When Shear Madness opened at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 12, 1987, it was already something of a theatrical juggernaut. Writer and creator Bruce Jordan had adapted the play from a script by the German psychologist Paul Pörtner that used audience input to direct the plot. It was not a comedy. Jordan camped it up: He kept the audience participation, but turned it into a farce about hairdressers, suspicious customers, and bumbling cops. The original staging, appropriately enough, was at a dinner theater in Lake George, N.Y. It moved to Boston in 1980, and by 1987 it was that city’s longest-running show. Versions in Chicago and Philadelphia were also going strong.
None of those stages, though, offered the Kennedy Center’s cultural cachet. For better or worse, the play has stuck around ever since. To the frustration of highbrow theater types, Shear Madness has spent nearly a quarter century occupying the center’s Theater Lab, a place whose name suggests avant-garde experimentation, not lightweight fare for tourists.
The bottom line explains why muckety-mucks stick with the show: Over some 10,700 performances, it’s sold almost 3 million tickets—milking vacationers and school groups to the tune of $66 million and bringing the Kennedy Center a $500,000 annual profit.
But the longevity of Shear Madness isn’t just a case of cultural bureaucrats going mercenary for a show critics pan as lowbrow. D.C.’s theater community, the same actors and stagehands who create daring fare for the new generation of venues that has cropped up since 1987, has benefited from the steady work Madness offers—an opportunity to subsidize their own efforts at less profitable varieties of theater work. Today, it’s hard to find anyone among the 125 actors who have appeared in the show over the years who will admit any regrets over taking well-paying, open-ended work in a tough business.
Here’s the history of Shear Madness from the point of view of those who made it a local institution:
Bruce Jordan, writer and co-producer; originated the role of Tony Whitcomb: The Charles Playhouse [in Boston] was running for six years. Philadelphia was running for five years. The Chicago production was running for four years. Someone said, “Why don’t you take a look at the Theater Lab at the Kennedy Center.” Roger Stevens had been looking a long time for a show that was going to sit down at the Kennedy Center for a spell so that people who came on tours would be able to buy a ticket to something that was affordable.
Marilyn Abrams, co-producer of Shear Madness; originated the role of Mrs. Shubert: We looked around and Theater Lab was the perfect place. We got Roger Stevens up to Boston and he said, “You have to come.”
Robert Warren, associate producer, 2001-2009: The set at the Kennedy Center is more solid than you would build your house.
Kim Peter Kovac, designed the Shear Madness set in 1987: Just running water lines and phone lines and electrical lines. With warm water, too. There’s not too much complexity with the kind of things they do. Bruce and Marilyn sent me to Chicago to see the show there and because they do it in multiple places they like a similarity in the floor plan. I’m really pleased it’s lasted 24 years.
Brigid Cleary, has played Mrs. Shubert since 2001: You have to be careful out there because of the shaving cream. There was one time when the cops come in, surprising us with guns drawn, there was a little curve in one of the tiles and my shoe got caught. I just went sideways. I almost pushed the garbage can off the stage, but I grabbed it before it could land on the audience. Later on someone in the audience asked, “How did they get that old lady to fall?”
Brian Sills, has toured with Shear Madness since 2003; currently playing Tony at the Kennedy Center: Is it Hamlet? No, it’s not Hamlet, but nor are we pretending it is. It’s a master class in comedy.
Bob Lohrmann, associate director and former actor: I played the part of Mikey Thomas, the young cop, once in an abject emergency when the first George Bush and his wife came to see the show, and they didn’t have an experienced understudy, so I played it. I am too old for that role now and I was too old for that role then. But I did have hair that could be washed. He was president-elect. The Bushes went for their wedding anniversary. They came backstage before the show began. We were meticulously respectful of them…The guy who was sick that night, Steve O’Connor, it was maybe the only performance he ever missed and he was probably the only one in the show who had voted for George Herbert Walker Bush.