- By Spencer
Archive for ‘Moose Murders’
(Written February 2008)
Last night I saw a play that changed my life. Its name was” Moose Murders”.
– Saskatchewan Correctional Facility Bulletin
More fun than a barrel of mooses.
–The El Paso Water Authority Newsletter.
I ran from the theater breathless.
–Pulmonary Rescue Team Journal
Immoral! Outrageous! Tawdry!
—The Sheboygan Consortium on Contemporary Ethics
Ushers in a new era in modern American Theater
–Theater Ushers of America Pension Supplement
“I love you all. Thank you for a remarkable evening.”
John Borek from his memoir “Runs in My Socks: My Life in The Theater”
(Written April 2008)
Dear Mr. Sagal:
Thank you so much for recognizing the importance of “Moose Murders” in the theatrical canon. The cast and I were thrilled with the selection of “Moose” for Not My Job. Can the Tonys be far behind?
Since it is my duty to protect the honor and dignity of this play, I do wish to point out that your fact checker could never get a job at The New Yorker. There were one and one-half mistakes in the three questions presented to the panel. This very possibly could invalidate that part of the show and allow the person for whom Moby was playing to qualify for a Carl Kassell recording.
First, Joe Buffalo Dance is not the proprietor of The Wild Moose Lodge where the play is set. He is the caretaker. But we will only count that as one-half of an error.
The blinding, glaring, unforgiveable mistake is referring to the quadriplegic character wrapped in bandages as Stanley Holloway. Stanley Holloway was the British entertainer and actor who rose to fame playing Eliza Doolittle’s father in “My Fair Lady”. The character in Moose Murders is named SIDNEY Holloway.
See you at Sardi’s.
John Borek, Producer, “Moose Murders”
(Written April 2008)
The Sardis performance was mentioned.
Moose Murders is at “Not My Job” on the Wait, Wait menu. The MM comments begin at minute 6:40.
(Written August 2008)
Last night was a triumph!
I know because artists and theater people told me. A brilliant painter said that this was the most moving night he has ever had in the theater. He said he had never seen anything else that so clearly represented his struggles as an artist. He stayed afterwards to help us strike and pack up the set.
The cast was magnificent and seemed to get a laugh on every line. Maria correctly pronounced “cyanide” and Joe and Anthony got a standing ovation for the ten songs that I compared to early Jerome Kern or, perhaps, Rodgers and Hart. Sidney’s head did not fall off.
We are more polished. I fear we are rapidly moving up the ranks from rank amateur to lieutenants. We still refuse to learn our lines though and the cast refuses to rehearse…and is more adamant about this than ever. We will never be professionals forced to suffer through the heartbreak that Arthur has known.
Arthur sat in the back and to the side, the worst seat in the house. He was gently tentative at first. After five minutes I caught a sparkle and a chuckle. After ten minutes he leaned forward toward us and quietly rocked back and forth in his chair. I knew that for the first time he was hearing the lines he had written, perfomed as he had intended.
At the end, Arthur gave a speech comparing me to Yahweh. Favorably. More helpful. Evoking God was a nice counterpoint to John Simon’s inferno. We have finally exorcised the ghosts that have compromised The Eugenia Room. “Moose Murders” is now just a play that didn’t find an audience. It is no longer the worst.
Our abilities were abetted by your article. By acknowledging the worth of our story through your time and attention, you made us take ourselves seriously as artists. I’ve told Joe and Anthony that if they do four more shows and albums, they’ll have a permanent place in musical theater. Their wit, their post-modern wordplay and their unerring instinct for melody will be with them now no matter what they do in life. Nurse Dagmar is about to be the subject of an article in El Pais. And all of us have performed on Broadway under the portraits of those who have been successes but are now abandoned by time-lapse fame.
We perform in Central Park today, but the show has achieved its purpose. We opened and closed on one night once again, but this time in triumph. And we have acknowledged the precipice that artists stand on every day.
It remains ours and ours alone…still naive and ersatz showbiz. But this moose has some new owners. The moose has been returned to Arthur who has shared it with me, the composers, the cast and crew, and you. We’ve become your provincial bastard theater children. Every time anyone internets Campbell Robertson, “Moose Murders” will be lurking.
And now, to Central Park.
