Stage Anarchy and Silent Hilarityby Pat Launer June 29, 2017
Their real names were Julius, Adolph, Leonard, Herbert and Milton. But you probably know them as Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Gummo. Minnie’s Boys. Or, The Marx Brothers.
Minnie Marx was the ultimate Stage Mother (there was even a not-so-successful 1970 Broadway musical about her and her offspring, called “Minnie’s Boys”).
Born in Germany, she came from a Jewish family of fun-fair performers: her mother a yodeling harpist and her father a ventriloquist. She helped her younger brother, Al Shean, (born Abraham Elieser Adolf) to become a successful vaudeville and Broadway performer in the musical comedy act, Gallagher and Shean.
Minnie strongly encouraged and promoted her sons, whose talents were obvious from the get-go. Harpo played multiple instruments, but, as his nickname suggests, was most dedicated to the harp. Chico, who grew up to be an inveterate pursuer of “chicks,” was an excellent pianist, Groucho a guitarist/singer, and Zeppo a vocalist. Gummo’s moniker reportedly has something to do with rubber-soled shoes. Groucho’s handle seems self-evident. The source of Zeppo’s name remains unclear.
Their uncle Al helped get them into vaudeville as a singing troupe and worked to develop their onstage personas. Minnie was their manager.
Zeppo was the youngest, and though he served as the romantic straight-man, he was said to be the funniest offstage. Groucho wore a trademark greasepaint mustache and used a stooped walk. Harpo stopped speaking onstage and began to wear a fright-wig and carry a taxi-cab horn. Chico spoke with a fake Italian accent, initially developed to deal with neighborhood tough-guys.
Their major Broadway debut came in 1924, in a stage revue titled “I’ll Say She Is,” which was a smash hit. They went on to perform in two funnier and longer-lasting shows, “The Cocoanuts” (1929) and “Animal Crackers” (1930). These three Broadway musicals formed the basis of everything the Marx Brothers did on film and, according to many historians, the backbone of modern American comedy.
When “talkies” started to take hold, the Marx Brothers segued into movies. They made 13 feature films (including “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers”), five of which were among the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Funniest American Movies of All Time. Two were in the top 15: “Duck Soup” (#5) and “A Night at the Opera” (#12).
The careers of the Marx Brothers continued for nearly a half-century (the last of the brothers died in the late 1970s; Groucho lived the longest, to 86). But their impact endures, and their humor remains influential.
Now, Cygnet Theatre is bringing the stage version of “Animal Crackers” to San Diego.
“I’ve always loved the Marx Brothers,” says Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray. “People who are fans are fanatics. Now, they’re known mostly for their films. But they were one of the highest paid vaudeville acts for 20 years. Then they were among the biggest Broadway stars in the ’20s.”
“Animal Crackers” was their third and final stage show. It only ran for 191 performances, but it toured all over the country for years. The action is set in the upscale Long Island home of Mrs. Rittenhouse, who’s throwing a party in honor of the African explorer Captain Spaulding. During the festivities, a valuable painting goes missing, and the eccentric guests set out to find the thief in a series of zany antics and exploits.
The show has been called “wacky,” “inane,” “breathless and hilarious,” “both brilliant and remarkably, refreshingly stupid,” inducing “eye-tearing laughter from soup to nuts.”
“The Marx Brothers really did epitomize the energy of the 1920s,” Murray says. “The Jazz and Prohibition Age. Shattering mores and being totally irreverent. When they were the toast of Broadway, they got George S. Kaufman and Irving Berlin, the cream of Broadway, to write ‘Cocoanuts.’”
The original creative team for “Animal Crackers” was also composed of Jewish superstars: the book writers were Kaufman (a Pulitzer Prize winner for “You Can’t Take It With You”) and Morrie Ryskind, who shared the Pulitzer with Kaufman for the musical “Of Thee I Sing.” The music and lyrics for “Animal Crackers” were written by Songwriters Hall of Famers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.
The musical’s most famous and familiar number is the shtick-laden “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” which became Groucho’s personal theme song during his days as a television personality, beginning in 1950.
“‘Animal Crackers’ is a great adaptation of their live stage work,” says Murray. “The 1928 production was a huge, expensive show that was re-worked and condensed for film. Some characters were cut or combined and songs were edited out.”
The stage show has been revived a number of times in the years since, primarily in regional theaters. When it was presented at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2009, the director, Henry Wishcamper, created an updated adaptation, cutting the chorus and reducing the cast to nine actors and the or-
chestra to six instruments. Sean Murray was in touch with Wishcamper in preparing the Cygnet production.
“One of the gimmicks of the show,” Murray says, “is the quick-change, multi-character cast. Everyone but the Marx Brothers characters plays two to three roles. Sometimes, the costume changes are so fast they happen onstage.”
