A playwright's work is never finished -- at least not for Garry Marshall.
Marshall, 74, began working on "Everybody Say 'Cheese!' " some 43 years ago. Four decades later, he's still futzing with it.
Just last week, the creator of "Happy Days," co-creator of "Laverne & Shirley" and director of the hit films "Pretty Woman" and "Beaches" added new dialogue for the second preview performance of the comedy, which is having its West Coast premiere at his Falcon Theatre in Burbank. And there will probably be more changes before the play opens Friday.
The reason for the changes, he explains, "is sometimes you've got to see it [onstage]. I think the thing that is most helpful for me in writing is not to lock in" to a line.
Getting a play on its legs is a challenge, says Marshall, but it's one he welcomes. "My training was not staring into space and coming up with a genius joke," he says in his trademark rat-a-tat-tat declamatory style. "My training was 'We need a joke here, and it has to be about . . . I'm good at spot jokes. But it's still a challenge."
At the time he started writing the play, he had just penned more than 30 freelance scripts for such sitcoms as "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Joey Bishop Show." He was burned out. "My hands were shaky; I wrote too much. I was getting a headache," he says. "So I packed up [the family] and moved to Palm Springs. I was there eight months."
He would have stayed, but he sold his first sitcom: the 1966-67 NBC series "Hey, Landlord." So he returned to L.A. and put away the play while his TV career took off.
But he never forgot it, in part because "Cheese" is very personal: It's a tribute to his late mother, Marjorie, who operated a tap dance school in the basement of their apartment. "People come to me and say, 'We went to your mother's dance school,' " says Marshall, who years later donated funds to his alma mater, Northwestern University, for the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center.
The comedy, set in 1965, revolves around Leo (Joe Regalbuto) and Harriet Keenan (DeeDee Rescher), a couple married for 30 years and living in a lower-class Bronx apartment. Now that their two daughters have left the nest, Harriet wants something more in her life. Leo, who works as a truck dispatcher for the New York Daily News, just wants to die before something happens to the couple. Unable to communicate with his wife, Leo makes shelves for their dingy apartment whenever he gets upset. Harriet decides she wants a divorce and discovers the quickest way is to catch her spouse committing adultery.
Marshall admits he drew characterizations from the fights he saw between his parents -- his father, Anthony, was an industrial film director and producer. "I think, in a way, in those days the attitude was 'You're unhappy. So what? Shut up.' I remember there was a period in my life and my sisters' too where we said they should get a divorce already, these people. It was in the late-'50s and early '60s. We were hoping, but they didn't."
But didn't his parents love each other?
Yes," he says. "People seem to love each other when they are sick and dying. My mother had Alzheimer's and my father stayed with her. When she went, he was devastated. He was all alone."
Unlike his play's heroine, Marshall's mother was afraid to make a move and change her life. "She could have been a dancer on Broadway," he says. "She could have choreographed on Broadway. She was loved by Jackie Gleason and the June Taylor Dancers. She could have done a lot of things in her life, but she was just too afraid. So my character is not too afraid."
There's a lot of his father in Leo -- like the penchant for building shelves.
"I was in a five-floor walk-up, and he came and built me shelves," Marshall recalls. "Shelves were his thing. He could have been a good carpenter, but he wanted to be white collar."
Originally titled "Shelves," the play was first produced more than 30 years ago at the Pheasant Run Playhouse outside Chicago. Marion Ross, Mrs. Cunningham in "Happy Days," starred as Harriet.
"It was a bad experience," Marshall recalls. "Everything went wrong. It was dinner theater, and there was rattling of glasses and stuff."
Though the audience responded well, "Shelves" was too jokey, Marshall admits. "That was the big problem. After the play closed, the director, who was this real nice guy, said, 'We are going to take it someplace.' I called him back, and they said he was murdered! After that, I said this is not working. It is not supposed to be."
So he shelved "Shelves." But he never forgot the play.
Over the years, though, he noticed women rising to power in government, such as Geraldine Ferraro as the first female vice presidential candidate in 1984 and "then [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi being the head of everything," says Marshall. The clincher was when Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. "I said, 'Maybe it's time to try this again.' "
"I wanted to direct it but had too much going on," he says. So veteran New York director Steve Zuckerman came on board.
The play runs through April 11, and Marshall hopes "Cheese" has legs. "We got people coming to see it from Miami and New York," he says. "That's where it will work well."