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When Shear Madness opened at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 12, 1987, it was already something of a theatrical juggernaut. Writer and creator Bruce Jordan had adapted the play from a script by the German psychologist Paul Pörtner that used audience input to direct the plot. It was not a comedy. Jordan camped it up: He kept the audience participation, but turned it into a farce about hairdressers, suspicious customers, and bumbling cops. The original staging, appropriately enough, was at a dinner theater in Lake George, N.Y. It moved to Boston in 1980, and by 1987 it was that city’s longest-running show. Versions in Chicago and Philadelphia were also going strong.
None of those stages, though, offered the Kennedy Center’s cultural cachet. For better or worse, the play has stuck around ever since. To the frustration of highbrow theater types, Shear Madness has spent nearly a quarter century occupying the center’s Theater Lab, a place whose name suggests avant-garde experimentation, not lightweight fare for tourists.
The bottom line explains why muckety-mucks stick with the show: Over some 10,700 performances, it’s sold almost 3 million tickets—milking vacationers and school groups to the tune of $66 million and bringing the Kennedy Center a $500,000 annual profit.
But the longevity of Shear Madness isn’t just a case of cultural bureaucrats going mercenary for a show critics pan as lowbrow. D.C.’s theater community, the same actors and stagehands who create daring fare for the new generation of venues that has cropped up since 1987, has benefited from the steady work Madness offers—an opportunity to subsidize their own efforts at less profitable varieties of theater work. Today, it’s hard to find anyone among the 125 actors who have appeared in the show over the years who will admit any regrets over taking well-paying, open-ended work in a tough business.
Here’s the history of Shear Madness from the point of view of those who made it a local institution:
Bruce Jordan, writer and co-producer; originated the role of Tony Whitcomb: The Charles Playhouse [in Boston] was running for six years. Philadelphia was running for five years. The Chicago production was running for four years. Someone said, “Why don’t you take a look at the Theater Lab at the Kennedy Center.” Roger Stevens had been looking a long time for a show that was going to sit down at the Kennedy Center for a spell so that people who came on tours would be able to buy a ticket to something that was affordable.
Marilyn Abrams, co-producer of Shear Madness; originated the role of Mrs. Shubert: We looked around and Theater Lab was the perfect place. We got Roger Stevens up to Boston and he said, “You have to come.”
Robert Warren, associate producer, 2001-2009: The set at the Kennedy Center is more solid than you would build your house.
Kim Peter Kovac, designed the Shear Madness set in 1987: Just running water lines and phone lines and electrical lines. With warm water, too. There’s not too much complexity with the kind of things they do. Bruce and Marilyn sent me to Chicago to see the show there and because they do it in multiple places they like a similarity in the floor plan. I’m really pleased it’s lasted 24 years.
Brigid Cleary, has played Mrs. Shubert since 2001: You have to be careful out there because of the shaving cream. There was one time when the cops come in, surprising us with guns drawn, there was a little curve in one of the tiles and my shoe got caught. I just went sideways. I almost pushed the garbage can off the stage, but I grabbed it before it could land on the audience. Later on someone in the audience asked, “How did they get that old lady to fall?”
Brian Sills, has toured with Shear Madness since 2003; currently playing Tony at the Kennedy Center: Is it Hamlet? No, it’s not Hamlet, but nor are we pretending it is. It’s a master class in comedy.
Bob Lohrmann, associate director and former actor: I played the part of Mikey Thomas, the young cop, once in an abject emergency when the first George Bush and his wife came to see the show, and they didn’t have an experienced understudy, so I played it. I am too old for that role now and I was too old for that role then. But I did have hair that could be washed. He was president-elect. The Bushes went for their wedding anniversary. They came backstage before the show began. We were meticulously respectful of them…The guy who was sick that night, Steve O’Connor, it was maybe the only performance he ever missed and he was probably the only one in the show who had voted for George Herbert Walker Bush.
Warren: They promote it as being a perfect script. It may just be that one, lucky phenomenon. It’s not Shakespeare. The big advantage for it surviving at the Kennedy Center is these groups, schools and tour companies booking it a year out. I got there right before Sept. 11. We lost a ton of groups; they just weren’t allowed to travel. We did five performances a week for six weeks; by January we were back to a normal schedule. Those things that could kill a Broadway show that week-to-week make their nut.
