Simon's Broadway Debut

February 22: Neil Simon made his Broadway debut fifty years ago today, when Come Blow Your Horn opened for a twenty-month run. The play's success allowed Simon to escape the day job he loathed, writing comedy for the "Red Buttons Show," the "Sgt. Bilko Show," and other television hits. In Rewrites, his first book of memoirs, Simon describes his birth pains with his first play—over two-and-a-half years he did twenty-two complete revisions—as an against-all-odds comedy. But the opening night audience laughed, the reviews were acceptable to good, and Simon thought he was on his way, until he showed up at the box office the next morning to see how long the line of ticket-buyers was and saw, instead, the play's closing notice posted.

 

Then somebody coaxed the producers into a gamble: hand out free tickets on the street corners, pack the house, and hope for the word-of-mouth to sweep through the city. In the end, the show was saved only because both Noel Coward and Groucho Marx saw it, both of them afterwards praising the play within earshot of the gossip columnists.

 

Looking back, Simon says that the play "seems like the crude markings in a cave by the first prehistoric chronicler," but it was a key moment in the development of his craft. The following, from a 1992 Paris Review interview on "The Art of the Theater," is Simon's response to a question on his writing methods:

I've always felt like a middleman, like the typist. Somebody somewhere else is saying, "This is what they say now. This is what they say next." Very often it is the characters themselves, once they become clearly defined. When I was working on my first play, Come Blow Your Horn, I was told by fellow writers that you must outline your play, you must know where you're going. I wrote a complete, detailed outline from page one to the end of the play. In the writing of the play, I didn't get past page fifteen when the characters started to move away from the outline. I tried to pull them back in, saying, "Get back in there. This is where you belong. I've already diagrammed your life." They said, "No, no, no. This is where I want to go . . . ."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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