Cultural Commerce

Taking the Stage with Alfred E. Neuman

A look back to when Mad magazine's black and white pages came to life on a New York stage

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Before she won six Tony awards, between 1970 and 2012, and prior to her 1979 Emmy for her lead role in the TV show Alice, Linda Lavin appeared on stage in The Mad Show, singing Stephen Sondheim’s (uncredited) “The Boy From …,” a breathy parody of “The Girl from Ipanema,” which includes such lines as “When I tell him I think he’s the end / He giggles a lot with his friend.” In this case, girl does not get boy.

And before she became a household name on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Jo Anne Worley trod the boards alongside Lavin to bring the satirical magazine’s gags to life in a 1966 production at the New Theatre on East 54th Street.

The first hint Village Voice readers had of this hybrid of the printed page and live theater was an ad in the December 23, 1965, issue announcing “A New Musical Revue Based on MAD Magazine,” to which Alfred E. Neuman declaims, “ECCH!”

Two weeks later the paper included a publicity photo of three mugging cast members.

At the bottom of that same page, the magazine’s mascot’s mug appears again, blasé about the show’s opening date, Sunday, January 9, 1966.

The following week there is no word from Voice critics, but others have weighed in. In the ad, the clip art of Alfred remains stoic.

Come January 20 and the Voice passes judgement in the Theatre Journal column. This time, the production department took pains to keep the ad on page 19, separate from the editorial critique on page 20.

Critic Michael Smith liked the show, but lamented the omission of the magazine’s “threat of savagery in its satiric bite”:

“The Mad Show” is a speedy and consistently funny musical revue. Its five performers are likable and highly skilled, Steven Vinaver’s direction leaves barely a moment unoccupied, Mary Rodgers’s music is energetic and versatile, and the sum is thoroughly diverting. It’s difficult to break the show down into its parts, since it moves at an almost blurring velocity. Linda Lavin is absolutely bewitching in “The Boy From,” and Paul Sand’s “The Real Thing” is a flawlessly performed miniature. MacIntyre Dixon and Dick Libertini, previously familiar as the Stewed Prunes, are as unpredictably zany as ever, and Jo Anne Worley has comic expertise to spare. Together and separately, they look like the ideal revue cast.

“The Mad Show” is based on Mad magazine. It shares the comic book’s irreverence, sometimes mimics its mating of the far-fetched with the dead-pan, but omits its air of tenuous control, the threat of savagery in its satiric bite. Much of the time the source is not visible, and I would have preferred to see more risks taken, more point of view, more precision in choosing targets for satire. I prefer theatre to be less innocuous; despite its shambling exterior, “The Mad Show” would not be outré in a chic midtown boîte. (But when would you find time to drink your drink?)

In other words, if you like this sort of thing, this is an excellent example of it. Aesthetic commitments ablush, I report it readily recommendable.

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