Lohrmann: You rely on what you’ve done before but you have to play what’s right in front of you. That’s the big challenge of Shear Madness, and we’re in uncharted territory here. What other show has run this long?
Part of Shear Madness’ shtick is that it takes place the day of the performance, in the theater’s city. Casts are required to be well-versed in local affairs. But at the Kennedy Center, it’s different.
Jordan: At the Kennedy Center we don’t use as many local jokes because D.C. jokes tend to be national. But when you play the Capital [Repertory Theatre] in Albany [N.Y.], everyone is from Albany. I think the laughs are much greater.
Abrams: The local flavor in Washington is national. “I live out in the country in Hyattsville” (a line spoken by one of the characters)—that’s funny. Visitors to D.C. wouldn’t get that, but Mrs. Schubert lives in the very best section of town. The shop is in Georgetown. The local humor works in the smallest cities. I grew up in New York but I never went to the top of the Empire State Building.
Lohrmann: The things we have to refer to are things that anybody would know, from the senior citizen group from Kansas to the freshman class from George Washington University.
Gillian Shelly, has played Barbara DeMarco since 2007: Who’s on the radio? Who’s on TMZ? It’s an active thing. We’re always looking through the paper and the magazines. What’s relevant? What senator was arrested?
Cleary: There are people whom the whole world loves, and Steve Irwin was one of them. When the cop asked Tony how he would have killed Isabel, he said “take her swimming with Steve Irwin.” People gasped. Comedy is hard.
Tonya Beckman Ross, played Barbara from 2005 to 2006: In the beginning Barbara is painting her nails and I decided to huff it, but that got cut right away. We had an audience full of kids and they knew exactly what was going on.
Lohrmann: When I go into a city to direct it brand-new, I ask that the local producers provide me with a dry erase board and I ask the actors, “You know the city. I don’t. I want you all to bring in 10 things you think are particular to Pittsburgh or wherever.”
Abrams: You always have political jokes in D.C.
Jordan: We hope to God that Marion Barry comes back.
Lohrmann: I was doing the show playing Tony, and in the intermission we stay on stage and in character. I was going around doing my business and I noticed there was a table of older folks sitting over stage right and I struck up a conversation with them. They had European accents, and I asked them if they were from upstate New York, and they said no. They said Poland. I said, “Oh, Poland. That’s interesting. When did you come to the United States?” And they said, “Just after the war.” Then the woman looked at me and said, “We’re survivors.” Her husband said, “Have you seen the movie?” and I said “What movie?” He said, “The Schindler’s movie.” I said yes. He asked me what I thought of it. I said it was very moving. He said, “We were on Mr. Schindler’s list. Mr. Schindler saved our lives. If it was not for Mr. Schindler we would be dead.” That’s an exact quote because these words were burned into my head. And I didn’t really know—staying in character, I was getting a little nonplussed about this conversation—so I moved away and a few minutes later the older lady called me over and she said, “I want to tell you something. You’re doing a wonderful thing here.” And I said something like “Thank you. Don’t you think I did Mikey’s hair very nicely?” She said, “No. I’m serious. Laughter kept us alive. If we could tell a joke or make each other laugh, we believed we could live for another hour.” I was almost in tears, and had to stay in character the entire time.
Sills: This show is uniquely American. I’m Canadian.
In 24 years at the Kennedy Center, Shear Madness has played host to more than 100 marriage proposals—straight and gay. But Bradley Rosenberg and Kathy Clark, formerly of Oakton, Va., love the show so much that on Aug. 29, 1999, they held their wedding on stage during a performance. This year, they retired, sold their house, and began living on their yacht, Shear Madness. It’s their second boat by that name.
Kathy Clark: When we decided to get married we were looking to do something different and innovative and fun. We must have had 100 different ideas. But there were a few requirements. We didn’t want to have a traditional wedding, anything that was overly formal.
Bradley Rosenberg: It was important to us because of our age the wedding had to be really fun for the audience. Often you go to weddings and you can’t see or hear them and it’s all about the bride and the groom and that’s fine. But our objective was that the guests had a really enjoyable evening and have some great memories.
Clark: The Kennedy Center is a great facility for having a wedding, but it’s a more proper place. Bradley said, “It’s too bad you can’t have any fun at the Kennedy Center.” That reminded me of the Arch Campbell quote [about Shear Madness] saying, “You can’t have more fun at the Kennedy Center.” We started doing some research and found out you can in fact rent the whole theater. It’s relatively inexpensive and seats 399 people. It cost about $8,000.
