On May 19, 1924 the Marx Brothers made their Broadway debut in I’ll Say She Is, a musical comedy revue at the Casino Theater in New York. The show closed on February 7, 1925 after 313 performances and has never been revived.
This May, I’ll Say She Is returns to the New York stage with a five week run at the historic Connelly Theater, the first fully realized production in more than 90 years. Ironically, I’ll Say She Is was the comedy team’s most successful stage show, with more performances than subsequent hits The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. But today it’s a forgotten footnote, known only by the most dedicated Marxists.
“It’s the lost Marx Brothers musical, the one that got away, the one that they never made into a film,” said Noah Diamond, the writer, performer, and lifelong fan who has “adapted and expanded” the show for this new production.
Diamond, who also plays Groucho, hosted a preview showcase for I’ll Say She Is at The Lambs in New York City last night. He and members of the cast performed songs from the show for the invited audience, which included Groucho’s friend and occasional foil, talk show host Dick Cavett. It’s a role Diamond has been preparing for his entire life.
“I used to steal my mother’s eyebrow pencil, lock myself in the bathroom, and rehearse,” he said. “I was in love with the Marx Brothers and became obsessed with writing and performing in musicals.”
That obsession led to Diamond’s mission to bring I’ll Say She Is back to the stage, a project that began in 2009. But there was one small challenge: no complete script from the original production survives.
“I spent weeks, months and eventually years digging as deep as I could into newspaper and magazine archives, museum and university library collections, and the recorded recollections of people involved with the original production,” Diamond said. “As I dug deeper and deeper, I became aware that the show was revealing itself to me in fragments.”
In the Library of Congress, Diamond found a 1923 I’ll Say She Is rehearsal outline by Will B. Johnstone, the writer of the show’s book and lyrics (and, later, the co-writer of MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS). In the original production, Johnstone’s bridging story of a bored heiress seeking thrills served as the “clothesline” for some of the Marx Brothers’ most popular Vaudeville routines, as well as newly written comedy bits and music by Tom Johnstone, Will’s brother.
“I filled in the blanks with material quoted in reviews, Groucho’s ad-libs recorded by Broadway columnists, material from Will B. Johnstone’s newspaper prose, surviving fragments of the Marx Brothers Vaudeville act, and (material) from previous shows written by the Johnstones,” Diamond said. “I also had the pleasure of occasionally adding my own Marxist intuition and fulfilling an unlikely dream of writing for the Marx Brothers”
Diamond’s exhaustive reconstruction of I’ll Say She Is was done in partnership with musicologist and musical theater historian Meg Farrell, who also happens to be Will B. Johnstone’s great-granddaughter. Farrell provided access to Johnstone’s diaries, which included details on the original production and provided a perspective unavailable to other researchers.
The delightful end result made its debut in 2014, first as a series of staged readings, then as the hit of the New York International Fringe Festival (directed by Trav S.D.). This new production will be presented as a fully staged 1920s-style revue with most of the Fringe cast returning, including Kathy Biehl as a Margaret DuMont-esque dowager, Melody Jane as the scandalous “She” of the title, and Seth Shelden as Harpo, complete with trench coat, red wig, and cascading silverware.
Diamond will be there as well, living out his greasepaint dreams.
“I’ll Say She Is survives,” Diamond said. “It’s like we’re getting a whole new early Marx Brothers movie we’ve never seen.”
For information on contributing to the “I’ll Say She Is” crowdfunding campaign, click here. Perks include a speaking role in the production, so this may be the big break you’ve been waiting for. Photos from the 2014 Fringe production by Don Spiro.