5 Questions: Steven Carl McCasland Gooses “Moose Murders”

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Moose Murders. The title connotes farce, silliness, implausibility. Is a moose on the loose, murdering a man or a moose? Or is a moose murdering many moose — a serial moose killer? Or is it a reference to a fictional biography of Broadway songsmith Moose Charlap, who wrote Peter Pan? Yeah, him. The one whose stuff you first heard on The Lawrence Elk Show.

Orlando Iriarte Photo by Samantha Mercado Tudda
Orlando Iriarte
Photo by Samantha Mercado Tudda

Moose Murders was, is and may always be known as the greatest, grandest, gravest, most gloriously gruesome and grotesque flop-play in Broadway history — or maybe since that landmark day, some 80,000 years ago, when the very first caveman gesticulated the word “ug” to describe all those bloody buffalo burgers sizzling out in the back. For chroniclers of gigantic Great White Way wipe-outs, Moose Murders is a totem, an icon, a shrine. It’s the Per Se of poor productions, the Daniel of dimwitted dramatic dingle-hoffers, the Bouley of big, bad bombs. It’s blech.

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Yet, something extraordinary happened to Moose Murders — and more, to its playwright, Arthur Bicknell — following the play’s single Broadway performance on Feb. 22, 1983. For 30 years, even as anyone who was anyone in the business proclaimed that the play stood atop the slag heap of the un-stageworthy, stage lovers and professionals never quite forgot about it. What, they asked, could be so bad? Could, in fact, some plays be that bad? In time, fans cropped up. Diehards emerged. Available for purchase, the script landed in the hands of directors and soon there were readings and staged readings. Articles were written. Revivals were planned. The Holy Cult of the Moose was born. One shining day, they prayed, the Moose would loose once more.

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But why the Moose? After all, the 1982-83 Broadway season recorded no fewer than three one-night flops, any one of which could just as easily have earned equal immortality. Why not Richard Dreyfuss in Larry Atlas’ Total Abandon? Why not Dance a Little Closer, the musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Charles Strouse based on William Saroyan’s Idiot’s Delight? Why not Andy Kaufman and Deborah Harry in Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap?

But no: there is something about the Moose. Maybe it was the fact that the play originally starred the great film and TV actress Eve Arden, who left the show during previews faster than you could say “We Missed Miss Brooks.” Or maybe Bicknell, who continued to enjoy a successful career in the publishing industry, simply deserved another chance. That the play isn’t so bad. That he and his farcical fun-fest were ill-served by the producers and the production that vaunted Moose Murders to a one-liner put-down 30 years ago.

Moose Murders is, if you read it, funny. No, it’s not a swim in the gene pool of monumental moose-dom. It’s not Per Se, Daniel or Bouley. It’s a diner. Free refills, please.

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Certainly one reason Moose Murders became legendary is because — as foretold in the prophecy offered by then-theatre critic Frank Rich in his 1983 New York Times review — everyone, in and out of the theatre, finally wanted to be one of those people:

From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen Moose Murders, and those who have not.

Enter a young director, Steven Carl McCasland, who read Bicknell’s play and quickly felt juiced and goosed by the much-missed Moose. He and Bicknell become friends and, in time, McCasland’s company, The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, which in the past has now and then fetishized flopdom, moved toward a production. In time, Bicknell gave him the rights to remount the Moose, and preparations began for the play’s first-ever New York City revival. You could almost hear thunder from the cryogenic vaults: “GENTLEMEN, DEFROST THE MOOSE!”

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So a revival of the Moose, featuring Bicknell’s “shamelessly revised” script, is running through Feb. 10 at the Connelly Theatre (220 E. 4th St.). It is easily one of the most sought-after tickets in town. Bicknell’s new book about his Broadway adventure, Moose Murdered: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb, is also purchasable on Amazon.com. It is a tale of reclamation and redemption. We should all be so lucky.

Moose Lodged: Steven Carl McCasland and Arthur Bicknell
Moose Lodged:
Steven Carl McCasland and Arthur Bicknell
Photo by John Capo Public Relations

And now, here are 5 questions that Steven Carl McCasland has never been asked — and much more:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Did you go into the theatre to ask escape reality?”

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“So, you’re really a waiter, right?”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Have you ever wet your pants on stage?” Yes, I was really asked this. My answer was, “Thank goodness, no.”