Rosenberg: One of the reasons we were able to do it was a change in the mayor. I refused to spend money in D.C. while Marion Barry was the mayor.
Clark: Nobody had gotten married on stage. One of the ideas was that we wanted to be in the play. We wanted to fill the theater with people we knew and get married on stage. The invitation invited them to “an afternoon of murder and marriage.”
Warren: They had her dressed up as an undercover call girl and she did a little cameo as the warm-up of the show and he was one of the assistants to the detective.
Clark: I was highly offended. I put on my best outfit for that. People called me all kinds of name: hooker, trollop. I just thought I was a hot babe. I got a little miniskirt, Elton John platform shoes, and a see-through blouse.
It may be lowbrow, but Shear Madness does offer its actors security against the constant hustle for roles. Of the 125 who have passed through since 1987, most spend a few months. But some have made it nearly their entire career.
Sills: It’s an amazing service to actors in an industry where it’s so hard to work, period. It’s so hard to work. As you’re out there struggling to achieve whatever your goals are as an actor, to have something like this to come back to where you get paid a reasonable salary, and you get to have a really good time. It’s kind of a gift.
Cleary: My first day as Mrs. Shubert was Sept. 11. I drove and I didn’t even have my radio on, and the plane had just hit the Pentagon. I turned around the Tidal Basin as the smoke started rising. I was evacuated from the building as soon as I got there.
Jordan: It’s impossible to give anyone a script of the entirety of Shear Madness. You’ll hear the audience say something in June, they might not say that again until January. It does help when you have long-term actors in the show. It gives them the opportunity to test new stuff.
Cleary: I step in and out, so it’s not 10 consecutive years as Mrs. Shubert. Part of my trick is that I don’t lie there with my head in the sink thinking, “Oh, god, this is the 10,000th time I’ve had my hair washed.”
Marcus Kyd, played Mikey Thomas from 2003 to 2008: It’s been a great blessing to many actors. It kept me alive for a while. It’s one of the best-paying jobs in town. There’s about five houses in the area if you work a cycle of them you can make a decent living, and Shear Madness is one of them.
Cleary: I take breaks to go out and do other shows. In the past couple of years I’ve stepped out to do another show once a year. It’s a great gig to have, for that revolving door aspect. There aren’t a lot of roles for women of a certain age where people would think of me as their first choice.
Ross: It was my first job when I came to D.C. and I always say if it weren’t for that show I wouldn’t be working. A lot of actors find it easy to get stuck in it a long time, and because I was so new when I did it I didn’t want that to happen.
Kyd: When I first got in I was hired for the day cast in the spring. [The show adds a second company during cherry blossom season.] I was young and happy to be there. It wasn’t until the end of the summer when they asked if I was interested in doing the evening show and I jumped on it. It ended up being close to a year. There was one stretch when I did it for a year and a half.
Ross: One of the hardest things I’ve talked about with other actors who have done it is that you are stepping into a machine. Looking back on it I definitely see that. Whether that would be easy now, I’m not sure.
When Shear Madness debuted, local critics were mixed. Reviewing the show for WRC-TV, Arch Campbell famously called the it “the most fun I’ve ever had at the Kennedy Center.” The blurb has topped the play’s advertising ever since. Others had more sour reactions.
Jordan: To me, the charm of the play and the delight of the audience is as clear as the sun in the blue sky.
David Richards, reviewing for the Washington Post: I can only report that Shear Madness, as it has been reconstituted here, struck me as being as appropriate as a pie-eating contest on the White House lawn, and somewhat less amusing.
Bob Mondello, reviewing for Washington City Paper on Aug. 28, 1987: Calling this a play would be shameless flattery—it’s an extended vaudeville routine with a novelty twist—but it is funny. Not clever or witty, mind you—funny the way the Three Stooges are funny. Next to Shear Madness, a farce like Noises Off is Macbeth. … It’s not theater exactly, but as empty-headed entertainment, it’s not appreciably less stimulating than Cats or a visit to the bowling alley.
Jordan: Did I like to read those reviews? No. Who would? We were expecting wonderful reviews because we’d had so many wonderful reviews.
