Saturday, December 7, 2013

“First the Barrymores, and now the Bradys” The Real Live Brady Bunch

In 1990, The Brady Bunch was airing in daily national syndication across America. So who in their right mind would have ventured out to a theater back then, and purchased a ticket to watch actors perform line-by-line reenactments of the same Brady scripts they could hear at home for free?

Well, me, for one. When The Real Live Brady Bunch played Los Angeles, I made the 500 mile round trip six times – proving once again there’s no underestimating the enduring appeal of the story of a man named Brady. 

The Real Live Brady Bunch was conceived by Chicago sisters Jill and Faith Soloway, who grew up on endless Brady reruns that provided a safe haven from the drama of their parents’ unhappy marriage. Their devotion continued through high school, college, and a post-graduate gravitation to the city’s local theater community.

When Faith became a musical director at Second City, she wrote a parody song based on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” that incorporated a Brady reference in the lyric “Go ask Alice.” Around the same time, the Soloways discussed their Brady love with Jill’s friend Becky Thyre, who astonished the siblings with a perfect imitation of Marcia, complete with hair flip.

From these meager inspirations, the sisters conceived The Real Live Brady Bunch, in which Brady Bunch scripts were performed verbatim by actors both too old – and in some cases too chunky – for their roles. They briefly considered taking the material into sketchier territory, with scenes of Marcia getting pregnant and Greg wondering if he was gay. But ultimately, they decided to play it straight and let the material stand or fall on its own.

Eight of the most popular episodes were chosen for the run, including “Adios, Johnny Bravo,” “Amateur Night” and “Juliet is the Sun.” In this pre-DVD era, Jill had to transcribe the scripts from reruns.

Local thrift shops provided appropriately garish 70s-era clothes for the cast. Becky Thyre played Marcia, of course, alongside future Saturday Night Live star Melanie Hutsell as Jan and Susan Messing as Cindy. The Brady boys were portrayed by Pat Towne (Greg), Ben Zook (Peter) and Mick Napier (Bobby). Mark Sutton and Kate Flannery played parents Mike and Carol, and Alice was uncannily incarnated by Mari Weiss, who drew standing ovations at nearly every performance. 

The show opened in June of 1990 at the 110-seat Annoyance Theatre, a rundown loft on Broadway Ave. that specialized in subversive comedy/improv pieces. It played once a week on Tuesday nights, described by one local paper as the darkest of dark-night slots.

“We thought five people would show up,” said Jill of the show’s debut. But within a month, lines began forming for tickets by 11am, and hundreds of people were turned away every night. A second show was added, but the sell-outs continued. Astonished, Jill and Faith would go up to the roof of the theater to marvel at the length of the lines.

Critics – at least those who weren’t baffled by why anyone would want to do this in the first place – were generally supportive. The crowds, mostly 20-somethings like the Soloways who grew up with the series, kept coming back to watch each new episode. They giddily sang along with the theme song and shouted the catchphrases that had taken up permanent residence in their collective subconscious. 

The Annoyance, which had built its reputation on more cutting-edge fare like Coed Prison Sluts and Manson: The Musical, suddenly had a hit on their hands, and it was one of the most wholesome shows in town. Sure, they may have thought this was another twisted take on traditional values, meant to expose the shallow culture of white-bread middle America etc. etc. – and some ticket-buyers were there to laugh at the Bradys and not with them. But many who returned each week did so out of genuine affection for a show they loved.

And then, what began as a quirky local curiosity went national. Rolling Stone magazine ran a rave review, followed by People magazine, Newsweek and The New York Times
But for the Soloways, that wasn’t nearly as exciting as when Eve Plumb appeared in the Real Live Brady Bunch version of “Adios, Johnny Bravo.” Rather than reprise Jan, (“Just a little too Twilight Zone,” she thought), Plumb played agent Tammy Cutler, the role originated in the series by Claudia Jennings. 


