The legendary Napoleon scene from I'll Say She Is, as seen in 1924 and 2014. Photo by Don Spiro.

 

This is a show about the thrill of love.

 

I’ve been in love with the Marx Brothers for my entire life, if not longer. And of all the achievements of this greatest of all comedy acts, what’s always fascinated me the most is their Broadway period. In the 1920s, before they made the films which are their principal legacy, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo Marx were the stars of three hugely successful Broadway musicals. Two of these, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, are beloved classics today — known through the Brothers’ immortal film versions, and numerous recent stage revivals. But the Brothers’ first masterpiece, their 1924 Broadway debut I’ll Say She Is, was never filmed or revived. The Marx Brothers performed in it from 1923 to 1925, and then it was lost to history. So I’ll Say She Is has always intrigued me the most. Its opening night at Broadway’s long-lost Casino Theatre — May 19, 1924 — has always topped my time travel wish-list.

My work in the theatre, as writer and performer, has usually been influenced by the Marx Brothers — sometimes explicitly, as in my many performances as Groucho. But in 2009 I embarked on the Marx Brothers theatrical project of a lifetime: The first-ever revival of I’ll Say She Is.

I spent six years arduously researching the show, and managed to unearth a great deal of the original score and libretto, including a good deal of material not previously known. I searched newspaper, magazine, and sheet music archives; libraries and private collections; I consulted the recollections of people who were involved with the original production, and their descendants.

My dream of a restored I’ll Say She Is began to come true on the 90th anniversary of the original Broadway premiere. In May of 2014 at Marxfest, New York City’s Marx Brothers festival, my adaptation had its debut in the form of two staged readings. The work was then seen in five highly-acclaimed, sold-out performances in the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Trav S.D. Fans from around the world came to witness the return of, in Trav’s words, “one of the Holy Grails of classic comedy.”

Now we’re getting ready to do it again, on a larger scale. At New York’s beautiful Connelly Theater, I’ll Say She Is returns, May 28 – July 2, 2016. This production will be the first fully-realized I’ll Say She Is since the original production closed — a summoning of the spirits of the Marx Brothers, and a spectacular recreation of a night on Broadway in the 1920s.

Like our successes at Marxfest and FringeNYC, this independent, fan-driven, non-profit production will only be possible thanks to the friends, supporters, and producers of the Lost Marx Brothers Musical. If you’d like to see this comedy legend back on stage where it belongs, please consider joining us by making a tax-deductible donation, or by sharing this information with people you know. At illsaysheis.com, you can read all about the show, watch videos, and join our mailing list. And should you feel the urge to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, far be it from me to discourage you.

 

I’ll Say She Is: Hysterical Note

(As printed in the opening-night program for the 2014 FringeNYC production)

Somehow, my lifelong obsession with the Marx Brothers (especially their Broadway period, especially I’ll Say She Is) has led to this. During the five or six years I’ve spent researching and adapting this show, the notion of actually presenting it on stage has gone from a distant fantasy to a hypothetical goal to, suddenly, the work of all the superb artists listed in this program. I feel a bit like I’m in the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, with Groucho’s manner but Harpo’s disposition, euphoric in the company of so many hard-boiled eggs.

The primary source for my adaptation is Will B. Johnstone’s 1923 rehearsal typescript — a thirty-page outline with dialogue. Other sources include extant alternate versions of certain scenes; surviving fragments of the Marx Brothers’ early vaudeville repertoire; other musicals written by the Johnstones; newspaper reviews and columns which describe, and often quote from, the show; the newspaper prose and cartoons of Will B. Johnstone; and the written and recorded recollections of those who saw or participated in the original production.

Collecting and assembling these puzzle pieces, and then filling in the blanks with Marxist intuition, was the project of a lifetime before a drop of greasepaint was spilled. My own contributions represent roughly half the lyrics, and a third of the book, presented tonight. But these interpolations are informed by a long immersion in Johnstone and Marx works of the teens and twenties, and even “my” material here is full of phrases and ideas straight from the source.

Musicologist Margaret Farrell, who is the great-granddaughter of Will B. Johnstone, keeper of his diaries, and custodian of his creative legacy, has been a singular source of information and inspiration.

There’s a common misconception that I’ll Say She Is was “plotless.” Not so. It was a revue, but it was a plotted revue, or book revue. And it still is a revue, though my adaptation nudges it slightly more in the direction of a book musical. The story — a bored heiress looks for thrills — is paradigmatic revue stuff, a clothesline on which to hang songs, sketches, and specialties. Yet in the context of recent experience, even the plot of I’ll Say She Is seems meaningful to me. This is a show about the thrill of love — love of laughter, of music, of the theatre, of Broadway and showbiz and New York and the Jazz Age and the Marx Brothers. Beauty’s search for excitement isn’tjust an excuse to dress up as Napoleon and run around the stage. It’s also a reminder to enjoy things, to participate, to connect with others, and, as Robert Benchley said in his review of the original I’ll Say She Is, “to feel a glow at being alive in the same generation.”

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