Campbell, interviewed in 2011: I’m guilty, guilty, guilty as charged. I said it. Now, what you have to remember is the context in which I said that. In 1987, the Kennedy Center was considered a very stuffy place. Not for Mr. and Mrs. Middlebrow. And I think that really was the beginning of their opening up to the public and getting away from their real stuffy image.
Mondello, interviewed in 2011: The Kennedy Center needs to appeal to a very broad audience. It is weird to have something there for 20 years that is the same thing that is appealing to the non-theatergoers.
Campbell: I’ve been attacked. I’ve been called a philistine, lowbrow, a clown, but you know, go ahead. Some of it is knowing your audience, so the only thing I can say in my defense is I knew my audience. And yes, I was Mr. Middlebrow, and Patton Oswalt is right. And he’s welcome to bash me all he wants.
Much of the negative reaction stemmed from Shear Madness’ lead character, Tony Whitcomb, the flamboyant hairdresser.
Richards, writing in the Post on Aug. 24, 1987: Curious that such a flagrantly outrageous depiction of homosexuality passes for humor these days. If, say, a black, a Jew or a Catholic were depicted in such stereotypical terms, there would be all hell to pay.
Mondello: It trades off of stereotypes that trace back to British music hall, to Vaudeville, for-freaking-ever, and I don’t know what you do with that. There are things you would not write them the same way today. The character didn’t resemble anybody I know. It’s like you’re talking about a giraffe in a way.
Jordan: It’s funny that people select that character to be offended by. It’s a commedia dell’arte with six broadly drawn characters. Nobody seems to mind that it depicts the police as bumbling and incompetent or that Washington social scene is full of airheads.
Sills: With Tony the most important thing is not that he’s gay and not even that he’s campy but that he is completely present, in-the-moment, living every single second to the fullest. Everything is so exciting so much so that he keeps forgetting that he’s actually involved in and being investigated for a murder.
Cleary: People can be overly sensitive to it and I’m not negating it. But maybe it’s my own experience, and maybe it’s because I’ve known a lot of gay actors, but a lot of people play into that stereotype and use it to be playful and flamboyant and clever. It’s something they use to their advantage.
Abrams: Tony Whitcomb is the most loveable character. He’s very funny. Likewise Roger Bart and Gary Beach in The Producers. We may exaggerate things about a certain character, but there’s a certain truth. I always think of Tony when I get my hair cut.
Still, the fact that a single play has occupied a space called a laboratory for nearly a quarter-century is reason for pause. Some question why one show—especially one like Shear Madness—is allowed to reside permanently in a place ostensibly designed for experimentation.
Kovac: [Before Shear Madness] the shows in the Lab were all free. Of course they would sell out, but we would have crews of 35 running a show that lasted four performances. It was not economically viable.
Peter Marks, Washington Post theater critic: There are a ton of companies in Washington that are always trying to grow up and could use the Kennedy Center’s support. Everyone from No Rules to Synetic could use the Lab. It’s called the Theater Lab, for God’s sake.
Kyd: I’d be a fool not to covet that space. But could [Kyd’s troupe] Taffety Punk afford that? No.
Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theatre: To take a piece of real estate and devote it 25 years to a play like that is untenable.
Marks: It is one of the mysteries of the theater. Of all things to be the longest running show. Washington should hang its head in shame. If there’s an audience for it, God love them. It just shouldn’t be at the supposed premiere arts institution in the country. It throws a moribund quality over the theater program.
Zinoman: I can’t understand why the Kennedy Center has kept this guard-all shield around Shear Madness over the years. Whether the audience is full or not, whether the characters are stereotypical or not. Why has it protected it? Surely, the money can’t be that important.
Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center: The show augments what the Kennedy Center can offer. The profits from Shear Madness provide the Kennedy Center with more resources and allows us to offer more adventuresome theater like Norman and DollHouse.
Warren: It’s part of the institution and a moneymaker. It pays some bills. It’s a cash sale. It’s not a donation. People like to see earned income potential. New play readings don’t need to happen at 8 p.m. during prime days.
Kyd: If it’s keeping actors alive, that’s a good thing. That’s the bottom line.
Marks: It’s like if the Louvre had a permanent collection of clowns on velvet. I don’t think there’s another institution of its caliber in the world that does this.
Abrams: Every manager of ours has to keep a book of what we do. It’s called the “hit by a bus book.” To think that it would ever all not be around is not true because we have so many licensees. If [Bruce and I] are hit by a bus, the show will go on.