Studios on Eighth Avenue, the most labyrinthine of all Broadway rehearsal rooms, one of New York’s most beautiful and threatened sounds suddenly materialized: the bursting and the thunder of tap dancers massed on a wooden studio floor. The chorus line of a new show was working on a number new and old, and the dancers, instead of being one-of-a-kind post-Fosse giraffes and gazelles, had the pixie faces and powerful thighs you you’d see on the chorus lines from the twenties and early thirties. “We wanted that kind of variety of types of casting calls,” said one of the directors. “We told the girls not to exercise for the duration of the race. They shouldn’t have muscle tone. Just muscle.
The need to have a group of dancers who look like their own great-grandmothers comes from the fact that the current undertaking is a revival of a musical from the twenties – and not even so much a revival, in the manner of the current “Shuffle Along”, that a large-scale and chimerical reconstruction, as improbable in ambition as the remaking of a Giganotosaurus skeleton from two time-worn shins and a tooth, of the lost 1924 Marx Brothers musical “I’ll Say She Is”. After opening in May this Jazz Age year at the Moorish Revival Casino Theater to rave reviews – one in particular, by Alexander Woollcott, more or less made the brothers famous -, the show ended the following February (a great series for the time), never to be seen on stage again. One of the legendary late debuts in American theatrical history (the Marxes were well over thirty when they finally escaped vaudeville for the stage), “I’ll Say She Is!” contained – fine opportunity to use the tendentious form of “doubtless” here – arguably the most influential of all comic sketches of the 20th century, the legendary scene from “Napoleon” which, more than any other five minutes of comedy, began the line of humorous pop absurdity that continued directly from Marx to Ernie Kovacs and on to Monty Python.
To call the musical “lost” implies that someone was looking for it. In truth, it was just gone – into the same hell of fading programs and yellowed clippings into which most other journals of the time fell. Now it’s here again. The Don Quixotes who fought for his return are New York writer and performer Noah Diamond and his wife, director Amanda Sisk, along with a band of friends in their twenties and thirties. Their Windmill, for much of the last ten years, has been a large-scale stage revival, which they finally pulled off, at the Connelly Theater on the Lower East Side, where the will finally open on Thursday night. (For all the building-climb cliches, this neighborhood wasn’t exactly the haunt of the Marxes; they were strictly Yorkville boys, raised around 93rd and Lexington.)
The hunt for “I’ll Say She Is” began when Diamond, a teenager growing up in suburban New York in the 1980s, fell in love, as awkward young men often do, with the mystique of the Marxes. “I was one of those kids,” he says. “Groucho was my God.” His cult extended to trying to woo girls with borrowed grouchoisms. “Your eyes shine like the pants of my blue serge suit,” he told a seductive Thelma Todd of the 80s, a doubly confusing comedy: the girl had no idea what a blue serge suit was, neither does he.
The craze matured into impersonation. Diamond’s Groucho, which he worked on for almost thirty years and performed on numerous occasions, is genuinely eerie, capturing the subtle truth that Groucho’s voice, far from that of a machine-gun sage, is essentially sweet. and gritty, reaching its treble. heights only in feigned indignation. (Diamond also points out that, where the original Groucho must have been projecting his unamplified lines in a big Broadway theater, we’re now so used to hearing Groucho exclusively through his performances on the mic, in movies and on TV, that does not sound fully “Groucho” when mic on stage.)
“’I’ll say she is’ has always haunted me,” Diamond says. The Marx Brothers’ two other Broadway hits – “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” written by George Kaufman – were adapted into films while they were still filming on stage. “I’ll Say She Is”, although in its time at least as famous as the other two, had just passed away: as a revue it had no attractive afterlife for other performers and , as far as is known, no script of any kind had survived; its score, written largely by cartoonist and humorist Will B. Johnstone, with music by his brother Tom, had never been recorded.
The dinosaur shin, in this case, was a Johnstone typescript, a well-laminated old draft describing scenes from the series. It wasn’t really a script but rather what a contemporary screenwriter would call a treatment. Diamond also knew that a short film made by the Marxes in the early thirties, a sort of teaser for their feature film “Monkey Business”, reproduced, in a very slightly different form, one of the key scenes from the lost musical. . Another key scene, Napoleon’s sketch, has also survived, in a script that remained in Groucho’s archives. There was also a single soiled molar to build around: a version of the Napoleon scene that had, improbably, been turned into a rather mediocre episode in a cheap and long-forgotten cartoon special in 1970, with the very elderly Groucho providing his lines and Hans Conried doing the vocals for the other brother. Disappointing delivery, but delivery nonetheless. (Diamond also points out that the show’s revival is as much a product of YouTube as it is of Broadway – it wasn’t until the digital age that all the archives of the past became available.)
The rest of the dinosaur had to be recreated, so to speak, from an imaginative reconstruction. Quote by quote, line by line, and joke by joke, Diamond has reassembled the script, or a reasonable facsimile of it. Note by note and syllable by syllable he reassembled the score, recycling music from other Johnstone scores and merging it with that of his own lyrical spirit. The musical’s songs, which were notoriously mediocre – Groucho himself called the score “the most mediocre that ever bruised the eardrums of a Broadway audience” – nevertheless needed to be recreated, rebuilt and quietly improved. Pre-jazz, slightly ragtime operetta music was, Diamond knew, essential to the effect: without that raucous tone, however dated, one cannot record the seismographic surprises of the Marxes.
Becoming the Marx Brothers, meanwhile, is more operationally ambitious than meets the eye. Skills learned over a decade on the road to vaudeville must be recreated, painstakingly, in months. Needing brothers to join him in the pursuit, Diamond enlisted Seth Shelden, a brilliant young intellectual property lawyer who had just returned from a Fulbright scholarship in Latvia. As unlikely as it may seem, Shelden’s secret ambition has always been to become Harpo Marx. “There was something about Harpo that turned me on – not so much his mime but his savagery,” he said. Shelden has not only mastered the art of chasing blondes, blowing horns and crafting the Gookie – the legendary face with puffy cheeks and a hanging tongue that Harpo copied from a cigar roller in Yorkville – but has also had to learn to play the harp. A young British actor named Matt Roper, cast to play Chico, had to learn how to reproduce a devilishly peculiar accent – not an Italian accent but an Italian émigré New York accent caricatured by a Jewish émigré from New York – as well as how playing “trick” piano, in Chico’s distinctive style, with the left hand loling and the right hand pulling the keys and tickling. (According to legend, Chico’s instructor in this art was one-handed.) For Zeppo, Diamond and Zisk chose an old friend of Diamond’s named Matt Walters, who is both extremely handsome and oddly indescribable, to Zeppo’s way.