By Rachelle Hughes
Almost a century ago Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright George S. Kauffman joined his creative genius with Songwriter’s Hall of Fame composer and lyricist Irving Berlin to write the Marx Brothers’ first movie and second Broadway play, The Cocoanuts. In the grand scheme of theatre history as theatre buffs look back on the combination of these entertainment powerhouses all working on one production, it is hard to believe it took so long for someone to find a way to bring a contemporary version to the stage.
In 2014 Berlin and Kaufman gained another collaborator posthumously when actor and adapter Mark Bedard seized the opportunity to revive the magic of the Marx Brothers with his adaptation of The Cocoanuts at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His adaption combined the wit of Kaufman, the musical talents of Berlin, and the improv of the Marx Brothers into a musical that appeals to the contemporary musical theatre’s desire for a storybook musical as opposed to a vaudeville musical.
Mark Bedard first became interested in the Marx Brothers when he was performing in Animal Crackers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He fell in love with them and their backstory. So, he began researching their work and he ordered a script of the play. “I saw all this material including scenes and songs that were not in the movie and I became really excited about ‘Oh we can bring this material back to an audience,’” Bedard said in a YouTube video on his inspiration for his adaptation (Mark Bedard, Snapshot: On your Marx! Get Set! Show! June 9, 2014[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F733CIC6uCs]).
As he studied the full body of works performed by the Marx Brothers, he says he was able to see what worked and didn’t work. When he saw that their most successful work centered around a love story he decided to build on the love story already in the original The Cocoanuts script. When The Cocoanuts was first performed on Broadway in 1925 it was a vaudeville style musical. As Bedard said “Musicals have come a long way since then,” (YouTube). Bedard restructured The Cocoanuts to make it a more cohesive storyline in the more contemporary style of a storybook musical. However, he built on the legendary wit of playwright Kaufman and the magic of adlibbing that was such a successful part of the Marx Brothers on stage synergy. His version is a blend of past meets present. When he played the role of Groucho in his adaptation of The Cocoanuts he stayed true to the Marx Brothers tradition of never having a play be the same on any night by adding new jokes each night. Bedard’s version is musical theatre meets stand-up comedy.
Bedard found his love of theatre during his senior year of high school. Although he was drawn to the arts he shied away from performing and instead joined the football team. When he tried out and was cast in the play his senior year he found his true passion. "Unlike football where I had struggled with every fiber of my short frame against guys typically much bigger to hold my own, I took to theater like a fish to water," he said (“Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014: Mark Bedard plays with danger as Groucho” [http://www.oregonlive.com/performance/ index.ssf/2014/07/oregon_shakespeare_festival_20_12.html]).
Bedard attended University of California–Irvine and immersed himself in theatre. His professors saw depth and passion in his time as a student. Before he took on his role as Mr. Hammer (Groucho) in The Cocoanuts, Bard played a variety of roles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Mint Theatre Company, Seattle Rep, and Shakespeare & Company. His roles have varied from Robert in Boeing Boeing to Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
George S. Kaufman
The Cocoanuts book author, George S. Kaufman was at the center of the drama scene during the 1920s. He nearly always wrote in collaboration with another writer and so it is easy to imagine he would have welcomed the collaborative efforts of Bedard.
Kaufman was born on November 16, 1889 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania into a Jewish family. He started out his drama career as a newspaper reporter and drama critic and eventually became the drama editor at the New York Times. Kaufman stretched his theatrical muscles, and in 1918 he made his Broadway debut with Some One in the House, written in collaboration with Larry Evans and W.C. Percival. During what would become known as the Golden Age of Broadway, Kaufman became known for his satire and quick wit. Playwright Garson Kanin said, "George S. Kaufman ranks without peer as the wit of the American twentieth century. George's comment, George's cool-off, George's swiftness to pick up the answer was breath-taking. . . . He was taciturn. He didn't say much, but what he did say was stringent, always to the point, cutting, acid, true or true enough. Which was his great trick. His trick of wit and his trick of criticism wasn't that he found what was true, but he would find what was true enough" (John Hopwood, “Biography George S. Kauman” [The Internet Movie Database, www.IMDb.com, 1990–2016]).
