According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Shear Madness is the longest-running play in the history of America, and a visit to New World Plaza near Times Square makes it easy to see why. The play is a comedy whodunit in which the audience gets to spot the clues, question the suspects, and solve the crime – laughing all the way.
Shear Madness earned its Guinness recognition because it has been playing in Boston continuously since 1980 and in Washington, DC since 1987. It also played a 17-year engagement in Chicago and has been running continuously in Paris for the past 7 years, where it won the French equivalent of the Tony Award for best comedy. The play has been performed around the world in 11 foreign languages, in a host of cities including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Rejkavik, Rome, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Seoul.
Yet, up until Fall 2015, Shear Madness had never before played in New York City. That all changed on November 11, 2015, when Shear Madness opened at New World Stages to enthusiastic reviews and cheering audiences.
It all began in the summer of 1976 when co-producers Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams, both former teachers, first met. Jordan was directing a summer stock production of the musical I Do, I Do at the Lake George Dinner Theatre in upstate New York, in which Abrams was cast. Jordan and Abrams discovered that they worked well together and quickly became friends. They initially bonded because they shared a similar sense of humor as well as the same favorite play (Noel Coward’s Private Lives) and, of course, as actors in constant pursuit of work, they also shared a similar lifestyle. When the production of I Do, I Do ended, their friendship continued.
Later that year, Jordan was working at a theatre in Rochester, New York when he came across a German play entitled Scherenschnitt (“scissors cutting”), which had been written in 1963 by a writer and psychologist named Paul Pörtner. The playwright had written the script to use as a study of how people perceive or misperceive reality. The brief play was set in a uni-sex hair salon and revolved around the off-stage murder of a concert pianist. Subjects were asked to solve the murder based on their individual perceptions of the events and the six stereotypical characters surrounding the murder.
Jordan was intrigued by the concept of the script and suggested that he and Abrams stage the play together in Lake George. Abrams read Pörtner’s original script, which she describes as “primitive,” and says that if she hadn’t known and trusted Jordan as she did, she “would have run for the hills” at the prospect of revising and staging a production of such a work. She did trust him, though, and they opened the newly titled Shear Madness in Lake George in 1978 with nothing more than a basic outline of a script.
The first year that Shear Madness played in Lake George, it was truly a work in progress, with the majority of the show improvised each night. As an ensemble, the cast maintained the action and the characterizations that received a good response from the audience night after night. They also incorporated the actual audience responses into the play. Jordan says that he continues to instruct the actors to “let the audience win.” He explains, “If the audience has something funnier to say or do than the actors, let them. That is the basic magic of the play.”
Soon Shear Madness developed into a show that changed every time it was performed. The actors followed a basic format and changed the specific lines along the way. Now, decades later, Shear Madness incorporates not only the contributions of the audience, but also frequent references to the latest media scandals and local news items.
Jordan recalls, “It occurred to me when we started actually performing the play that it would work well as a comedy. Early on, most of the laughs in Shear Madness were attained during the times when the audience was actively involved in solving the crimes. And the laughs were derived from the wild and conflicting misperceptions that the audience had.” As time went on, Jordan and Abrams wrote and incorporated more deliberately funny lines.
Thus Pörtner’s serious psychodrama became an interactive comedy whodunit. The show evolved into a raucous comedy that lets the audience in on the act. When they first opened the show, Jordan and Abrams were playing leading roles as well as producing. Because they were on stage each night, Abrams says they experienced the “magical” chemistry between the actors and the audience. They were acutely aware of the audience’s response to Shear Madness, and could see the show’s potential.
Jordan and Abrams then purchased the world, stage, screen, and television rights to the play. Cranberry Productions (as in, they are quick to explain, “What else goes with a turkey?”) was created to nurture the hit that they knew they had cultivated. With complete financial and artistic control over the show, they now had an enormous project on their hands. Receiving rave reviews and frequent suggestions from tourists from the Boston area, they decided that Shear Madness might work well in Boston. Thus, after more than two years honing the comedy, Jordan and Abrams moved their show to Boston.
The play was initially scheduled as a limited engagement at the historic Charles Playhouse in Boston’s Theatre District to begin January 29, 1980. The rest, as they say, is history. And now, nearly four decades and thousands of performances later, in Boston and all over the world, Shear Madness has finally opened in New York City. Sophisticated New Yorkers, tourists, families, suburbanites, and groups are all laughing their heads off at this zany mystery comedy. They have now discovered the fun, originality and the Sheer Magic of Shear Madness. Long may it run!