November 27, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Once upon a time, there was a type of Broadway comedy that commonly offered popular entertainment of the first order. These plays went for big laughs by upending the assembly-line, cookie-cutter, so-called normal complacency of middle to upper class homes. Though farce was the main form of comedy prior to World War II, after the 1940s, with servicemen returning home and adjusting to their new lives, a different wave of theatre prospered and flourished on Broadway, many set in proper living rooms for all of their three acts; shows with titles like like Time Out for Ginger, A Hole in the Head and The Marriage-Go-Round
Then in 1961, a TV writer branched out with a Broadway play all his own. Prior, he had only written collaboratively in the employ of the comedian Sid Caesar on his two landmark TV series Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s World. But with his mildly auto-biographical Come Blow Your Horn, Neil Simon quickly became the master playwright of this genre, wildly popular with suburban audiences and tourists. For his second Broadway comedy, he teamed with a then comedian-turned-director named Mike Nichols, which marked the beginning of an insanely successful four-show partnership. 1963’s Barefoot in the Park was a smash hit, followed immediately by The Odd Couple (1964), Plaza Suite (1968) and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972). Over this nine-year period, Nichols won four Tonys for directing these plays, but Simon lost out to more “significant” dramas every season (and how many productions of John Osbourne’s Luther have there been since 1964 compared with The Odd Couple?). Simon would finally win a Tony for Best Play twenty-two years after his first with Brighton Beach Memoirs, a more serious-minded play, but one with plenty of laughs to which his audiences had grown accustomed. His Tony notwithstanding, laugh-out-loud comedies like the ones Simons once wrote, are still to this day considered bastard relations to drama in terms of award-worthiness.
And as it turns out, Brighton Beach Memoirs is the last straight play to run more than 1,200 performances (three years), closing in 1986. It didn’t achieve the high water mark of Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, which clocked in at 1,819 performances before exiting five years earlier (the equivalent of more than four years). Since these two shows left the theatre district more than thirty years ago, no other play has gone past the three-year mark on Broadway.
It wasn’t just that comedies were replaced in the hearts and wallets of their audiences, but by the genuine progress sitcoms had begun as far back as the beginning of the 1970s with All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, et. al.; TV shows that amounted to sometimes beautifully constructed thirty-minute plays that allowed audiences to stay home in the comfort of their living rooms for quality entertainment equally as good, if not better, than what as on Broadway — and for free!
For the purposes of this column, and because it opened on this date fifty-five years ago in 1962, this is the tale of one of those plays called Never Too Late. Written by Sumner Arthur Long, it’s about the hilarity that ensues when a married man in his fifties suddenly learns he’s becoming a father again.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. And it ran for three years.
It was so popular it spawned a film version in 1965. It is really creaky, but as compensation, it does offer the chance to watch its two leading actors in a repeat of their stage roles: the one-of-a-kind comedian Paul Ford, and the always fresh and lovely Maureen O’Sullivan (once Jane opposite Tommy Weissmuller in the first talking Tarzan films, as well as mother to Mia Farrow). As but one example of how funny Paul Ford could be, just look at this photo from the Broadway version of Never Too Late, and see if it doesn’t make you laugh all on its own:
Sumner Arthur Long (1921–1993) was a World War II veteran who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor when he was twenty years old. After the war, he worked in Hollywood and among his credits was writing for the TV series Lassie. He struck pay dirt with Never Too Late with his first attempt, but like many other playwrights (and prospecting minors), he never had the same degree of success digging for other nuggets of gold. Only one other play of his reached Broadway and it closed in a weekend. I saw it. It was called Angela, and starred Geraldine Page. It’s famous in the annals of my teenage theatregoing as the first (and not the last time) I entered a theatre and gave the usher my ticket for the last row of the balcony, only to have her hand the stub back to me, wave at the orchestra with twenty-five people in it and say, “Oh, Honey … sit wherever you want.”
That was Angela. And since Never Too Late opened when I was five years old, I obviously never saw it on stage, though productions of it grew like weeds in the late sixties when summer stock was still a going concern. I sure would have loved to have seen what Bert Lahr did when he played the role of Harry Lambert in 1965 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ.
As of this writing, Never Can Late is still on the list of the “Longest Running Broadway Shows,” at lucky #113 with 1,007 performances. But if that list were broken down to only plays, it would shoot up to #26, which should give some idea how much longer musicals run that plays.
It has been said that Joe DiMaggio’s record of getting safely on base in fifty-six consecutive games will never be matched or surpassed by any other ballplayer. That no one’s done it since that fabled 1941 season, do make the odds tougher every year (especially after seventy-six of them). But with the way economics have changed for the American theatre, the days of a play like Never Too Late running three years (much like Joltin’ Joe) are most definitely gone with the wind.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.