As a regular participant in the famed Algonquin Round Table, Kaufman was valued for his wit and his quick tongue. The Algonquin Round Table was a group of New York literati who met daily at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Its members included the drama critic and radio personality Alexander Woollcott. Joining him were writers Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, playwright Robert E. Sherwood, critic Heywould Hale Broun, comedian Harpo Marx, composer Irving Berlin, and many others. Many of these round table members would collaborate with Kaufman at some point.
Of Kaufman’s full-length plays, only The Butter and Egg Man (1925) and the musical Hollywood Pinafore (1945) were written by him without a collaborator. The first solo effort, The Butter and Egg Man was a hit, running for 245 performances. However, Hollywood Pinafore was a flop. His collaborations throughout his career continued to pair him with some of Hollywood and Broadway’s biggest stars including the wildly popular comic performers The Marx Brothers. Although Kaufman was said to hate Hollywood, he traveled there in 1935 at the request of the Marx Brothers. They asked him to pen the book for the stage revue The Cocoanuts which featured lyrics by fellow Algonquin Round Table member Irving Berlin. He followed up that request by writing the play Animal Crackers (1928) for the Marx Brothers, which he wrote in collaboration with Morrie Ryskind.
Kaufman earned the drama world’s most prestigious awards when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, along with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin for Of Thee I Sing (1931). He won a second Pulitzer for You Can't Take It with You (1936), co-written with Moss Hart. Kaufman was also a theatrical director, directing many successful plays, including The Front Page (1928), Of Mice and Men (1939), My Sister Eileen (1940), and Guys and Dolls (1950). He won the 1951 Tony Award for the Best Director for Guys and Dolls.
Kaufman was married twice. His first marriage to Beatrice Bakrow ended in her death in 1945. His second marriage to Leueen MacGrath ended in divorce following a torrid affair with actress Mary Astor. George S. Kaufman died on June 2, 1961.
Jerome Kern said of The Cocoanuts song composer and lyricist, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music" (“Irving Berlin Biography” [www.songwritershalloffame.org [www.songwritershalloffame.org/exhibits/bio/C3, 2002–2016]). Today, Berlin’s influence on America music is hard to fathom. After all, he wrote over 1,500 songs during his century-long life.
Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888, one of eight children. As a young boy his family immigrated to New York from Tolochin, Bel. At just thirteen years old, Berlin took his burgeoning musical talents to the streets after his father died. He earned money doing work as a busker singing for pennies, then as a singing waiter in a Chinatown cafe. His hard work paid off, and in 1907 he published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” and by 1911 he had his first major international hit—“Alexander's Ragtime Band.”
Berlin’s music career took off, and over the next five decades his ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes, and love songs became a part of American music history. His works include well-known songs like "How Deep Is the Ocean," "Blue Skies," “White Christmas," "Always," "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Cheek to Cheek," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," "Heat Wave," "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "Easter Parade," "Let's Face the Music and Dance” and the iconic "God Bless America." It is no mystery that Berlin was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970.
Berlin’s talent was sought out as a composer and lyricist for both Broadway and Hollywood productions. As a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table he had access to some of the most forward thinking drama minds of the 1920s, and they had access to his talent. His Broadway scores can be heard in The Cocoanuts, Annie Get Your Gun, and Mr. President. Among his many awards were a special Tony Award (1963) and the Academy Award for Best Song of the Year for "White Christmas" in 1942.
As an active member in the music community throughout his life he was the co-founder of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), the founder of his own music publishing company, and, with producer Sam Harris, builder of his own Broadway theatre, the Music Box. Over the years he donated millions of dollars in royalties to Army Emergency Relief, the Boy and Girl Scouts, and other organizations. Irving Berlin turned 100 in 1988 with a worldwide birthday celebration including an all-star tribute at Carnegie Hall benefitting the Hall and ASCAP (www.songwritershalloffame.org).
On September 22, 1989, at the age of 101, Irving Berlin died in his sleep in his townhouse in New York City. His wife of sixty-two years, heiress Ellin Mackay, had died the previous year at the age of 85.