ON BROADWAY: WHEN COMEDY WAS KING
In 1963, Mike Nichols directed his first Broadway play, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. It was the playwright’s third time at bat after his 1961 comedy Come Blow Your Horn and 1962 musical Little Me ran 667 and 257 performances respectively. Not bad for the new kid on the block… and then came Barefoot which produced a monster hit. This one-set, five-character comedy holds the record as the remarkably prolific Simon’s longest running show, closing in 1967 nearly four years after it opened.
If you’re not familiar with it, the play’s basic conflict consists of a series of extended quarrels between two young newlyweds striving for compatibility while trying to live in their first apartment together. It’s based on the real-life story of Simon and his first wife Joan, who was something of a muse for him on more than a few plays. Barefoot’s journey to Broadway tells a terrific tale, told with more than a touch of brio when, in 1984, the Dramatists Guild hosted a discussion with Nichols, Simon and Mildred Natwick, one of the stars of the original production who repeated her role in the 1967 film and received an Academy Award nomination. Moderated by five-time Tony Award winning playwright Terrence McNally, this column quotes extensively from these principals’ memories, aided by a transcript of that talk, published in 1985 in a now out-of-print book titled Broadway Song and Story: Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers discuss their hits.
To begin, as Simon writes in his 1996 first volume of autobiography Rewrites, that upon Barefoot’s eventual producer Arnold Saint Subber finishing the first draft in his office (while Simon patiently in the waiting area), Subber appeared in the doorway and told Simon:
“I think I have a brilliant director… Mike Nichols.”
“Mike Nichols? He’s not a director. He’s a comic. Has he ever directed.”
“No. But he wants to.”
This exchange would be the beginning of what would become the chief reason for the phenomenal success with which the play was met. Formerly part of a team with the glorious Elaine May, Nichols was a shining star until she backed out of their partnership permanently in 1962, leaving him a bit stranded. Agreeing with his producer that Nichols was an inspired choice to direct Barefoot came out of a smart hunch by Simon: “I admired Nichols and May so much, my instincts told me anyone that funny had to be brilliant.” What resulted was Nichols’ unique method of staging the play in a wholly organic way, making it appear as if the hilarity unravelling was occurring in the moment; not pre-planned and “set,” therefore bypassing a glibness that often substituted for truth in Broadway comedies of the day. Of course, this all came out of Nichols’ training in improvisation, which is the way he aided the actors in discovering genuine comic business in rehearsal that he could mine for eventual performance. Critics and audiences alike were struck by the honesty in the way the actors behaved on stage, so much so that it would prove a bellwether. From that day forward, Nichols became the master of this art, directing many actors to Tony Awards, as well as bringing four home for himself (for five plays) between 1963 and 1972, resulting in an eventual count of nine Tonys for both directing and producing, before his death in 2014.
As one example of the revolutionary way with which the show was staged, during one rehearsal, Simon was observing one of the play’s fight scenes and cozied up to Nichols, who was seated in the audience. “I think we should leave,” Simon said. “This is too private a moment.” As he further explains: “It was so private, I didn’t think we should intrude on it, and I knew then it was spectacular.” Nichols was aided in his efforts by the casting of the twenty-six year-old Robert Redford and the twenty-four year-old Elizabeth Ashley, who became break-out stars after Barefoot, even though it wasn’t the Broadway debuts for either (Ashley had, in fact, won a Tony the previous season for Take Her, She’s Mine, as old school a comedy as Barefoot was new).
Of course, today Barefoot seems a bit quaint, but you have to understand where audiences were coming from back in 1963. As this column’s title suggests, this was a time when comedy was indeed king on Broadway, although it was also the beginning of an eventual backslide due to the proliferation of television sitcoms, leaving audiences who once ate up these comedies to discover that they didn’t have to pay top Broadway prices for what was coming into their living rooms for free. Once upon a time, old radio shows entertained more Americans in their homes than anywhere else. Then, only slightly reconfigured to be seen and not heard (The Goldbergs, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen and the Jack Benny Program are excellent examples), these shows began proliferating in the early days of television. Then with 1961’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, a new era was ushered in when a certain type of reality started to take hold; the kind that Nichols and Simon would mine significantly with Barefoot. Ironically, the Van Dyke show’s creator, the late Carl Reiner, worked extensively with Simon when they were writers on Your Show of Shows, the classic weekly sketch-comedy series that starred Sid Caesar and ran from 1950–54, in addition to their time together on Caesar’s Hour (1954–57), its sort-of sequel. Eventually, once All in the Family (also helped along by some Caesar alumni) came along in 1971, the art of the sitcom changed forever, and all bets were off.
