If Carrie the Musical can crawl back through the wreckage, why not Moose Murders?
The 1983 Broadway flop was a door-slamming, bad-taste comedy set in a mountain lodge full of nefarious, low-level show biz types, and I actually sort of enjoyed it.
But the critics went savage on the show and it closed on opening night.
And the play’s author, Arthur Bicknell, 61, just gabbed with me, providing dishy and hilarious insight into why this is happening.
Hi, Arthur. What is your involvement with the return of Moose Murders?
I’ve written a book, after years of people saying “You’ve got to write this story,” so I did. It’s called Moose Murdered: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb. I saw that there was going to be a production in New York, and I thought “I should take a look at this.” I looked at the Samuel French version and was appalled. Chunks of stage directions had been left out. I began to think, “These poor people are trying to recreate this. It was bad enough as it is, but take away the stage directions…”
And what have you changed?
Ultimately, I didn’t change anything like plot. I might have introduced some plot, but I don’t think I changed any. I had fun with the dialogue. I thought, “What if they’re also smart this time?” It can’t be any worse. The characters used to be racist and free and stupid and silly and do whatever they wanted to do, but I cleaned it up a little bit.
Oh, no. What if you made it worse?
[laughs] I don’t think so, but I suppose it’s possible. When we first did it, I thought, “What if it’s a success?” I never dreamed of the nadir. Now that I’ve had the nadir, what do I have to lose?
Did you originally intend for the play to be on Broadway?
No. I was what they call a playwright of promise. That has a shelf life of you can count the days. I wrote this as a lark. I was going for the unintentional humor you might get from a public access TV show, where it’s earnestly done but very wrong. It’s kind of Christopher Guest-like, before Guffman. But instead I did farce and used my “improbably” thing as the excuse for anything. When I was shopping it, everyone said “It’s so funny.” I don’t remember anyone saying “It’s a good play,” but they all said “funny,” which translated to successful to me. At readthroughs, Eve Arden was laughing. Everybody was laughing. Ha ha ha. How come everybody’s having such a good time and it ends up like that?
Eve was only in the show for two previews, replaced by Holland Taylor, right? What happened?
They fired her. I guess I can say that now. We couldn’t say it then. We had to say “artistic differences.” I remember being called in to talk about the problems of the show. I was gonna be Barbra Streisand about it and say what I thought about the lack of direction, horrible blocking, and lack of focus. I was ready. They let me go first and I did. There was this dead silence and they looked at me as if I’d just spoken in tongues. And one of them said, “Were gonna let Eve go.” So The Eve Arden Show is gonna be turned into The Show? She’s the only thing we’ve got going for us. She was asked, “Are you comfortable continuing?” She was getting a kick out of it, but it was too strenuous. It’s a farce–running up and down stairs, slamming doors, cue pickups like you wouldn’t believe. She was back on Broadway for the first time in 40 years and she had to be Eve Arden and she told me “It took the girl two hours to do my nails this morning”. And I thought, “How about two hours memorizing lines?’
Was Eve the first choice for the role?
No, I wrote the play with Sada Thompson in mind. She could be quite hilarious. I wanted the character to be on the outside June Cleaver but on the inside the black widow. Sada liked it, but said “I don’t know who the director is.” I talked to Anne Meara for another role and she said, “Who’s the director?” I was naïve to think she was just hard of hearing or having a bad memory day. But finally, she asked me again and I said “It’s John Roach. You went to his apartment. You had a lovely time.” Long pause. “So. Let me know when the director is dead.”
Did you have fun at auditions?
It was summer camp. I was there for every second. We had a ball. I remember Lois Smith walking in and auditioning, looking at me acrimoniously when she realized I’m the playwright. She was really pissed and snarled, “This is very silly.”
Lois Smith in Moose Murders would be even more wrong than you were going for. Tell me about little Mara Hobel, who was in the show, fresh off playing little Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
The press went crazy about the fact that she played Christina. We had a press brunch at Mildred Pierce’s on Restaurant Row. Eve was sitting at the Eve Arden table. They had little dolls from all the characters from Mildred Pierce. The press had Mara doing hideous things to the Joan Crawford doll–unscrewing the head, beating it on the counter. Early on in the production, I asked Eve, “Was Joan really the monster she’s portrayed as?” It was like I’d dropped my trousers and pissed. She said, “I don’t share the feeling about Miss Crawford. She helped with the adoption of two of my children.”
Did Eve really have to have a script with her onstage?
No. But she didn’t know lines. When she’d go up, she’d make this noise like a foghorn. “Uhhhhhhh.” We’d expect her head to oscillate. After a while she started to do whatever she could. Once, she told me, “I’m beginning to think I have to learn these lines by rote.” I’m thinking, “Of course! What–by osmosis? By sheer love and will?” I had a hard time understanding what the problem was. I think she was about 74. Lorna Luft said when they were doing Grease 2, one of the games was “Guess Eve Arden’s age.” When I’d call her on the phone, she sounded like a grandmother. The Eve Arden thing was what she did for a persona, and it was tiring. I was heartbroken for her. She comes back to Broadway after 40 years and this is what she gets.
There was word in previews that Moose was a turkey, so you must have been prepared on opening night, right?
It was a shock. Nobody can be prepared for that kind of onslaught. I was not allowed to go into the press office at Sardi’s. As 11 comes closer, the place really thins out. “Ooh, look at the time, yawn yawn.” They spared me that, so I had about a half hour more of bliss. My partner was the first to break the news to me, whispering in my ear: “The worst.” Dennis Cunningham wrote “If your name is Arthur Bicknell, change it.” Oh my God! The next day, I was approached by a rep of Paul Reubens and Sandra Bernhard, saying they were intrigued by the bad press. They wanted to put the bad reviews on billboards and do a musical version. They had a title, “Moose Murdered: The Afterbirth.” I had my pride and said no. But now I’m thinking, “Jesus, I should have jumped at that!”
How did you get through the horror without killing yourself?
It was perpetual bracing. And here we are bracing again. It was denial. Friends. A huge sense of humor. I remember thinking, “This isn’t the only bad play ever Broadway. This’ll go away.” But I watched it becoming iconic. Indeed. In 2000, AARP magazine listed the biggest flops of the century. Moose Murders was number five, right after New Coke! I thought “I’ve arrived. Not sure where I’ve arrived, but I’ve arrived.” [laughs]
Were you upset when Carrie came back?
No. The more the merrier. Come on, Kelly! Let’s bring ’em back. Rockabye Hamlet!
Home Sweet Homer! Anyway, tell me more about the new Moose Murders.
The director [Steven Carl McCasland] is so brave. He’s young, very smart, maybe even brilliant. He gets me. He’s able to go into that tangled wood of my mind and make sense out of it and get it. I’ve got nothing to lose here and a lot to gain. And a large portion of the profit–and there will be some–will go to GLSEN. I’m thrilled about that. Something good is coming out of this! So few people get another shot at rediscovery and reinvention. Not redemption. What redemption? Seeking redemption will lead to a dead end. But I guess the expression is “Strike while the iron is tepid.” If you’re on thin ice, skate as fast as you can. If you can’t redeem, exploit. And I’m trying my damnedest!