Best, John W. Borek, Producer of “Moose Murders” and part-time conceptual artist.
(Written April 2008)
My mother has been carrying The Times article neatly folded with my picture gazing at her from the basket of her walker. One of the other residents, Louise, is the mother of our friend, Liz.
I walked into the dining room and Louise said, “Congratulations on selling your screenplay.”
I explained that it was a little more complicated than selling a screenplay. I knew Louise was up to the task since she had been a literary editor, so I got the article from my mother’s walker and gave it to Louise to read.
So, Louise read the Times article and then said, “Well, he caught almost everything. When I saw Moose Murders….”
I yelped. And made her repeat the sentence: “Yes, of course I saw “Moose Murders. I saw everything in the theater then. And he did miss one thing. Throughout the whole evening, audience members kept turning around to look at the people seated behind them to see if they knew what was going on. The people we looked at generally just shrugged. No one knew.”
Louise came over to congratulate my mother. She said, “I read the article. I think it’s wonderful what that your son produced that terrible play.”
My mother graciously replied, “No, the play was wonderful. My son only produces wonderful plays.”
(Written August 2008)
Maria Córdoba-Gómez (Nurse Dagmar) has translated Ms. Calderón’s article from the August 10th edition of “El Pais”. The original article in Spanish is followed by the translation. We have been very fortunate in those writers who have followed this story; they continue to find an interesting balance between compassion and the absurd. –John
**********Vuelve la peor obra de teatro**********
Un nuevo montaje redime a ‘Moose Murders’, el mayor fracaso de Broadway
VERÓNICA CALDERÓN – Madrid – 10/08/2008
Arthur Bicknell aún recuerda ese día de 1983. La noche en que celebraba el estreno de su obra de teatro en el teatro Eugene O’Neill de Nueva York y parecía rozar la cúspide de su carrera. Todo cambió poco antes de medianoche, al llegar las primeras críticas. Los invitados comenzaron a irse, y a Bicknell no le permitían leerlas. No se enteró del veredicto hasta que preguntó a uno de sus amigos más cercanos. Le dijo dos palabras: “Las peores”. No hubo una segunda función. Así nació el mito de Moose Murders, el mayor fracaso en la historia de Broadway.
Decir que las críticas eran desfavorables es valerse de un eufemismo. “Insultaría la inteligencia de un público formado por amebas” (The New Yorker). “Si su nombre es Arthur Bicknell, cámbieselo” (CBS). “Moose Murders parece estar dirigida por un hombre constantemente golpeado en la ingle” (The New York Magazine). Frank Rich, entonces crítico de teatro de The New York Times, la calificó como “la peor obra que he visto en Broadway”.
La historia, una “farsa de misterio” según el autor, narra las aventuras de un grupo de personas que, atrapado en una casa en la montaña, vive una serie de asesinatos. Una de las secuencias más memorables muestra a una momia atada a una silla de ruedas, que se levanta para golpear en la ingle a un hombre disfrazado de alce.
¿Cómo sobrevive un escritor joven a un fracaso de tal magnitud? “No fue una experiencia feliz, pero tampoco una catástrofe”, recuerda Bicknell, ahora de 57 años, en entrevista telefónica. “Fue una época dura y una experiencia que cambió mi vida, pero con el tiempo pude hacer las paces con ello. Tenía 32 años, ¡era un bebé!”. Su vida después de Moose Murders lo llevó a la publicidad, el área de la que es director en la editorial Merriam-Webster, en Springfield, Massachusetts. “Y justo cuando habían pasado 25 años de aquella noche y pensaba que lo que quedaba de aquel día había desaparecido, me enteré de lo que estaba haciendo John”.
John es John Borek, un artista conceptual de Rochester, Nueva York. Al escuchar la historia del fracaso legendario, y sin haber tenido contacto anterior con Bicknell, se empeñó en “redimir la memoria de Moose Murders”. “Hay distintas formas de arte, y pensé que la obra merecía una oportunidad”, explica por teléfono. “Mi meta era limpiar la reputación de un artista y lograr que la obra consiguiese su objetivo, que es que la gente lo pase bien”.