But back to 1963. When Simon said yes to Nichols, The soon-to-be first time director had his doubts: “I had gone to the University of Chicago, and we had been trained to dislike Broadway. I read the play, and I thought, ‘This is very nice, but you know, Broadway — but I needed a job.’ I decided to see whether I could do it and whether it would work. What I didn’t know before this experience, and what I learned from this experience is, what people do is crucial to a place, more than what they say — what is the situation? Doc [Simon’s nickname] and I didn’t have the knowledge at the time to realize that everything in the play (and is what I came to love so much about the play and still do) is heightened, both figuratively and literally. They lived way up on the top floor, so everyone who comes in has to go up all those stairs, so immediately there is a physical reality.”
And about those stairs…
Mildred Natwick: “I remember you making us run up and down those damn stairs, practicing.”
Neil Simon: “The curtain went up, and as soon as Elizabeth Ashley as Corie came onstage and opened up the valise with the logs and Herb Edelman as the telephone man came up and breathed, the audience started to laugh, and they haven’t stopped laughing in twenty years — and I still don’t understand it.”
Mike Nichols: “A specific I do remember is Redford asking, ‘Can I try something?’ I said sure, and he said, ‘Could I carry Millie in this scene?’”
Neil Simon: “This was close to real life and closer still to the lives of New Yorkers who climbed those five flights themselves. (For the French version, I had to make it seven flights. In Paris, five flights would be a luxury apartment).”
The reviews understood what Simon, Nichols and the actors had achieved. Walter Kerr in the New York Herald-Tribune wrote, “The curtain goes up on an empty apartment and Mr. Simon proceeds to fill it up with a play. By improvising as freely as he does, Mr. Simon arrives at exactly what’s meant by entertainment.” Amazing that Kerr was able to understand exactly what the achievement was, though he didn’t give co-credit to Nichols here, though later in his review he properly praised him. To showcase what this all meant, Nichols tells of the time when he was rehearsing Redford’s replacement, Richard Benjamin: “He came in and did a wonderful reading, we cast him, and I started to rehearse him. On the third day, he said, ‘Nobody can do all this business and say the lines, too. Do you realize that in three lines you have me taking off all my clothes, pressing my tie in the dictionary, standing on the bed in the bedroom, and I have to be back by the time I say this line. Nobody can do it.’ We weren’t aware of how much we had added, one line or piece of business at a time.”
Of Barefoot’s memorable opening night, Simon offered this wonderful observation: “There was a party at Tavern on the Green, and when more people arrive than you’ve invited, you know you’ve got a success, because everyone wants to be in on the celebration. The reviews were almost anti-climatical to the word that spread around the rooms.”
As already mentioned, Barefoot was a phenomenon, with its 1967 film version (with Redford opposite the then-red-hot Jane Fonda) one of the highest grossers of the year. It also spurred a short-lived TV series (with a black cast) in 1970 and, in 2006, a Broadway revival that was, sadly, not well received. Simon’s writing took brickbats for what was really a failure of direction by a seriously miscast Scott Elliott, not at all the right person to helm a gentle comedy. Ben Brantley in the New York Times said, “this version doesn’t have one scene that feels organic, let alone impromptu,” and that feeling was echoed nearly unanimously. I, for one, refuse to believe that the play is dated, which some argued, for if done with the kind of loving attention it deserves, still has the chance to come off charming and abundantly entertaining. That, in spite of some the writing’s inherent chauvinism of the day, which I believe can be handled appropriately if the play is done with particular emphasis on actors offering appreciatively honest relationships.
Everything lined up just right for Barefoot in the Park. It bore the fruit of The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, whichfollowed as Simon-Nichols collaborations. To close, one of my favorite quotes from Simon on his relationship with Nichols was his saying, “I once decided I would watch Mike very closely so that I would be able to direct my own play some day. But I never saw what he did. It was so mysterious.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here on Medium and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.