Today, marks the anniversary of when Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap opened on London's West End. That was on November 25, 1952 -- 71 years ago today. It's still running, after over 28,000 performances.
By way of comparison, not long ago Phantom of the Opera closed as the longest-ever running production in Broadway history. It ran for 13,981 performances, over the course of 35 years. If it hadn't close and played for another 35 years…it still would be short of The Mousetrap. And that's if The Mousetrap closed tomorrow.
Even the longest-running show in New York, off-Broadway's musical The Fantasticks, which had a remarkable run of 42 years and 17,162 performances fell far short, just over half as long. And again, The Mousetrap is still running.
I have a theory about that. At some point long ago, it stopped by just a long-running play and instead become a tourist attraction, a stop to make when in London.
As a kidling, I saw The Mousetrap on a family trip to Europe in 1966, the play's 14th year. A couple years later on another family trip, I picked up a poster which I have up on my walls.
At the time, I was a little sorry that the poster had as many years as "16." Little did I know how paltry that number would be.
When I saw the play in 1966, I went with my older brother. (Our folks went to a different play that day.) I was very excited about going, since I liked Agatha Christie mysteries and had heard so much about this monumentally long-running play. I'd read the novella beforehand, so I knew whodunnit -- but at intermission I asked my brother who he thought the killer was. (Don't worry, I won't give it away.) He kept changing his guess -- "No, wait, don't tell me, I think it's..." -- and I just politely sat there smiling at him. (Fun fact: He didn't guess it.)
I do remember after the play, when we waited for our parents to leave the theater next door -- it was a matinee -- the cast eventually left the Ambassadors, and we spoke with one of the actors, and I still have the program he signed. I didn't know who he was, and while he might have done a lot in London theater after that, he didn't become known in the U.S. But it was fun. And I still have the program. (Sorry, "programme.")
The Mousetrap has never played on Broadway, though there are plans to finally do so. In fact, they were trying for this year, but clearly that scheduling didn't pan out.
That said, if you've seen the 2022 movie See How They Run with Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody, it's a fun, comic-murder mystery that's centered around a murder that occurs backstage during the early days of The Mousetrap. The story is totally fictional, but real details are mixed in -- including Richard Attenborough being a character in the film (having starred in the original production, as is the show's producer John Woolf (who won an Oscar for production the movie musical Oliver!), it taking place at the Ambassador Theatre and a few other matters, as well as Agatha Christie taking part in the film, as well.
And speaking of film, the most fascinating story surrounding The Mousetrap is that when movie producers signed a contract with Agatha Christie to make a movie of the play, it was with the one stipulation that no movie could be made until…the play closed! That was 71 years ago.
In another odd twist, somewhat similar to that of the movie rights, Christie requested that the short story not be published in the United Kingdom as long as the play was running in London's West End. When I read about that, I couldn't figure out how I was able to have read it. But it turns out that the story was allowed to be published in the United States and appeared in the collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories.
I've still kept my copy all these years. A whopping 45-cents. And the original title is duly noted on the cover.
And of course, as old as my copy of the book is, it doesn't compare to how old the play is and has been running.
And Ol' Man, Mousetrap, it just keeps rolling along...
To celebrate 60 years, the National Theatre is offering for a special free stream of Othello.
It will stream for free on YouTube starting today, on Thursday, October 19, beginning at 7pm BST (which is 11 AM here in Los Angeles -- so, by the time this is posted, it will be up and running). And it will stay on YouTube until 22 October. It will then be available for free on the National Theatre at Home website until October. 26.
UPDATE: In an earlier version of this "Media Alert," I wrote that it starred Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear. That was incorrect. I wasn't able to find who was starring in this production, but tracked down that they had starred in an acclaimed 2013 National Theatre production, and figured that this was a repeat of that. It's not -- it's a new staging done this year. Sorry for the mistake.
This is where it will stream on YouTube here.
And this is the link for National Theatre at Home here.
Here's the official trailer for the production.
On the surface, this is just a piece about entertainment. And basically it is. But I also think it deals with a major news story -- actually, the major news story today, the attack on Israel -- and how people grab onto a false narrative because it's what you want to be true. Even though, at heart, this is just about a song.
A couple days ago, I got a text message from reader (and Camp Nebagamon camper when I was a counselor) Bill Guthman who'd come across an article online about the writing of the song, "Over the Rainbow," and how -- supposedly -- the underlying meaning of the song is that it was written about Israel as the homeland for Jews.