Para devolver al público Moose Murders, Borek montó una singular -y heterodoxa- “compañía de teatro”. El reparto lo formaron nueve personas sin experiencia previa (el papel de la enfermera Dagmar, de origen escandinavo, es interpretado por la española María Córdoba, de 25 años). La escenografía la consiguió entre amigos. “Mi idea era montar la obra sin solemnidad, con sentido del humor”.
El estreno fue el día que se cumplieron 25 años de aquella noche aciaga, el 22 de febrero de 2008. La respuesta del público fue tan contundente como sorpresiva. “La gente entendió lo que hacíamos, y les encantó”.
La obra, montada en un foro de arte independiente de Rochester -”no precisamente el escenario más importante del mundo”, señala Borek con sarcasmo-, ganó notoriedad. Los mismos medios que la destruyeron en 1983 recogieron con gracia la “resurrección” de la obra, convertida ahora en una leyenda en los escenarios neoyorquinos. Y la atención derivó en el regreso a Broadway de Moose Murders, que se presentó este fin de semana en dos únicas funciones -las dos gratuitas- en Nueva York, que agotaron entradas.
The Worst Play Returns
Madrid August 10, 2008
A new staging redeems ‘Moose Murders’’, the biggest flop on Broadway.
Arthur Bicknell still remembers that day in 1983– the opening night of his play “Moose Murders” at the Eugene O´Neill in New York City and what should have been the peak of his career. Everything changed when just before midnight the first reviews appeared. The guests started leaving, and Bicknell was not allowed to read the reviews. He did not know the verdict until he asked one of his closest friends. He said two words: “The worst.” There was no second performance. That is how the “Moose Murders” myth– the biggest flop in the history of Broadway –was born.
Saying that the critics were unkind was an understatement. “Would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas” (The New Yorker). “If your name is Arthur Bicknell or something similar, change it” (CBS). “Moose Murders seems to be directed by a man constantly bitten in the crotch” (New York Magazine). Frank Rich, critic at that time for the New York Times qualified it as: “the worst play I have ever seen on Broadway”.
The play, a mystery farce according to the author, narrates the adventures of a group of people who, trapped in a mountain lodge, live through a series of murders. One of the more memorable scenes is when a character in a wheelchair wrapped in bandages like a mummy stands up to beat a man wearing a Moose costume in the crotch.
How did a young playwright survive a flop of that magnitude?
“It was not a happy experience, but it wasn’t a catastrophe either”, remembers Bicknell, now 57, in a phone interview. “It was hard and an experience that changed my life, but with time, I could make peace with it. I was 32. I was a baby!” His life after Moose Murders took him to public relations. He currently works in the publishing company Merriam Webster in Springfield, Massachusetts. “And just when 25 years had passed and I thought it had disappeared, I found out that John was reviving it!
John is John Borek, a conceptual artist in Rochester, New York. When he heard the story of the legendary failure, and without knowing Bicknell, he insisted on “redeeming the memory of Moose Murders”. “There are different forms of art, and I thought that the play presented an opportunity”, he explained by phone. “My aim was to clear an artist’s reputation and to restore the original intention of the play which was simply to entertain.”
For the “Moose Murders” revival, Borek set up a singular -and unorthodox- “theatre group”. The cast of nine had little previous experience (the role of the Scandanavian Nurse Dagmar is performed by the Spanish Maria Cordoba-Gomez, 25). The scenery was created by friends.”My idea was create a play without solemnity, with sense of humor!”
The premiere was on February 22, 2008, the 25th anniversary of that fateful opening night.. The audience response was as convincing as unexpected. “The people understood what we were doing and they loved it”.
The play, presented in an independent arts space in Rochester -”not exactly the most mainstream theater space in the world”- said Borek, increased its notoriety. The same media which destroyed it in 1983 received it with grace –a”resurrection”, transformed now into a legend. And “Moose Murders” returned to Broadway and New York two performances – free and sold out.
I owe my life as an artist to Arthur Bicknell and Moose Murders.
I can’t remember when I first became interested in failure, but some time in 2004 I began to think about artistic failure. At first I had just a curiosity about failed works of art themselves: why were some celebrated and some vilified? How did you quantify either greatness or terribleness. It was then that I discovered Moose Murders. Although you would be hard-pressed to identify Verdi’s worst opera or Picasso’s worst painting, it seemed fairly simple to identify the worst play to ever appear on Broadway. Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell had become legendary: it had everything you could ask for: Texas oil barons as producers, an aging film and TV star who indulged in erratic behavior, a young, promising playwright who wrote the play almost as it was being performed; a stage set so complicated that the production became the most expensive non-musical produced on Broadway. It also had the patina of time and an audience who remembered it as a landmark in their theater-going careers. And the title. Could anyone envision a more glorious title for a famous flop?
