On Harry in Love, part 2: A Big Man, Yelling (aka Influences)
Harry in Love is a comedy. A loud, broad, raucous comedy. The subtitle is A Manic Vaudeville and this is to be taken seriously. The people in it are nuts, the play itself is nuts. Wonderful.
The performance style is manic and stagy in the best way. The one-liners have to explode with a classic style of timing that goes back over a hundred years and isn't often seen so much anymore. It's a specific kind of humor, that traveled the country and eventually entered the movies and early TV, but started as something very much of vaudeville, of New York, of the comedians there, and very specifically the New York Jewish comedians there.
Now, here we are doing Harry with a cast of mostly Gentiles playing Jews and doing this stuff (except of course Ken Simon, who calls himself "God's Tummler" and who probably belongs in the Borscht Belt of several decades ago), but while the style began that way, there are plenty of fine Gentile examples of comedians who took on this style, including a couple of nice boys who started out in vaudeville and worked this schtick to the ends of their lives, in films and TV, and whose timing I find myself directly aping quite a bit in this show:
What's nice about that piece (from their film In Society though they also did it on their TV show), is that they are both almost straight men there as well for a collection of fine comedic second-bananas to do their bits off of, which is also true of this classic routine, done by many MANY comedians, but probably most famous from this version on the Abbott & Costello TV show:
The A&C connection with Harry became particularly clear when I realized there was no way I could yell the line, "I'm not ASKING him to get involved!" without directly copying Lou Costello's cadences on "I'm not ASKING you who is on second!"
Years ago, when doing this show for the first time, Michael Bruno, who was then playing Paul, mentioned looking at Gene Wilder's performance in The Producers for inspiration. I didn't mention this to Walter Brandes, who's now playing the part, as he's a very different Paul, and I'm not sure that reference would work for him.
At the same time, I'm noticing a lot more Zero Mostel in my own performance as Harry – I don't know if I didn't see it nine years ago because I couldn't see myself and Zero in the same category. Now, being a bit older (and, admittedly, a bit heavier), I find myself taking on a bit more Zero in the part.
This scene from The Producers especially gets the feel of what I'm trying to do as Harry down – sorry for the quality; it appears someone decided to videotape the film of a TV monitor, recording the sound off the speaker with the camera mic, and then post it to YouTube, but it's what there is available:
During rehearsals for this round of Harry, a name came up that I hadn't thought of before, but which now seemed extremely a propos: Jackie Gleason.
Maybe I hadn't thought of Gleason before because . . . well, to be frank, while I've always admired his technical skill, I've never at all been a fan of The Great One. He gets on my nerves, and I really, REALLY dislike Ralph Kramden and The Honeymooners
However, once he came up, I couldn't help but see the similarities, and once I could see them, I could use them.
This performance style continues down into theatre of the 60s with plays by Murray Schisgal and Bruce Jay Friedman and Jules Feiffer and even Neil Simon, but with a darker edge. Plays of a category that Richard once put Harry in, something like "big sweaty neurotic New York Jewish men yelling at other people." Unfortunately, the beautiful, fun broadness of this style seems to have vanished in the last couple of decades. It's my pleasure to bring it back for a few more times in Harry in Love, which, if it's even half as much fun to watch as to perform, must be quite a show out there in the house. Wish I could see it from there.