Though Plumb was often reluctant to embrace her Brady past, she enjoyed herself enough to appear with the cast again at a theater fundraiser on Chicago’s Navy Pier. In the audience – Florence Henderson, Barry Williams, Christopher Knight and Susan Olsen, all of whom joined Plumb on stage for a curtain call. Williams and Olsen even broke out a few dance moves from that episode’s performance of “You’ve Got to Be in Love to Love a Love Song.”

“It’s kind of strange to have warped a whole generation,” Olsen said. "We’re sorry.”

Sherwood Schwartz also attended a performance, where the 73-year old producer was greeted like a rock star. Schwartz’s blessing likely kept the Soloways out of court, as Paramount Television had by now heard of the play and was investigating copyright infringement. At his recommendation, the theatre paid only a token sum to acknowledge the copyright.

After 13 months of sell-outs, the Soloways took The Real Live Brady Bunch to New York. The show played for ten months at The Village Gate, a small theater in Greenwich Village that was an even bigger dump than the Annoyance.

Faced with casting a new Mike and Carol after the original stars chose to stay home, the Soloways proved to be expert talent scouts. Mike was played by Andy Richter, who would later join the writing team at Saturday Night Live and serve as Conan O’Brien’s sidekick. As Carol, they recruited Jane Lynch, a Chicago actress who subbed in the original production. Lynch is now a TV icon herself for her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Glee’s Sue Sylvester. 

The New York critics were not as kind to the play as their Chicago counterparts, though Michael Musto of The Village Voice was a fan. Still, audiences in the theater capital of the world were just as excited to spend some time with their TV friends.

A third production opened in Los Angeles at the Westwood Playhouse (now the David Geffen Playhouse), across from the UCLA campus. That run lasted eight months, and featured guest appearances from Davy Jones, who played himself in “Getting Davy Jones,” and Debi Storm, who reprised her role as wallflower-turned-knockout Molly Webber in the Real Live Brady Bunch version of “My Fair Competition.”

A national tour followed, that was promoted by a cast performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. What began with one hair flip in Chicago had by this time become another building block in the Brady Bunch’s ascent to pop culture immortality.

What is not often acknowledged about The Real Live Brady Bunch is the vital link it provided between the original series and the now familiar and affectionate send-ups of its characters and stories, most famously expressed in the two theatrical Brady Bunch films.

While the dialogue came word for word from the TV show, the presentation – expressions, vocal inflections, and body language – would undermine the context in hilarious ways.

Sometimes no accentuation was necessary. “You’re a pretty groovy girl” was a straight line in 1970, and a punch line by 1990. But the cast would also improv around the script; in “Fright Night,” there’s a scene where the kids hide in anticipation of scaring Alice with some haunted booby-traps, but their parents come home instead. “It’s Mom and Dad!” whispers Greg, to which Cindy, from her hiding place, silently mouths the word “Shit!” Susan Olsen probably liked that.

The Soloway sisters walked a tightrope between parody and affectionate nostalgia with perfect precision. Thrust into a national spotlight after igniting a new wave of Brady-mania, they continued to profess their love for the original show. “We pay tribute to the Bradys. We don’t disrespect them,” Jill said. “I think if you ask anybody, they wanted to be in the Brady Bunch,” added Faith. “They wanted to know them.”

Jill Soloway would later earn three Emmy nominations as a writer and producer of such series as Six Feet Under, Grey’s Anatomy and The United States of Tara. Faith continues to explore the fringes of musical theater, as writer, director and star of such productions as Miss Folk America.

But for Brady fans, they will always be best known as the sister act that brought The Brady Bunch from television to the stage. “We did it just to have fun and, all of a sudden, reporters were asking our views on the 70s and family dynamics and why the show was so popular,” Jill reflected. “And I think we were just these two Jewish girls wanting to be in a big Gentile family that had family meetings and potato sack races.” 

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