In the history of Broadway, twenty-six plays have had runs of more than 1,000 consecutive performances, none before 1918, and none after 1986. Jordan Schildcrout looks at 15 of them in “In the Long Run” (Routledge, 224 pages), a satisfying read that tells us the plots, the behind-the-scenes stories, and the larger cultural meaning of these once wildly popular comedies. (Almost all of them were comedies.)
Some of these plays are still frequently produced, and/or were made into classic films (whose fidelity to the original script varies widely.) But a sizable percentage of these plays remain familiar now only to theater aficionados, and even then mostly just for their titles: Abie’s Irish Rose, Tobacco Road, The Voice of the Turtle. Their chapters are the most engaging in the book.
While a half dozen of the longest-running plays won The Tony Award for Best Play, and two won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a surprising number were critically panned. “People laugh at this every night,” critic Robert Benchley said about “Abie’s Irish Rose,” “which explains why a democracy can never be a success.” Dorothy Parker was a tad kinder to “Lightnin’,” the first play to reach 1,000 performances. The play “kept my mind off the war and my bills,” she wrote in 1918.
Whether or not these plays pleased the critics, they drew in the public at large. To run for 1,000 performances, a play has to attract an audience made up of more than just regular theatergoers. This helps drive home one of the author’s main insights: These plays tapped into their cultural moment. By analyzing the appeal of the most popular plays in each decade, Schildcrout, a professor of theater at the State University of New York at Purchase, tells us something about the public’s mood in each era.
“Abie’s Irish Rose,” for example, was a sentimental comedy in the 1920s about a Jewish boy who marries an Irish-Catholic girl, much to the consternation of their comically bigoted fathers. Schildcrout writes: “The white nationalist and anti-immigrant forces that intensified in this decade often employed stereotypes to demean those they believed did not belong in America; nevertheless, some audiences clearly enjoyed the affirmation that came from seeing their cultures represented, even in stereotypical ways, on the Broadway stage.” In this way, the play reflects the author’s big tent theory of popular playwriting – that they are so open to interpretation that theatergoers of opposite world views can both see them as simpatico: “Does the play rely on cartoonish and possibly offensive stereotypes, or does it contain a sincere plea for ethnic and religious tolerance? The answer, of course, is “yes.” It does both. This ideological ambiguity initially may have allowed the play to appeal to a wide audience…”
“Life With Father,” which did please the critics and the public alike — and remains the longest-running straight play in Broadway history — was a comedy set in the 19th century about demanding if loving Father who insists on the supremacy of his authority in his family, but whose wife and children always wind up getting their way. Schildcrout writes: “The individual’s relationship to authority was a vital subject when Life with Father was first produced. In September 1939, two months before the play opened, Hitler invaded Poland, and the United Kingdom, France, and other allied nations soon declared war on Germany. More than a few critics couldn’t help but see the play in relation to the rise of fascism.”
His analysis is less persuasive when discussing the popularity of two plays from the 1960’s, Jean Kerr’s “Mary, Mary,” and Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” He labels both “conservative and trivial,” which he argues was a factor in their appeal, offering audiences an escape from the turbulent decade. But both plays were launched in the decidedly less turbulent first half of the decade.
His attempts to tie these plays’ popularity to their historical moment may not always feel spot-on — if it were easy to figure out why a show was a hit, wouldn’t there be more of them? But each chapter illuminates these plays in a myriad of other ways.
Some of these are just delectable tidbits. Marian Seldes appeared in the entire 1,793-performance run of “Deathtrap,” yet in that time also continued teaching at Juilliard, finished a memoir, and wrote a novel. How did she do all that? Her character is killed off in Act !, and she had time to kill (so to speak) until the curtain call. (This also gave her plenty of opportunities to second-act the other shows on Broadway.)
Some chapters demonstrate the breadth of theatrical knowledge and analytic power of the author, who also has worked as a dramaturg. In discussing Albert Innaurato’s “Gemini,” a play about an Italian-American working class senior at Harvard who is attracted to both his upper-class Radcliffe girlfriend and her brother, Schildcrout writes at one point: “Gemini rewrites the 19th-century melodrama of the ‘tragic mulatto,’ a character presumed to be doomed because, being part white and part black in a racist society, such a person could never ‘belong’ or reconcile their mixed heritage. But Gemini is satisfied to carry on with its unresolved dualities of ethnicity, class, and sexuality…. Francis learns that he can be, as it were, ambidextrous. He can have both his Italian-American working-class heritage and an Ivy League education, and he can hold his love for Judith in one hand and his desire for Randy in the other. “
The author offers an especially rich paragraph in his chapter on “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a second play by Neil Simon, the only playwright to have had three Broadway plays that lasted more than 1,000 performances (and 26 plays on Broadway in total!) Some critics scoffed at Simon’s oft-expressed admiration for such great playwright as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill (James Wolcott: “Neil Simon’s long day’s journey into night begins and ends at brunch.”) The author responds: “Brighton Beach Memoirs is more productively compared with other popular Broadway plays…”– and then does so with half a dozen examples of the longest-running plays (like Life With Father, Brighton Beach Memoirs is “loosely autobiographical coming-of-age story rendered in the comforting glow of nostalgia” etc) — a riff that feels like a reward for our having just read about all these plays in the book. It is also fitting: “Brighton Beach Memoirs closed on May 11, 1986, and it is, as of this writing, the last Broadway play to run over 1,000 performances.”
In the last two decades, the top 10 list of longest-running Broadway shows is entirely comprised of musicals (which, you might have noticed, are not included in “In The Long Run.”) Almost 100 musicals have had runs of at least 1,000 performances on Broadway.
“So what happened to the long-running hit play?” The author devotes the last chapter to that question — ten pages of reasons, which include higher costs and ticket prices, an increase in tourists who don’t speak English, the rise of Off-Broadway and regional theaters, the fact that the shows by the four non-profit Broadway houses generally have fixed runs, a falling-off of arts education, etc. — and concludes with the hope that such a play might someday return: prime candidate “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
Jordan Schildcrout obviously wrote that chapter at a time when Broadway was still open for business. For those of us reading his book during this peculiar time of extended intermission, “In The Long Run” offers us a chance to feel as one with the Broadway theatergoers of the last century, and enjoy what they enjoyed.