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4) Why are moose funny?
Their name is funny enough. Just say it out loud: “Moose.” Now add some O’s. “Moooooooooose.” But also they’re enormous and dopey. Also, there’s this adorable video of a moose cuddling with a human which pretty much says it all:

5) Since you’ve been living with this play as a director, actor, artistic director and a friend of playwright Arthur Bicknell, what do you wish you could know about the original production of Moose Murders that you can never know?
It’s not so much about what I’ll never know. Arthur’s upcoming memoir about the experience told me all I needed to know. What it really is about is actually going back and SEEING it. But not with Holland Taylor. No, of course not, that would be silly. I’d want to see Eve Arden. Eve Arden forgetting a line. Eve Arden kissing a paraplegic mummy. Eve Arden being humped by her son. Eve Arden being chased by a moose. And of course, I’d have paid good money to see oil man John Roach’s only venture into directing.

6) In working with Mr. Bicknell, what’s the most insightful thing about the play that he has shared with you to date-that you hadn’t already thought of?
As silly as it may sound, and I realize it sounds terribly silly, I would be lost if Arthur hadn’t actually plotted out for me who killed who and why and when. After getting my hands on the Samuel French script, I realized it was a confusing disaster. Arthur confirmed he hadn’t done much editing before it went to print, and so wanted to make sure the plot was clear. (It wasn’t.) That’s how he came to revise the entire script in the first place. A silly question of “who killed who” sparked in Arthur an interest to go back to the original play he had written and NOT the play John Roach and Eve Arden tore apart in rehearsals. Suddenly, all of it made so much sense. And it was funny, too! There are a couple of other revelations Arthur shared with me, but if I told you, I’d be spoiling your fun when you see the show. The play is so much more a murder mystery now than it was before. And it definitely keeps you guessing! It will be fun for people who think they already know the play’s secrets, especially now that Arthur has really fine-tuned the plot twists.

7) You are known for your love of flops. If you had to outline a list of criteria for what defines a flop-how many performances, critical reception, box-office-which would be most important to you and why?
Some people think it’s just about not making back the initial investment. But for us, it’s a play or musical that had less than 70 performances in its original open-ended run. Sometimes the disastrous reviews come into play, but not always. In fact, we try to pick our “flops” by selecting ones that have redeeming qualities. In A Doll’s Life, it was Larry Grossman’s exhilarating score. In Moose Murders, it’s Arthur’s love of wordplay and hysterically funny characters. For our upcoming revival of Rags, it’s all about Charles Strouse’s masterpiece of a score and the timeliness of the story.

Anna Kirkland, Ali Bernstein, Dennis DelBene and Cory Boughton Photo by Samantha Mercado Tudda
Anna Kirkland, Ali Bernstein, Dennis DelBene and Cory Boughton
Photo by Samantha Mercado Tudda

8) What was the first moment that you began to see the good, the value, in Mr. Bicknell’s play and did you ever have a moment of hesitation before contacting him about it?
From the moment I started reading it, I knew that it was a lot better than Frank Rich had let on. At first, I’d picked it up just for a laugh, but realized my laughter wasn’t at the play but with the play. It is genuinely funny. Somewhere in that messy, pressure-filled Broadway debut, there was a ridiculously funny farce just waiting to get out.

9) Were the critics wrong about Moose Murders in 1983? If so (or if not), why?
A lot of what went wrong in 1983 was caused by an incompetent creative team. Director John Roach was rich with oil money and had no experience in theatre, but his wife Lillie wanted to be a part of Broadway. The play, which he produced, was a present for Lillie, who went on to play Lauraine. (Funnily enough, Lauraine is the first to die.) But no. The critics weren’t wrong. A disastrous production of a confusing play could only lead to bad reviews. And the play was confusing. It had been so heavily rewritten at Roach and Arden’s request that even Arthur lost sight of it. On top of all of this is the fact that the Moose was never right for Broadway. Off-Broadway? Sure. Regional? Yes. But Broadway… Those kind of stakes were just too high, and the pressure was just too much. At some point the play should’ve been allowed to just be a funny play and nothing more.

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10) Neil Simon gives you five minutes of undivided attention at a Moose Murders rehearsal. What would you ask him?
Why Neil Simon? Couldn’t it be Eve Arden? Well, I suppose I’d ask him what I ask everyone after they’ve read it: “In one word, what is this play about?” I think Neil might get it right and say my favorite word: “Laughter.”