This didn't seem right to Bill, so he wrote me to find out what I might know about it. This is part of the article in question.
Did you know that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was written, not about the mythical Land of Oz, but the homeland of the Jews - Israel?
Honestly, and I say this not knowing much about the history behind the writing of the song, though knowing about writing and writing song lyrics, I don't even remotely believe the song is "about" Israel. I do understand why many would want to believe it so, most especially now -- and a great many of the readers comments clearly did believe it. But wanting to believe something is true doesn't change it from being a false narrative, no matter how noble the wish.
It reminds me -- from a less noble perspective -- when there was an effort to show that the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" was about cocaine and drug use. At least in that case, nuts as it was, the original article about (in a Newsweek cover story, of all things) that used what purported to be supposed "evidence," dissecting the lyrics. Here, though the guy just basically says "Their family were Jewish immigrants, so this must be about Israel."
That said, I'm sure -- like all writers/ songwriters E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (who was very openly radical left) looked for inspiration to help add impact to his words and might possibly have used a homeland for Jews to add a source of inspiration to perhaps part of his thinking. Perhaps. Maybe. But --
The songs for The Wizard of Oz were written in 1938. Though there had long been efforts to create a Jewish homeland, it seems inappropriate to overlay today's political awareness of "the Holocaust to come" (which wouldn't begin to reach the public for three years) on the meaning of the song. Further, and importantly, they were writing a song to fit the very specific plot point of a story about a girl unhappy with her bland, black-and-white life who is about to go to a magical, Technicolor world in the sky! So...of course that's what the song is (and must be) about. Whether the idea of an Israel homeland helped add a touch of texture to that, who knows? Perhaps. But again, the suggestion in the article is not about a touch of texture, but that "Over the Rainbow" is actually and specifically "about" the birth of Israel.
Also, many, if not most Broadway songwriters of the time were Jewish and likely had similar backgrounds. (For starters, Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Beilin, and whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in 1983.) So, the fact that Harburg and Arlen’s families were immigrant Jews (!!) is borderline meaningless.
Moreover, I've posted a video on my website of Harburg talking about the song and him singing it – which is maybe the most moving version of the song I've seen -- and he talks of the song being about wanting to make "a better world, a rainbow world" which fits far more into his personal politics of having been a blacklisted, lifelong socialist. So many of his lyrics were about social conditions. Like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Consider, too, many of his lyrics in the musical Finian's Rainbow (which for all its fantasy about leprechauns is highly political) like “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” “On That Great Come and Get It Day,” and, of course, another rainbow song, “Look to the Rainbow.” Rainbows -- a mixture of colors blended together -- are clearly important to Harburg. For his Broadway musical Flahooley, the story is fully, blatantly political, notably relating to Harburg's own blacklisted, socialist life, even though on the thin surface is merely about toys. (It deals with a genie misunderstanding a wish and giving away a company's top-selling toy, which infuriates capitalist forces who then start a witch hunt and attempt to destroy all the free toys.)
That’s the political, social “better world” Harburg wrote about so often, and directly in "Over the Rainbow." (In fairness, he wrote a lot of whimsy, too, like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" for the Marx Bros.) But here's that video where he talks about it, says what it means. He's not whimsically wondering about things, but Really Wants to Know, with all his heart, if birds can fly, why then can't he??! It's so meaningful and moving to Harburg that, even though he must have sung this hundreds if not thousands of times, he's in tears at the end.
And further still, and importantly, after reading David McCullough's 2015 biography on the Wright Brothers, I made a discovery that at least one very famous passage from “Over the Rainbow” (those words about how if bluebirds can fly over the rainbow, why can’t I?) is surprisingly very likely related, at least in a tangential way to that -- a famous poem from Harburg's childhood and man now being able to fly! Rather than relay the whole story here, this a link to the piece I wrote about it.
So, while it’s certainly possible that thoughts of a Jewish homeland helped color Yip Harburg’s great-many ideas worked into the song, to state without evidence an unsubstantiated presumption that the song is “about” Israel seems to be very unlikely.
Though the goal in this case about "Over the Rainbow" (declaring that it's "about" a Jewish homeland) was well-meaning these days, it was still -- I'm near 100% certain -- wrong. If people want to take a song and interpret it to have deep meaning for themselves as a sort of anthem, that's another matter entirely and completely valid. But to create a false narrative is never good to take as fact and pass along as fact.
