'Lost' Marx Brothers Broadway Musical Back After 90 Years

By Jon Sobel on Apr 12, 2014 04:12 PM EDT

Before the nutty comedy films, long before You Bet Your Life, and before Groucho-glasses masks became costume party staples everywhere, the Marx Brothers were stars on Broadway. In fact, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers began life as Broadway musicals.

But the actual 1924 Broadway debut of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo, I'll Say She Is, was never filmed. It has never gotten a stage revival.

No one's seen it for 90 years.

That'll change next month. MarxFest, billed as New York's first Marx Brothers festival, will include two full-length readings of a new reconstruction of I'll Say She Is, Friday, May 23 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 25 at 5 pm. A fuller production is planned for this summer or fall.

This new version will be a "reconstruction" because no full record of the original show exists. Marx Brothers enthusiast and scholar Noah Diamond has been researching I'll Say She Is and willing it back into existence for five years, using sources including composer Will B. Johnstone's 1923 rehearsal typescript (housed at the Library of Congress), other material from extant scenes, newspaper clippings, "my own Marxist intuition" and more.

The score is an amalgam. Some songs were available on sheet music or recordings. Others had to be created from song titles, other information, and new lyrics written to existing music from other Johnstone shows of the period. (Johnstone's great-granddaughter Margaret Farrell is one of Diamond's collaborators.) Altogether, writes Diamond on the MarxFest website, the adaptation "reconstructs, refines, embellishes, and otherwise grapples with this enigmatic entry in the Marx Brothers canon."

Enigmatic now; rollicking back then. I'll Say She Is opened at the Casino Theatre, Broadway and 39th Street, on May 19, 1924, starring the Marx Brothers (billed one last time as Julius, Arthur, Leonard, and Herbert) and Lotta Miles. It established the comedy quartet as the Jazz Age's preeminent jesters and was something of a template for the more lastingly famous shows and screenplays that followed. Says Diamond, "It was, in effect, the first Marx Brothers movie, except for the fact that it was never a movie." After a highly acclaimed run it closed on February 7, 1925. In those long-ago days, that was a long, successful Broadway run. And no one has seen it since.

The complete MarxFest schedule also includes film, music and radio events, an art exhibit, and even a walking tour. The readings of I'll Say She Is take place Friday May 23 at 8 and Sunday May 25 at 5 (followed by a panel discussion) at the Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, NYC.

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TagsMarx Brothers, MarxFest, I'll Say She Is, musical theater

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