The Funniest Murder in New York City
Behind the Curtain at Shear Madness
There are not many plays where the ending is a surprise for both cast and audience. Shear Madness, however, is not every play. This iconic comedy whodunit combines equal parts mystery, mayhem, and hilarity. Following the murder of the lady living above the eponymous Shear Madness hair salon, everyone onstage becomes a possible murderer, and the audience is tasked with solving the crime. Audiences spot clues, interrogate suspects, and ultimately vote for the culprit.
"Shear Madness is easy and simple, a combination of the two most popular forms of entertainment--comedy and whodunit," says co-creator, director, and original producer Bruce Jordan. "We really have the best situation--the storyline of the murder mystery with pockets of improv. There's a story to follow, and we really try to keep it in the middle--we need to be funny while still making people care about the story."
When Shear Madness debuted in Boston in 1980, the madcap murder mystery was truly the first of its kind. "When we first started, there wasn't anything like this," Jordan recalls. "When the lights first came up in Boston during that first performance, people thought that there had been a power outage. They really had no conception of this type of interactive theater."
The show took off, and during the decades since its premiere, Shear Madness has been translated into twenty-three languages and has been played in dozens of cities in the United States and around the world, including Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Chicago, Seoul, Athens, and Krakow. "Shear Madness is evergreen," Jordan says. "It doesn't date because we're constantly updating it. Cell phones, for example, weren't around when we first started, but they have to be in the show now. Every company that does the show adds the things that are current and relevant."
The competing demands of story and improvisation present a unique challenge for the talented ensemble. "The trick is rehearsing enough so that everybody knows what their responsibility is," Jordan says. "It's not like standard theater, where there's a set storyline--the actors need to know how to react, where to be, and what to do if one thing or another happens."
Of course, there is one ending that the cast is not especially concerned about. "The different possible endings are fairly evenly dispersed among the different characters, with one glaring exception," Jordan says. "Tony, the hairdresser, is almost never voted as the murderer, and that's because he's the funniest. If you're funny and loveable, you won't get convicted."
It is perhaps surprising that the longest-running play in America only had its off-Broadway debut in November 2015. "We were actually really reticent about opening the show in New York City, and we thought about it for a long time," Jordan explains. "We were worried that the show might not be sophisticated enough for New York theater-goers, but the reception has been wonderful. There's a great universality to the show. People tend to respond to it--they have a certain curiosity that the show really taps into. People want to participate and want to be heard."
For Jordan, the exchange between the audience and the ensemble is what gives Shear Madness its real magic. "When the audience gets involved, that's the heart of the show," he says. "One of our catch-phrases is to let the audience win--let them be the cleverest, the funniest, the smartest. The audience supplies an enormous amount of the fun, and it's that input that really makes a difference and dictates how a performance turns out. The greatest thing is when someone shouts out in disbelief or in a nice way calls one of the characters a liar."
- By Ettractions Digital Content Editor EMILY JARMOLOWICZ
- Photographs by Carol Rosegg
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