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Kvelling in Their Seats

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But Peter and I didn’t have to use this story to seduce investors. We didn’t show them the script, or invite them to readings. In fact, we never asked a single person to invest: As Henny Youngman is my witness, they all asked us, probably on the strength of our title. And while we pawed the floor and demurred, insisting that we didn’t want to confuse business with friendship (which was, well, somewhat true), our friends (and their friends) started shoving money in our pockets.

Consequently, we never had to use the various devices that most Broadway producers are compelled to deploy if they hope to raise the megamillions required for, say, a new musical. The following items are regularly addressed in Broadway deals:

(a) How much you must invest to be credited as “associate producer,” or “produced in association with,” or some other such euphemism for “wrote a check.” On a big Broadway musical, if you see a name above the title appended to the phrase “produced in association with,” you can figure that it cost someone $250,000. A name above the title, with no temporizing “in association with,” from someone with no actual producing experience? Half a million.

(b) How much you must invest to get a bio in Playbill. Figure $150,000.

(c) Until recently, whether you got to go up onstage if your show wins the Tony. But the Tonys changed their rules, and put a limit on the number of producers who can represent a winning show onstage. This is why the audience no longer has to endure those mob scenes that bore such a resemblance to a meeting of the board of directors of Temple Emanu-El.

Before we hired a director, we talked to half a dozen. Jason Alexander wanted to work with a writer we weren’t crazy about. He also lives in Los Angeles, and standard contracts require producers to provide local housing for out-of-town talent, and our show was too tightly budgeted for that. Phil Rosenthal, who created Everybody Loves Raymond, talked to us on speakerphone while he was huffing his way through a treadmill workout, and suggested that we not hire actors, but instead use authentic old Jews, like those who appear on the website. We pondered that for about 30 seconds. The likelihood of these bubbes and zaydes getting it up for 80 minutes of shtick eight times a week seemed … slight.

We parted with our first director after nine months of arguments about the musical numbers (he wanted a Beyoncé parody; we wanted Irving Berlin vaudeville), about stand-up comedy material (he was for it, Peter and I weren’t), and about our wildly divergent senses of humor. We just didn’t want to work with someone who doesn’t like a bravura joke like “Tommy the Cat, He Went for a Walk on the Roof, He Fell Off, He’s Dead.”

You might argue that our second director was also the wrong guy for Old Jews, given that he was not Jewish. But this was not his only distinction. He was, in fact, the first heterosexual gentile we had encountered in eighteen months of meetings with producers, directors, general managers, theatrical lawyers, and agents. Plenty of gay goyim, Yids of every description—but until our second director, not a single theater pro whom my shiksa wife’s mother would have preferred for a son-in-law. (Advice to straight Christians and Muslims contemplating theatrical careers: Current reality suggests either great opportunity or utter hopelessness.)

When our partners first proposed Director No. 2, we expressed concern. We didn’t understand how a non-Jew could bring to our material the requisite foreknowledge of centuries of repression, exile, and heartburn. “What do you mean ‘non-Jew’?,” one of our partners said. “He’s been working in the theater for twenty years.”

This was a very good point, and when we lost Director No. 2 to a scheduling conflict, we were absolutely ready for Marc Bruni, the gentile heterosexual whom I am hereby outing. Marc took over last fall and began to smack OJTJ into its current sleek and glistening shape. Working with dramaturge Jack Viertel (hetero, Jewish), he expunged all of the didactic stuff we had crafted about how Jews use humor to ease our pain; all the conversations between actors about what makes a joke work; all the pedantic fog purporting to explain the different varieties of jokes. First, we resisted. Then we capitulated. Finally, months later, at our first rehearsals, we put on our producer hats and took credit for everything Marc and Jack had done.

Unlike in the movie business, where the studio owns the screenplay, Peter and I, as the credited co-creators of the show, don’t actually have to follow anyone’s advice. Copyright rules in the theatrical world stipulate that not a word of the writer’s work can be changed without the writer’s permission. As we were both producers and writers, this often led to our stubbornly resisting each other. Mostly, we argued about language. One of us was absolutely devoted to the cunt joke. The other was passionate about a classic that requires the shv- word. We finally resolved it with a sentence that I doubt Hammerstein ever said to Rodgers: “Enough! You can have cunt if I can have schvartze!”


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