THE BOOK SHELF: Arthur Bicknell's "Moose Murdered" and the New Vocal Score of Merrily We Roll Along

By Steven Suskin
05 May 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column looks at Arthur Bicknell's backstage chronicle "Moose Murdered" and the newly revised vocal score of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along.

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It isn't until page 135 of Arthur Bicknell's self-published "Moose Murdered, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb"—a grisly chronicle of you-know-what—that the words "vanity production" appear. Still, this is perhaps the clearest and most candid discussion of a Broadway vanity production that you are likely to find.

Moose Murders, as you might recall, arrived at the O'Neill Theatre in the midst of the miserable winter of 1982-83. (It was the O'Neill's third play of the season. First, The Wake of Jamey FosterBeth Henley's follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning Crimes of the Heart—opened in mid-October and lasted a mere 12 performances. This was followed by William Gibson's Miracle Worker-sequel The Monday After the Miracle, opening in mid-December and lasting an even more mere seven performances.) All told, the 1982-83 season had twelve shows that lasted less than a week, with six (including Moose Murders) closing after the opening night performance.



Eve Arden, the beloved big and small-screen comedienne of the 40s and 50s, played a disastrous preview on Saturday night January 29; returned Monday night for a second try, and then disappeared. Her departure was credited to a little problem with remembering lines, executing blocking, and apparently keeping track of the plot (for what it was worth). Emergency casting calls had already gone out, resulting in Holland Taylor, an already respected actress, but neither a star nor a star presence, rushing in, learning the lines over a week, and embarking on a second set of previews starting February 11.

Taylor was some thirty-five years younger than Arden, but Arden, at seventy-five, was perhaps a little old to play the mother of a precocious twelve-year-old. Let it be added that Taylor, who is now herself a septuagenarian, is currently giving a Tony-nominated performance at the Vivian Beaumont in Ann.

Taylor was able to learn those lines, needless to say, and brought a good deal of professionalism to the affair. But Moose Murders was still Moose Murders; even the infamous Tallulah or the great Merman wouldn't have been able to make much of it, although they would presumably have gotten more laughs. The show played another eleven previews, making an ominously grand total of 13, and finally opened on February 22, only to close the same night.

Mr. Bicknell never reappeared on Broadway, and seems not to have written a professionally-produced play since. He has now—on the 30th anniversary of the birth and death of the Moose—given us a blow-by-blow (literally) description of the whole sorry affair. It is mighty desperate, and mighty funny.

Eve Arden in the original production
photo by Gerry Goodstein

This is not the first book in this specialized genre. Jimmy Kirkwood, four years later, wrote a little opus called Legends which toured the hinterlands but never got around to braving New York. He followed it up with a memoir called "Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing." Legends was apparently as bad as Moose Murders, and the playwright had to tussle not with one faded legend (and her husband and manager) but two fading-but-very-much-in-the-spotlight superstars.

But a vanity production Legends was not. Kirkwood already had a Tony and a Pulitzer in his pocket for A Chorus Line, while Mary and Carol were both still in their prime—as ticketsellers, anyway. Moose Murders, on the other hand, pretty much defines the notion of vanity production. It was produced by something called Force Ten Productions, Inc., and one must always raise a suspicious eyebrow when an unknown and fully-funded producing concern comes to town with a negligible and hard-to-trace name. Force Ten, it turns out, was generated by money inherited from old-time Texas oil tycoon Hugh Roy Cullen. Cullen's granddaughter Lillie Robertson and her husband John Roach, neither of whom had ever produced on Broadway, optioned Moose Murders. Roach, who never directed on Broadway before or since, directed the show. Those of you who have access to the Broadway Playbill or poster will find at the bottom of the cast billing, "and Lillie Robertson," who met the same fate as her husband.

Welcome to the world of vanity productions.

Bicknell makes a delightful guide through this cautionary tale—he would almost have to, or why else would he write it?—and seems to have no misconceptions about the true nature of the project. Moose Murders was written as a satiric take on murder mystery plays; just how far, he seemed to wonder, could you go? It turned out: not far enough and too far at the same time. The author, looking back from today, seems to see and identify the myriad problems that occurred; his biggest surprise, apparently, was instantly finding someone who wanted to produce his script (and self-fund it, and direct it, etc.) on Broadway. And along Bicknell went, innocently enough, for the ride.

Moose Murders would not have succeeded if it were not a vanity production. It would presumably not have succeeded even if it had a more suitable star than Eve Arden. (Angela Lansbury and Colleen Dewhurst both had short-lived flops that fall which folded before the Moose unfurled.) This was simply a bad play, poorly done. Due to its ignominity, it hasn't quite died; Moose Murders was actually disinterred off-off-Broadway in January, with a script revised by Bicknell.

Arthur Bicknell's Moose Murders, no. But Arthur Bicknell's "Moose Murdered" will give you a good look at just what can go on in the glamorous, professional, so-called legitimate theatre.

 Continued...