Theater comes in all shapes and sizes, but now and then a play comes along in a category all its own.
“Shear Madness” is one of those shows. The strictly-for-laughs play has a remarkable history in Kansas City and across the country — and in Europe and South America — and ranks as one of the most commercially successful theater properties of all time. The still-running Boston production opened in 1980. The Kennedy Center production is about to mark its 27th anniversary.
This unassuming little show — best described as a murder-mystery audience-participation comedy — has achieved that distinction without playing Broadway (or anywhere in New York City) and without ever being adapted for TV or turned into a movie.
In 1978, when director Bruce Jordan and his producing partner, Marilyn Abrams, first staged it at a theater in upstate New York, they thought it was just a way for them remain employed through the summer.
They were pleasantly surprised when it became a sleeper hit.
“In 1978 there weren’t all these atmospheric productions like ‘Tony and Tina’s Wedding,’” Jordan said. “So it was a big surprise when the audience was enlisted as armchair detectives.”
Jordan is in town to stage the second production for the New Theatre in 10 years. In 2004, Jordan told us that the show had grossed an estimated $200 million.
Now the worldwide gross has inched up to about $215 million ($175 million in North America, $45 million in foreign markets). Jordan estimates he or his two assistants have directed 80 productions in the U.S. and Canada.
For the New Theatre production, he has a guest star — Richard Karn, best known for TV’s “Home Improvements” — and several actors who have performed or understudied the show before. Jim Korinke, who appeared in the first local production in 1988 and has been in every subsequent local version, is on hand.
So is Dodie Brown, another “Shear Madness” veteran. Craig Benton, who understudied the show 10 years ago, is in the cast. Also in the mix are camp theater visionary Ron Megee and New Theatre veteran Cathy Barnett.
The show is set in a beauty shop and is always set in the city where the production takes place, which allows for local and topical references to be worked into the script.
A murder takes place in Act 1, and in the second act a police detective peppers the audience with questions about who the killer might be. Eventually the audience votes to decide who the guilty party is.
“It is absolutely, 100 percent determined by their vote,” said Korinke, who has played the detective in every local production and in seven cities total.
“I say, ‘Who do you think is the chief suspect in the murder of Miss Belcher? Raise your hands.’ We count every hand in the house and whoever gets the most votes is guilty.”
When you sit down to have a conservation with Jordan, you just don’t get a multimillionaire vibe, despite the show’s phenomenal success.
What you get is an unpretentious optimist, the kind of guy who can bounce into a room and lift people’s spirits just by being there. When you find out he was once a high school teacher, there’s no surprise.
“He loves life,” Korinke said. “He loves people. He loves traveling around the world. I don’t believe in pride. But I am so proud of him and Marilyn.”
Korinke said “Shear Madness” stimulates the imagination in a way few other plays do and that was part of the plan all along. It is derived from a German-language play called “Scherenschnitt” written by a psychologist. There was nothing funny about it.
“It wasn’t even a play,” Jordan said. “It was a Swiss psychologist who used this outline (to demonstrate) how people perceived events around a crime and how different those perceptions were. So when it started out it was very, very serious. It was very dramatic.”
Jordan and Abrams ended up buying the worldwide rights to “Scherenschnitt,” without which there may never have been a “Shear Madness.”
Korinke’s association with the show began in 1988, when it was first produced by the now-defunct American Heartland Theatre. The run was extended more than once, Korinke recalled.
“It played up there for five months, I think,” he said. “The place was packed every single night. Every matinee, everything. It was a phenomenon. Finally they came to us and said, ‘Look, we have shut this down.’”
The reason, of course, was that the Heartland sold subscriptions and the season schedule was altered by extending “Shear Madness.”
But then Jim Assad, the founder of the Heartland, had a bright idea. He moved the show to the space once occupied by the Signboard Bar off the lobby of the Westin Crown Center Hotel. Korinke said it seated about 175. The show ran there five years.
Five years is an amazing run in Kansas City. Not so much for the show itself. The Tel Aviv production, which opened in the early 1990s, is the longest-running show in that city’s history, according to Jordan.
“It ran for 13 years in Athens,” Jordan said. “It’s been in Paris four years. It’s touring in Poland. It’s in Zagreb, Barcelona, Moscow.”
The list goes on: Seoul, South Korea. Argentina. Iceland. South Africa. Portugal.
One town it’s never played is New York, the professional theater mecca of the Western Hemisphere. Jordan said that’s by choice.
“My fear is that bringing a show into New York that has been so successful around the country, I don’t think the New York critics are going to be kind to it,” he said.
“They put a little resistance up to things coming from out of town. If it played the right theater on Long Island or the right theater in Jersey or Westchester (County), I think it could run a very long time.”
And don’t look for a TV version anytime soon, if ever.
“Marilyn and I are both control freaks,” he said. “I know theater. And one of the things about this piece is its theatricality. It’s live. That’s what makes it kind of magical. I don’t know that could achieve that on film.
“A lot of this play is slapstick and burlesque and there’s a certain size to things. I just think the fun of it is seeing it with an audience.”
Korinke offered his assessment of the show’s longevity.
“You and I and Bruce know it’s not a Shakespeare comedy,” he said. “It’s fluff. But it’s so precise and well-done that it makes the audience the star.… If the character says, ‘I really need your help,’ to the audience, and you make them believe that, you can really pull them in and be a part of solving this.”