Funny Things Happen in Moon Over Buffalo by Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune
Carol Burnett and comedy rise again on Broadway
Chicago Tribune, Sunday, November 19, 1995
By Michael Kilian
Two wonÂŹderful things have just come back to Broadway: Carol Burnett â and comedy.
After an absence of three decades. Burnett has returned to star with Philip Bosco. Randy Graff and Jane Connell in a new farce by Ken Ludwig called "Moon Over Buffalo.â
The longtime TV superstar finds herself as happy to be on the boards again as she was to make it big on Broadway in the first place in "Once Upon a Mattressâ back in the â50s - before her stage career was sidetracked by âThe Garry Moore Showâ and a not-exactly-flash-in-the-pan comedy show of her own.
"I really didn't want to do Broadway now.â she said, because I didn't want to commit to any length of time. But I read this play a year ago, around Thanksgiving, and I said, "Wow! It's really funny!' When I came to that line, âDoes anybody know a prayer?' I laughed out loud.â
Playing to sold-out houses at the Martin Beck Theatre, "Moon Over Buffaloâ is a certifiable hit, and its success raises a question. Why isn't there more good old-fashÂŹioned straight comedy on BroadÂŹway? Crowded by musicals old and new and all manner of angst-ridden message dramas, pure comedy has all but vanished, from the New York big-time. One can think of only a couple of straight comedies making it on Broadway in recent years: Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor,â and "Lend Me a Tenorâ by Ken Ludwig.
"With fewer plays being done in general, critical scrutiny burÂŹrows down on plays,â said LudÂŹwig. "For some odd reason, there's the feeling that everything has to be significant or move you to such an extent that it changes your life. Or it has to comment on the â90s, the decade of decaÂŹdence, disappointment, nihilism. If it's not in that stream, they say, âWhy bother?'â
"The awful, awful toll it's taken is on the great tradition of American stage comedy. I was thinking about one play I saw as a kid, Paul Ford in âIt's Never Too Late.' In its day, it just made people laugh and laugh and laugh, and they loved it. It's a great tradition we have managed to obliterate.â
Ludwig, who also wrote the book for the long-running hit "Crazy for You,â reached back into the â50s for the premise of "Moon,â which is about a husband-and-wife-led touring theÂŹatrical troupe that is foundering on the road with a twin-bill of "Cyrano de Bergeracâ and Noel Coward's "Private Lives,â
Add mistaken identities. some unrequited love, a bottle of bourbon poured into a pot of coffee, a lot of slamming doors and the comic possibilities arising from doing both those plays at once, and you'll see why Knight-Ridder critic Clifford Ridley observed: "It's safe to say that you have never seen a âPrivate Lives' like this one [and] you've never seen a funnier one.â
Once they'd signed Burnett for the part, Ludwig added a lot up front to expand her part, which originally was largely "second banana.â
"He's added so much in the first act just so you get to know her,â said Burnett of her leading lady character. "Just some little one-liners and moments and attitudes, and the rest is a lot of shtickâas a farce allows.â
But the play is not a star vehicle for Burnettâeven in the sense that her old television comedy sketches with Harvey Korman and Tim Conway were.
"I like the idea that this is a repertoire piece. that we're a team,â she said. "even if the part of George [the actor husband] is more central. We all revolve around the problem that the character of George has. When he gets drunk and everything is focused on getting him on stage. That's by necessity, and I kind of like that.â
"When I talk to kids in college. or young people who want to get started. I tell them: Play with the best people you can. It's only going to make your game better. Don't try to be the central figure.â
"If I hadn't had Harvey and Tim and the others, my show wouldn't have been as good. I learned from them.â
In fact, superstar Burnett and the others involved in "Moonâ decided to delay the opening from last spring to this fall just so they could get Broadway veteran Bosco who had starred in Ludwig's "Tenorâ and was appearing in the Tony Award-winning "The Heiress.â
"We waited for him.â she said. "He was just perfect for the part.â
"I appreciate her saying that,â said Bosco, whose last cornedy was an off-Broadway show called "Breaking Legsâ with the late Vincent Gardenia. "I have a kind of facility for doing farce. I enjo that fun kind of thing and get kick out of doing farce, even a hard as it is to do. It's a very physical play.â
Bosco, who has shared both stage and screen with major stars in supporting roles over the year had some very special words for Burnett. "I'm not gilding the lily he said. "It's no b.s., no phony hype. This lady is the loveliest person of a superstar status I have ever met.â
"We clickâa couple of old horses. We've been around the bend a lot. I've done a lot of comedy and God knows she's a master at it. I don't know where the show would be without her.'
Graff, who was the original Fantine in â Les Miserablesâ and won a Tony Award as the sexpot in "City of Angelsâ plays BurÂŹnett's actress daughter in âMoon.' She also had high praise for Burnett's comic talent and team spirit, and for Ludwig's willingÂŹness to keep changing the script to improve the comedy.
But what she likes most is the abortive âPrivate Lives' scene "where I'm really getting to live out the actor's nightmare.â She said she had a similar everything-going-wrong moment doing her death scene in "Les Mizâ one night. Colm Wilkinson (Jean Valjean) was supposed to carry her to her bed and sing a farewell duet, but he missed his cue and didn't come out on stage until the end of the scene, when Randy had just about died all on her lonesome.
"I was down on the floor in my white gown. singing,â she said. "and he never showed up. So I did both parts. I thought it kind of worked because Fantine was sort of hallucinating at that point. I made her schizophrenic, bouncing back and forth. Then he finally came out and all he kept doing was apologize in my ear until the end of the duet. He'd sing, then apologize, sing, then apologize: âOh Fantine.' Then 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry âŠOh, Fantine....'"
Producers have taken to bringÂŹtng back famous old musicals like "Guys and Dolls." "Damn YanÂŹkees' and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" because they re fun "sure things." observed Ludwig, who was a Harvard-educated Washington lawyer before he took up play-writing full time.
"They ought to consider bringing back old-fashioned comedy like "The Man Who Came to Dinner," he said.
"I don't know it's the best comÂŹedy ever written, but it's probably the funniest.â he said. "That wonÂŹderful tradition, of just doing comedy. The audiences are eating this up. They get in here and are so happy to spend two hours in a theater where they don't have to think about their troubles."