by Noah Diamond · August 1, 2014
Noah Diamond is part of the FringeU panel "Everything Old is New Again" on Tuesday, August 12 at 1pm.
I’ve been in love with the Marx Brothers since childhood. I’ve been especially fascinated with their Broadway period, 1924-1929. Of their three Broadway musicals, the latter two have remained accessible over the years – The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers are revived on stage frequently, and the boys themselves starred in film versions in 1929 and 1930. But their Broadway debut, a plotted revue called I’ll Say She Is, was never filmed or revived. It was lost to history. For as long as I’ve loved the Marx Brothers, I’ve wished it were possible to somehow retrieve and revive it.
Over five years of research, I managed to unearth more material from I’ll Say She Is than was thought to survive, sorted through the puzzle pieces, and filled in the gaps with new pastiche material. The result of these efforts is that for the first time in ninety years, there is a complete script and score for I’ll Say She Is, and the work is finally ready to be put before an audience. It has not been seen since the Brothers themselves last performed it.
As adaptations go, I’ll Say She Is is unusual. Often, an adapter’s job is to build upon the existing structure of the source material. But I’ll Say She Is had little structure to build upon. Adapting it was less like translation and more like connect-the-dots. The protracted research period was crucial, not only in locating surviving material, but in getting the education I needed to credibly create new material that would be seamless with what already existed.
In May, my adaptation of I’ll Say She Is was partially revealed in two staged readings, presented at Marxfest, New York’s month-long Marx Brothers festival. Like the current production, the readings were produced and directed by Trav S.D., and were a roaring success. The Fringe production features much of the same company, including the enchanting Melody Jane in the lead role of Beauty, a bored heiress in search of thrills; Seth Shelden and Robert Pinnock in hilarious and uncanny recreations of Harpo and Chico Marx; Kathy Biehl as the dowager character later associated with Margaret Dumont; and even me, as Groucho, a role I’ve assumed many times but never under such thrilling circumstances. In a sense, my work on I’ll Say She Is consists of two separate adaptations – I’ve adapted Will B. Johnstone’s libretto and lyrics, as well as the stage performance of Groucho Marx.
When I’m discussing the process of adapting I’ll Say She Is, and the historic nature of this production, I’m often aware of a serious tone creeping in. This is appropriate to the work, but not to the show itself. The most important element in I’ll Say She Is isn’t musical or textual – it’s the ebullient, anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers’ comedy, the sense that anything can happen on stage, and the boys’ noble insistence on subjugating everything, even plot and character, to a single prime directive: Hysteria.