I recall walking into the Drama Book Shop in Manhattan and nervously wondering if I’d ever find a copy of the play. To my delight, it was in print and available from Samuel French. So it was notorious, but not forgotten.
I had lunch with my friend and muse Karen Winer and confessed my growing obsession with MM. She informed me in rapid succession: 1)that she had seen the play 2) that she believed she was a model for a number of the characters’ traits 3) that she went to Ithaca College with Arthur, and 4) that he was a wonderful person and 5) that she would contact him to talk about my desire to revive the play.
I then did my first bit of internet sleuthing and discovered that over the years Moose Murders had been produced in a variety of venues. There was a theater professor in Ohio who routinely assigned it to students because of its complicated stagecraft. He was oblivious to its provenance in the New York theater. He just liked the play as a representative farce. Lightning! Blindness! Pantomime! Death! Music! A Phantom Homicidal Moose!
Then of course there was the production in the Philippines that listed Frank Rich, the New York Times’ critic who originally eviscerated the play in one of the great destructive reviews in theater history, as the play’s author. I’ve always thought that there was something wonderfully vengeful about this switch: The critic is forever tied to a work of art he despises. He becomes, through memory and the internet, the author of a work of art rather than its critic. Straight out of Nabokov, kiddo. Or perhaps just Stephen King.
I believe that many of us find it difficult to identify ourselves as artists. We do other things and frequently we do other things that subsume or erode our commitment to our talents. There is a problem with living a creative life and we find, like most people, we live through others’ lives. Independence is disastrous; the isolation required for creation is increasingly distant.
Moose Murders was the first time my art subsumed my life. It was the first time I felt I had something to say. True, what I had to say was about failure, but I knew I had a clear path ahead of me. While others were pursuing success, I would pursue failure.
Directed & Designed by Spencer Christiano
What Is Art? – Friday February 19, 2010
Photos by Annette Dragon
Moose Murders – Saturday February 20, 2010
Photos by Annette Dragon
My Great Dead Sister – Sunday February 21, 2010
Photos by Annette Dragon
What do you do if you have the biggest failure in Broadway history? Mount a career retrospective, of course. Twenty-seven years later.
Arthur Bicknell was a young, promising off-Broadway playwright when, in 1983, his agent sold his unfinished play “Moose Murders” to a Texas oilman who wanted to mount it on Broadway as “something nice” for his wife. In six weeks. The million dollar production, a sum unheard of for a non-musical at the time, made theatrical history in the worst possible way. (Usual quotes.) Bicknell, who had two off-Broadway successes prior to “Moose”, saw his career destroyed. Drunken divas, technical staging nightmares and re-writes that were, to say the least, up to the minute, hacked to death his lifelong love of the theater. Until….
Exactly twenty-five years to the day after the premiere of “Moose Murders”, a troupe of amateur everythings in Rochester, New York mounted a loving, non-kitsch revival of the Moose which they had turned into a post-modern musical that garnered the attention yet again of the New York Times in a front page Arts section article on the nature of failure, the theater, and the Moose.
Playwright Bicknell’s delightful and theater affirming experience with the Rochester group led him to write a new play expressly for this company. And so on Friday, February 18th at the MuCCC theater in Rochester, New York, “What is Art?” will have its world premiere. “Moose Murders” will be reprised for one night on Saturday, February 19th with its original (”non-professional, in fact, barely amateur” according to the New York Times) cast and on Sunday, February 20th, one of Bicknell’s true successes, “My Great Dead Sister” will be performed 30 years to the day of its New York premiere.
“Not unlike the mysterious and benign figure who offered Judah Ben-Hur a gourd full of water on his way to the galley ships,” analogized Bicknell, “John W. Borek has sated my thirst for respect and inspired me to return to my theatrical homeland—overgrown now with weeds and dead leaves, perhaps, but still there, it turns out. The race continues!”