SO LONG, DOC
August 30, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Tonight at 6:45 p.m. the lights of Broadway will dim for one minute in tribute to Neil Simon, who died on Sunday at the age of ninety-one. His death, due to complications from pneumonia and having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was a sad end. To me, he was a personal hero, since he was among the key playwrights I encountered when I first began going to the Broadway theatre on a regular basis, starting at the age of twelve. The year was 1969 and Simon, the author of Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple and Plaza Suite (to name only three of around thirty), was then at the height of his powers. After his debut with Come Blow Your Horn in 1961, he would go on to write twenty plays and musicals that opened on Broadway over the next twenty years, a streak that may never be broken. Lifelong baseball fan that he was, I think Simon would enjoy the comparison to Joe DiMaggio, who has solely held the distinction of hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive games for seventy-seven years: a record — like Simon’s — that may also stand the test of time.
The actual statistics, counting additional revivals and re-workings of existing shows (an all-female Odd Couple, as one example), brings Simon’s total to forty-two Broadway shows to which he contributed over a fifty-five year period (not counting the countless shows he doctored, including A Chorus Line). Astonishing.
Simon’s streak didn’t really stop until the mid-nineties, when Broadway audiences changed and his plays didn’t. He put forth a few shows Off-Broadway, lowering the risk to his investors, but none of them caught fire. His last time at bat on Broadway was in the fall of 2009 and it had an unhappy ending. Simon and his longtime producing partner, Emanuel Azenberg, had the idea to revive two of the “Eugene Jerome” trilogy of plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. They were to play in repertory, but after Brighton Beach opened — and in spite of some good reviews — no one came. The decision was made to close Brighton Beach in its first week, which resulted in no one ever seeing Broadway Bound, which had already begun rehearsals. It’s a pity, as I’ve heard from cast members and Azenberg himself, that Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the mother would have won her a Tony Award.
Simon wrote a certain kind of play better than anybody else (and many tried). They mainly featured suburban men and women (New Yorkers), most often Jewish, if not by religion, then by inflection. His humor had an edge, but was also sentimental. Sometimes too sentimental, as critics were prone to complain. But audiences ate up Simon’s particular brand of kosher comedy. My personal experience seeing the original productions of Plaza Suite, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Sunshine Boys, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound, as well as a host of others, provided me with enough laughs to last a lifetime.
He also offered meaty roles for actors. An extraordinary nineteen Tony Awards went to men and women playing roles in his plays and musicals, more than any other playwright (I mean Shakespeare can only claim four). His seventeen Tony Award nominations are also more than any other playwright. He won three: Best Author in 1965 for The Odd Couple, and two Best Play Tonys: 1985’s Biloxi Blues and 1991’s Lost in Yonkers (the latter play also winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama). Within his honored lifetime, he had a theatre named after him. He wrote the screenplays for dozens of films (most of them adaptations of his plays). He was a prolific, one-of-a-kind talent, and monetarily, easily the most successful playwright Broadway has ever produced. His is a singular achievement, and I was disheartened when reading so many of his obituaries that chose to dwell on his falling out of favor late in his career, when that part of his story is really of little consequence, especially when you consider that there is probably one of his plays being produced somewhere on this planet on any given day.
What made Simon’s brand of humor so unique? To my mind, it was his fidelity to writing about people he knew well. He rarely ventured beyond a New York-style of rat-tit-tat-tat, which made the rhythms of his comedies positively sing (even when they weren’t musicals). When a certain actor took hold of his material, such as Walter Matthau, Maureen Stapleton or Matthew Broderick — to name but a few — the lines would leap off the page. Take a look at this clip from the 1968 film of The Odd Couple as but one example of his particular brand of comedy:
If you read Simon’s two memoirs, Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999), you would be struck by his work ethic more than anything else. He was tireless, and never settled for the easy out. Particularly in the early years, when he teamed with Mike Nichols. Their mutual devotion to getting every moment right is one of the reasons those shows were such hits. Think about how pitch perfect these choice collaborations with Nichols proved to be: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue — all five bringing Nichols Tonys for his direction. How about that? He was fortunate to have other fine directors guide his work, among them Gene Saks, Robert Moore and Herbert Ross — all gone now.
It’s become harder and harder for original straight plays to get produced on Broadway these days, especially comedies. Most audiences feel they can get them for free on television (and they’re not entirely wrong). But when a master craftsman like Simon was at the top of his game, audiences flocked to see his shows. I know I did. I couldn’t wait for “the new Neil Simon” each and every season. Even if some missed the mark, it was always a thrill to be in the theatre and marvel when a line would land with a “zing” that sent the audiences into wild laughter, and sometimes applause. My memories of the plays of his I got to see in their original productions will stay with me for a lifetime, as will the gifts Neil Simon gave to the theatre. To paraphrase Horatio on his good friend Hamlet: “We shall not see his like again.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.