Back in April, I wrote a piece here about the The Play That Goes Wrong troupe, and their British TV series, The Goes Wrong Show, but mostly to write about their absolutely hour-special, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which I embedded on the site.
In a later post, I mentioned that a two-hour stage adaptation played on London’s West End to huge success, and earlier this year it was on Broadway and was such a big hit they had to extend the limited run.
And it moved to Los Angeles where it opened on Friday. I saw it with a couple of friends at the Sunday matinee.
O dear God in heaven and all that’s holy, is it ever hilarious.
Two hours of, for much of the play, a theater-full of almost non-stop laughter. It’s seriously impressive what they do – and able maintain laughter for that long. This takes physical comedy to another level, making it artistry.
And what I love is that at the end, they bring out the entire backstage crew to join the cast in the curtain call. And it’s deserved. Which speaks to how truly amazing the physical production is. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a backstage crew honored this way. But it almost would have felt wrong if the company didn’t include them, you wanted to cheer them, especially as they took their bows. That’s how outlandish the entire show is.
The TV production was an hour. This has an extra hour, and there doesn’t see an ounce of fat. (I think they may have originally written it for the stage, but never put it on, and cut it down for TV. I think.)
In the article, I mentioned that there is a role written for a narrator in such a way (since he carries a book with him and only appears periodically throughout the play) where they can have a celebrity actor play the part. In the TV version, it’s performed by David Suchet, who famously starred as ‘Hercule Poirot’ in the long-running television series. For the Broadway run, they had two or three narrators, but I know the first one was Neil Patrick Harris (who extended his run). There are two narrators set for the Los Angeles performances – for the first part of its stay, the role was played by Bradley Whitford, who was a hoot. And there was material written that was specifically tailored for him.
If you live in Los Angeles and have any sensibility for physical comedy, do yourself a favor and try to go. It’s slapstick done on an almost Shakespearean level. And this isn’t the sort of production that any community theater can just toss together. This may be your only chance to see it, until they bring it back or happen to be putting it on somewhere else where you happen to be. The play runs at the Ahmanson until only September 10. You can get information about tickets here.
Rather than describe again everything about the “Goes Wrong” people, and the production, I'm embedding that original article again below -- followed by the video of the hourlong TV version.
I’ve mentioned here in the past a wonderful British TV series I adore, The Goes Wrong Show from the same people who did the stage shows, The Play That Goes Wrong and its various sequels. (I’ve posted several videos of them. It’s a TV series I’ve highly recommended to many, but as far as I know only one person has ever taken me up on, with his great thanks, but ahem, I’ll leave it at that…)
The premise of The Play That Wrong is that this small, not terribly competent theater company, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, puts on a play where, as you might imagine, everything goes wrong. They keep up the lunacy all evening, and it’s a total joy, making slapstick almost Shakespearan. The London production has remarkably been running for 11 years.
The creators – who star in the show, with others making up the regular troupe – then adapted the concept into two TV specials with celebrity guest stars, which did so well that they made it a series, which was on the air for two seasons. (I don’t know if they’re planning more or not.) It’s the same premise, the Cornley Drama Society puts on 30-minute plays each week – without guests -- in a different genre (a WWII drama, a legal drama, a horror story, a Christmas show and so on. Their version of a hot, steamy Tennessee Williams drama, called 90 Degrees, is a masterclass in physical comedy and slapstick. The legal drama is a close second, A Trial to Watch). Most of the shows are available for free online on YouTube and on the DailyMotion.com website. And also for a fee on Amazon Prime and on Amazon Prime via the BroadwayHD Channel.
(The way the shows were released in the U.S. made it appear as if the two hour-long specials were done in the series’ third year. But after watching everything, I learned that they were actually first.)
Yesterday, I read about them about to open a new show on Broadway that’s similar but a touch different from their others. It’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong – not a totally original work like their other productions, but obviously based on a real play. Why this caught my eye is that it’s a stage adaptation of one of their TV specials in their first season! It opens on Broadway April 19 and will have a limited run of four months. (Hopefully it will tour.)