In casting, Murray was looking for “very funny comedians who can act. But if they try to be funny, the comedy won’t work.”
As his Groucho, who plays Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (“the T stands for Edgar”), Murray has cast L.A.-based Josh Odsess Rubin, who received an excellent reception in two Cygnet shows over the past year: “When the Rain Stops Falling” and “Bad Jews.” He’s one of three Jewish actors in “Animal Crackers.”
Murray is adamant about not having his actors simply imitate the Marx Brothers’ iconic behavior.
“If you make it a complete imitation,” he explains, “the audience is waiting for you to slip up. You start with the icon, but let the actor find his way into the role and character. It’s inspired by the Marx Brothers, not an imitation of them.”
In one of Henry Wishcamper’s productions, he cast a woman as Harpo; Murray is doing the same. He chose Samantha Wynn Greenstone, with whom he performed in Cygnet’s recent, terrific production of the madcap musical, “On the 20th Century.”
“She has an untouchable joy of life,” he says of Samantha. “She’s so funny, and an amazing bundle of energy. She’s very Harpo, laughing and loving, but also a bit of a prankster. She’s fabulously loopy, and is just out there having a blast onstage.”
Samantha grew up in San Diego, and she cut her theatrical teeth at the JCC’s J*Company Youth Theatre.
Inhabiting a male character is nothing new for her. She started at age 7, playing Mr. Bumble in “Oliver” (at the JCC Summer Theatre Camp), followed some time later by the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” and King Antiochus “in some Hanukkah musical.”
Last year, when she played Fruma Sarah in “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Welk Resort Theatre, she also stood in as an extra male in the wedding scene; she felt that her character should have a name. She called him Moses.
After attending the University of Arizona, Greenstone trained in improv at the well-known and well-regarded L.A.-based Second City Conservatory and The Groundlings. Locally, she has appeared at Diversionary Theatre, Scripps Ranch Theatre and the Welk, and further north, at Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora.
“So I guess it all comes full circle, doesn’t it?,” she quips about her return to a male role for “Animal Crackers.”
From Bumble to Harpo, which adds to the appeal for her, because he communicates solely non-verbally.
“I’ve been trained in physical comedy,” she says. “I’m a very expressive person; I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I have a lot of facial expression. I guess my energy, my free-spiritedness and my fluidity of movement are what Sean noticed. Physically and energetically, I relate to Harpo.” People have been telling her she got lucky with this role, because she doesn’t have any lines to learn.
“But,” she counters, “I have to know every other character’s lines, so I know exactly where each of my physical ‘bits’ come in. It’s tricky. You think it’ll be easier, but it requires a different part of the memory brain.”
There’s also “the challenge of playing a real person, let alone one who’s so iconic, cemented in the history of what we do as artists and actors, and in the non-theater society at large.
“There’s the challenge of doing justice to who he was, and to nail the bits – the leg bit, the trench-coat gags – and the relationship with the brothers. Obviously, I’ll bring my own spin, but mostly it’s my energy, inspired by Harpo.”
She’s thrilled with the team of brothers.
“The four of us have been talking about doing yoga together. I do it every day to prepare for the role, which is so physical. I want to get as fluid as possible.
“What I love about Harpo is that, when you watch him, you don’t always know what’s going on inside his head. But he makes it apparent that he’s totally invested in everything he does. Even the way he eats a banana; he has a relationship to every prop. There’s more power in silence than people realize.
“Without words, I have to search within myself, expose my truest self, and communicate what’s in my heart. It gives me a deeper appreciation of who I am. Silence makes people most vulnerable. I have to put my heart on the line in a way I’ve never done before.”
Even though this may not be their preferred style of comedy, Samantha feels confident that young people will laugh at the skill and puns and raunchy jokes in the show.
Director Sean Murray agrees.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not familiar with the Marx Brothers,” he says. “The show stands up on its own. It’s not a campy Marx Brothers spoof or takeoff. But it does have their spirit.
“It just cracks me up. The puns are so fast and sometimes so bad, they’re just fabulous. Groucho often comments on this. He’ll say, ‘I didn’t write it,’ or ‘Not all the jokes can be funny, folks!’
“The show is very much alive and in-the-moment,” Murray says. “The Marx Brothers were famous for their stage anarchy, and we’re going to try to capture that. It’s very spontaneous, so every performance will be different.”
“Animal Crackers” runs at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town from July 5-Aug. 13. Tickets and information at (619) 337-1525 or cygnettheatre.com.
*Photo by Ken Jacques, of actress Samantha Wynn Greenstone in character as the mute comic Harpo Marx.