BWW Interview: Creators of SHEAR MADNESS at The Charles Playhouse, the Longest-Running Play in US History
Sitting down to chat with Shear Madness' creators Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan provides exactly what one might expect from a conversation with two inherently funny people who, 40 years ago, produced a murder mystery/ improv comedy at a little theatre in Boston that currently holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running play in United States history. According to their website, "The flagship Boston company has given birth to 50 productions in the U.S. and Shear Madness has been translated into 23 foreign languages, playing worldwide in a host of cities including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Rejkavik, Rome, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Seoul. Over 12.5 million people worldwide have joined in the fun." Despite its successful runs off-Broadway and at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, Abrams remains resolute, behind her round, red-rimmed glasses, that the Boston production is the best. It was delightful to sit with these two in the Charles Playhouse, Shear Madness' birthplace, and look at what makes the show so successful, how it has evolved since 1979 (or since the 1976 production of the German drama which inspired it), and where they see the show going in the future. Joining us, were longtime cast members of the show (who also take on the essential task of updating and editing the script so it is different for every audience) Patrick Shea (who turned to the show after losing his job as a radio host), Celeste Oliva (who was in the show in New York before relocating to Boston), Joe Ruscio (who joined the cast shortly after graduating from Emerson College), and Chandra Pieragostini (whose name I hopefully spelled correctly). The crew was surprisingly jovial, already on their third hour of giving interviews to media outlets, blogs, and podcasts for the day. A spread of sandwiches from Panera Bread and a hapless interviewer asking Pieragostini to spell her name seemed to keep spirits rapturously high.
"Can you spell that?" I asked.
"Got a while?" quipped Jordan.
The story starts as magically as one could hope, a true theatrical fairytale in which the fates align to form a dream partnership. "I met Bruce in Lake George, New York doing summer theatre," Abrams kicked us off. ("Queen of the American lakes!" interjects Jordan). "Once I'd told him what costume I wanted to wear, he decided that would be okay and that we would get along." The two explain how Jordan had found a solemn, German, mystery drama called Scherenschnitt (which translates to 'scissor cuts' and, to Abrams' chagrin, I did look up the spelling, despite her protestations that it "wouldn't matter"). The murder mystery takes place in a salon and, according to both, one of its few redeeming qualities was that it had good parts for both of them to play. "Bruce showed me this thing, and if I hadn't worked with him before on real shows, I would've run immediately."
The two proceeded to fill in the gaps in each other's stories, recalling how matinee crowds and bawdy groups responded to the interactive elements in the show and helped them discover what worked and what didn't, leading them to their winning formula. The idea to turn the plot into an interactive comedy is shared by both creator equally.
"At one early performance, someone stood up and shouted 'Tony Whitcomb' (the barber) would never use those scissors!'" Jordan recalls. "Without missing a beat, a hairdresser in the audience shouted back 'A good barber can cut hair with a clam shell!' So that was the beginning of realizing 'Oh! These people are really involved.'"
They even explained how Abrams improvised a line hinting at Tony Whitcomb's homosexuality on the opening night of the show. I will not ruin the punchline, as 40 years later, it is still in the script and landing with thunderous (if less scandalized) laughter. "It used to get a big gasp followed by laughter, whereas now we get just the laughter."
"It's still funny, just not as controversial," chimed Oliva. "I had no idea that was your line!"
"Staying up to the minute," Abrams explained. "That's the job. And it happens before you even get on stage."
Ruscio explains how keeping up on current events as well as keeping up with his comedic influences (like SNL or The Simpsons which he grew up on) help him in his work.
"Joe is really great there," boasted Pieragostini. "Asking 'How will this work? Should we put this in? How should we word this?' and he has a great comic ear."
Jordan: "I don't think it's that funny."
Shea: "She's talking about the other ear."
When asked what cultural touchstones have provided the most fodder for jokes over the past 40 years, there was a nearly unanimous answer. Donald Trump. The group reminisced about how conservative audiences have responded to Trump jokes, and reminded me that there is plenty of bi-partisan foolishness to ridicule. (One of their favorite jokes in the show right now references Elizabeth Warren's false DNA claims, and Nancy Pelosi has given them plenty of material as of late.) "In these horrible times, people want this release. They want to laugh. They want to escape," Jordan explained, "but they are here to have fun, not think too much about our president." The cast explained that, because of his incessantly parody-worthy behavior, they have instituted a two-Trump-joke maximum per show. This gives audiences their fix without taking away from the narrative focus of the piece.
Other punchlines have scaled the ranks from national to local interest, ranging from the pronunciation of Medford, to long-standing references to OJ Simpson, Michael Vick, and Dora the Explorer. "There was one joke," according to Shea, "where a moose had found itself in downtown Natick and the state police came in and shot the moose in front of all the children in the neighborhood. It was huge news for a while. So I would say, 'If I was gonna kill her, I'd dress her up as a moose and take her to Natick.'" There was collective surprise at how a joke about Russell Crowe's performance in the movie version of Les Miserables stayed in the show for over a year based on audiences' reactions. "I couldn't believe people still remembered how terrible he was!" Ruscio laughed.
Oliva elaborated, "We are always reading the newspaper, going on line, and one of my favorite parts is talking to the cast about how we're going to fit something into the show."
Abrams added, "With all the fun the audience has, you have to remember, they really want to know who the murderer is. There are certain jokes that will dampen the mood so we stick away from those. With all the ridiculousness that goes on, there's still a murder in the center of it."
"And we never say 'f***'." Jordan informed me.
Some favorite memories included jokes at the expense of groups present in the audience on a specific night- an outing for postal workers saw characters dressed in their newly instated uniform Bermuda shorts, and a crowd from Foster Grant sunglasses was treated to a show in which every character sported a pair of shades. Who do the actors like performing for the most? Ruscio shared, for him, "band kids are a great audience." Pieragostini added that high school groups involved in chorus or theatre are always a treat because of how lively they are, but the room agreed that the beauty of the show is that people who don't usually like theatre usually have more fun than they anticipate.
Looking ahead at what Shear Madness might look like in the 2020s, Abrams said, "I think the level of enjoyment has stayed the same, remarkably. But the game changed because we are competing with so many different mediums of entertainment that didn't exist when we started. Everybody has a great time, but we need to do things differently to get people here."
Ruscio added, "I think it would be great if a theatre entrepreneur started thinking more about using augmented reality, which is starting to become more accessible. But with an established, interactive piece like this and modern technology, the possibilities are endless."
Shea: "They could de-age me like De Niro."
Jordan continued that the idea of translating Shear Madness to other mediums is enticing, sighting the new mania for streaming services for film and television, but made it clear in no uncertain terms that, "this is such a theatrical experience. To love it and really enjoy it, you've gotta be here, in an intimate space, with comedic actors. It can go on and do other things, but this is what it's really about. It's what makes it eternally interesting and fun-- just like its producers."
Overall, the whole team proved how much fun they have and how lasting the humor of the show can be. However, a serious air fell about the space when they reminded me not to write about how the mystery ends. At heart, the show succeeds because it keeps audiences guessing and wondering who the murderer is. There is something sacred about the camaraderie in keeping this secret. If you want to know the ending, you will not find it here and should instead see the production at the Charles.
Abrams put it best when she said, "It's all very old, but Shear Madness itself is forever young."
More information about this Boston theatre standard here.