As I noted, in their third year, they only did two shows, both based on existing material and both with name stars. One was A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong (that featured Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg), and the other was this one on Peter Pan, that had David Suchet as the Narrator. (If you’re not a Masterpiece Mystery fan on PBS, he famously played ‘Hercule Poirot’ for years.) Both specials were a lot of fun, but the Peter Pan show was (for my taste…) spectacular. Utterly hilarious. It starts enjoyable and fine, sort of their standard, good, clever stuff – but then it builds. And then builds. And in the last third they pretty much throw out any pretense of sanity and go full-bore crazy. And the role of narrator is much bigger than the guest star roles in the Christmas Carol production. (There’s one sequence in it that Suchet has which is joyously inspired.)
For the Broadway production, it appears that they will have a different guest star as the Narrator for a couple of weeks, and then bring in new ones. The first guest star announced is Neil Patrick Harris. I’m not exactly sure how they’ll do the stage show, since an hour is a little short – perhaps they’ll expand it slightly. Plus there are a lot of bits in the last third of the TV version that they couldn’t ever, even conceivably do on stage, so they’ll probably adapt it slightly differently.
The good news for anyone interested in the original TV special of Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that – we are happy to embed it here! If you don’t like physical comedy and slapstick, it’s not for you. But even at that, know that this is unlike most slapstick you’ve likely seen as they make it a fine art. So, for the rest (or if you decide to give it a try), curtain up.
(Note: If the video doesn't run in the browser, just click the "Play in YouTube" link -- or click here.)
This is a really great article in the New York Times about composer John Kander who wrote Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, the scores to the movies All That Jazz and New York, New York, and so much more. And clearly such a deserving subject, at age 96, still working on Broadway.
It will not shock you that my favorite line had nothing to do with the theater, but was the description by the reporter about Kander still -- "...making the bed, tight as a drum, as he was taught at Camp Nebagamon when he was 10."
For the record, I started at Nebagamon at age 11 (though my friend, Los Angeles Times journalist Patrick Goldstein, who was in my cabin, was a mere kid of 10). And, yes, we did have to make our cots each day, because every cabin was graded by the Day "Push" (a lumberjack term, since the camp was in Wisconsin's North Woods, on the grounds of the original Weyerhaeuser lumber mills) on how clean it was.
What the article doesn't note is that two other people at camp with John Kander at the time were brothers William Goldman and Jim Goldman. They all stayed lifelong friends, were roommates in New York, and even collaborated on a musical together, A Family Affair. Later, Kander went off to his legendary career, William Goldman went off to write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President's Mean, and James Goldman went off to write the play A Lion in Winter and the musical, Follies, with Stephen Sondheim.
My one quibble with the article is when the reporter says that Kander doesn't like the song "New York, New York." I've never heard him say that. All that I've heard him say is the same thing he says in the article. That he "doesn't get it." But not getting why something is SO popular is not even remotely the same as "not liking it."
Anyway, how great that he's been getting all this attention -- finally -- at age 96. You can read the terrific article here even if you don't subscribe to the Times, because I've embedded it with a gift subscription link.
I loved seeing John Kander get a Lifetime Achievement Award on the Tonys last night. And nice for Joel Grey, as well. But very weird that when being presented -- the show didn't explain *anything* about who they were or why they were being honored. Not one word. They did have a dance number -- but didn't even explain what it was (and it had nothing to do with Joel Grey.)
Most people watching probably knew Joel Grey, and since they liked theater enough to watch, may have known of John Kander. But I'm sure many didn't. ("Who are they, mom?") But "most watching" is true for anytime someone gets a Lifetime Achievement honor on any awards show, and there's always something about their careers -- whether a speech or film clips. That they didn't take even 60 seconds to describe why these two legends were being given Lifetime Achievement Awards is just strange, and thoughtless.
In brief, John Kander has now won four Tony Awards for writing the music for Cabaret, Woman of the Year and Kiss of the Spider Woman -- and that doesn't include writing Chicago and The Happy Time, which won Best Musical, and 10 other musicals. Not to mention the song, New York, New York. And not including his work in films, Emmys, and Grammys. You can find more about him here.
And for the theater alone, Joel Grey has five Tony nominations, winning one for creating the role of the Emcee in Cabaret. Has been acting on Broadway for over 55 years and was in other original casts as George M!, Chicago, Wicked and the recent revival of Anything Goes. And got a Drama Desk Award for directing The Normal Heart. Here is more about him.
There, listing those credentials didn't take long...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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