When "The Real Live Brady Bunch" has its official L.A. opening tonight at the Westwood Playhouse, several of the original cast members from the 1969-74 run of TV's "The Brady Bunch" are expected to be on hand to witness the theatrical re-creation of their roles. It has the whiff of bizarre history: This apparently is the first time ever that a popular television series has evolved from the sound stage to the legitimate stage.
Despite sharing in this strange honor, the original principals undoubtedly are already prepared not to necessarily be bowled over by the reverence of the translation.
"I just hope they're not sitting right in front," says Kathryn Kelly, who does a hilariously uptight impression of Jan Brady, the curly-headed middle daughter, slightly nervous at the thought of parodying her TV counterpart to her face.
"What keeps going through my head," adds Madeline Long, who plays pigtailed Cindy, thinking of facing the actress who originated her role, "is that she'll be sitting there saying, 'I wasn't that fat! The girl's a pig!' "
Having little Cindy played by a drooling, blank-faced, slightly pudgy and Lolita-esque adult is only one of the production's subversions. But updating the benign Brady family for the neurotic '90s is not one of them. "The Real Live Brady Bunch" is not only done as an affectionate period piece, with vintage early '70s clothes providing half the kitschy laughs, but actually adheres to the show's original scripts--changed on a weekly basis--with Marcia Brady's angel-faced exclamations of "far out" and Mom and Dad Brady's earnest climactic moral lessons providing their own self-satire. With the comedy coming more from context than content, this may be the ultimate product of the Age of Irony.
"It is more like performance art than theater," says Jill Soloway--who created the show at Chicago's anarchic Annoyance Theatre with her sister, Faith, 27--defending the show against some of the uncomprehending notices it got from the New York theater critics. "Nobody's trying to make it look as though it's an actual story going on. The audience experiences it very differently than they experience a play. A very small percentage of their experience is what the writing intended them to feel.
"Some people experience it as pure nostalgia and that's it. They come in and go, 'I remember that episode! She looks just like Marcia! Oh my God, I remember this!' And other people think about the sort of more heady ways of thinking about reappropriation and all that. It's sort of an Andy Warhol blown-up soup-can thing, taking something that you know in one context and putting it in another context and changing the meaning of it. I think a lot of people of our age group are so image-shaped that reappropriation is like the most genuine form of art to them."
Although this is the first time the production has played a legitimate theater instead of a cabaret setting, the Soloways have tried to de-formalize the Westwood Playhouse by taking out the first few rows of seating and installing patchwork carpeting and couches for a "living room" section, to which ticket-holders are encouraged to bring cushions, chips and beverages. Each night, the show opens with "The Real Live Game Show," a TV-derivative audience-participation gambit that warms up the Westwood audience for the Bradys, and also reinforces the couch-potato atmosphere.
Most of the reviews from New York critics last fall were dismissive, which the Soloway sisters attribute to non-baby boomers "not getting" the "Brady" phenomenon. The Soloways actually discouraged theater reviewers from attending the show's first run in Chicago.
"They kind of saw it as the downfall of theater," says Faith Soloway, laughing off the doomsaying it inspired.
Adds sister Jill: "A lot of critics said things like, 'Oh great, soon they're gonna be doing "Gilligan's Island" next door.' But that's sort of the whole point--that it shouldn't be on stage. To take it off the TV and make it this big sort of explodes it from the inside and blows it up in this way that makes everything bad or unreal about it stand out. Giving it the life and breadth of theater is really absurdism."
If there's a level of ironic condescension about the show, there's also a definite affection about what it represented to the target audience with its idealized--if not escapist--view of the let's-talk-it-out American family.
"It was our 'Ozzie and Harriet,' " says Jane Lynch--a.k.a. Carol Brady--who at 31 is one of the older cast members and a "first-rounder" who watched the show religiously in its initial Friday-night run.
Notes Jill Soloway, "I think it was really surreal, born out of (series creator) Sherwood Schwartz's vision of family. He says that his family really was just like this. . . . It seems so candy-coated that I don't know how anybody would have created 'The Brady Bunch' saying, 'This is about real-life family problems. . . .' "
Schwartz--who saw the show in Chicago when it was a piece of illegal guerrilla theater and granted the Soloways the rights needed to continue producing it--is resolute in maintaining that the show was reality-based.
"Some people said it was too good, it was too namby-pamby and too sweet," said Schwartz, in much demand these days due to rampant Brady-mania, in a phone interview. "But many of the stories, I must tell you, came right out of our own home life, though the bringing together of the two separate families was an invention of mine.
"There are so many damn dysfunctional families in America that I think it's a longing for a more innocent, pleasant life, for that family that was very functional--maybe too functional in some people's opinion. But it was a family where a mother and father sat down and talked to their kids, which apparently doesn't happen all that much.
"I'll tell you this, that when that show was on in prime time, we got at least a hundred letters from girls all over the country of 10, 11 and 12 who said they were leaving home and coming to Hollywood to join the Brady Bunch--as if you could just pick up and come join this family. And it reached such proportions that I had a form letter written to the parents of these children, warning them. . . ."
Paramount Pictures' legal rights department was about to write a letter of its own--of the cease and desist sort--to the Soloway sisters when the notoriety of the original Chicago "Real Live Bradys" finally reached L.A. But Schwartz, who shares legal veto power over any Brady-related phenomena with Paramount, told the studio to wait until he could catch the show during a visit to Illinois--whereupon, say cast members, the audience there "treated him like a rock star, chanting Sher-wood! Sher-wood! "
"Paramount was concerned about the same thing I was--was it a negative show that was making mincemeat of 'The Brady Bunch'? Much to my surprise, it was not derogatory," said Schwartz. "It was poking fun at the early '70s--the kind of costuming, the colors people wore, the hairstyles--and the dialogue was direct from the show, so it was like a gentle spoof of the life and times of the Bradys. I didn't quite understand the show's popularity until that day."
He counts himself a fan. "I think it's very well-cast--particularly the girls, I think, are right on."
Still, despite its faithfulness, there are some extra-episodic twists. A coda to each week's episode has show-stealer Mari Weiss, as Alice the maid, singing a revised version of the Jefferson Airplane's "Go Ask Alice" while cast members mime sordid no-no's to which no one would ever imagine the Bradys falling prey.
If you don't blink, there's even a climactic nod to Barry (Greg) Williams' new tell-all book, "Growing Up Brady: I Was a Teenage Greg," in which he confesses to having gone out on a date with screen mom Florence Henderson. (Interestingly, Williams is the one original cast member who's flat-out refused to see the new show, the producers say.)
"With adult actors as kids," says Weiss, "you get this automatic sexual innuendo that happens. Nobody perpetuates it, it's just the nature of having adults playing it. And from an adult perspective you start asking, 'Wait a second, Marcia and Greg aren't really brother and sister, and they're going through adolescence. . . .' "