The show ran at the St. James Theater from November 1956 to July 1958 for a total of 693 performances, and a very faithful movie version featuring much of the original Broadway cast was released in 1959. City Center Encores! tackled L'il Abner in 1998, but it was not one of the series best efforts and it did not lead to a commercial production. The fact that Abner is so rarely seen is unfortunate; the show is thoroughly delightful, with great music by dePaul and some of the best, wittiest lyrics Mercer ever wrote. (Sample: "Who'd think o' marryin' an octogenarian?")
The good news is that L'il Abner may currently be seen at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, in a new production directed by Scott Schwartz (Bat Boy and tick, tick...BOOM! Off-Broadway, Golda's Balcony on Broadway, Me and My Girl at Goodspeed, etc.) I recently spoke with Schwartz about his concept of the show and why he feels it's so rarely revived.
THEATERMANIA: Scott, what was the genesis of this production?
SCOTT SCHWARTZ: Well, [Goodspeed executive director] Michael Price and I had been talking about doing a show together in this slot because my schedule was open and they wanted me to come back. We bounced a lot of titles around. Li'l Abner was a show that had been recommended to me by a friend. I didn't know it -- frankly, I had never even read the comic strip -- but I submitted the title, and Goodspeed was very excited about it. They sent me a copy of the [original cast] album and the script. I was immediately taken by the strange, unusual world of the show and by the fact that it's very funny, with a lot of political satire and elements of farce. I thought, "This will be an interesting challenge."
TM: Does the show strike you as dated in a negative way?
SS: The big thing that felt dated was that there were a lot of references to contemporary figures of the '50s -- political figures, sports figures, and so on. Some of them are dated because some of those people aren't famous anymore. But the tone of the show is extremely modern; it's a satirical piece with a lot of political humor that's not dated at all, and that's what excited me about it.
TM: The film version of L'il Abner is said to be almost an exact recreation of the Broadway show. Have you seen it?
SS: I didn't want to be overly influenced by the film, so I only watched two parts of it -- the opening number and the Sadie Hawkins Day sequence -- just to get a sense of it.
TM: Did you wind up cutting any of the dated references you mentioned?
SS: I wanted to stay loyal to the original script; I didn't want to bring in a book doctor or anything like that. In our version of the show, the world of Dogpatch -- where L'il Abner is from -- is this sort of timeless place that hasn't changed since 1956, when the show was first done. It's one of those backwoods towns where nothing really changes; it could be 1936, 1956, 1976, or 2006. But the world of Washington, which intrudes on this little town, we've made contemporary. We took the original references and tried to find modern parallels, so the Washington scenes are essentially taking place in 2006. We didn't rewrite the lines, we only changed the specific references and the context.
TM: The show is so satirical and so cartoon-like, I don't imagine there's anything in it that can really be taken as politically incorrect.
SS: I feel the show has a kind of Simpsons and South Park aesthetic, and I've tried to bring that energy to it. It's the "equal opportunity offender" concept; if you offend everyone, it's okay. The audiences seem to be enjoying it. A lot of people have asked me, "Is the show sexist?" My response is that I think the women of Dogpatch are stronger, smarter, and more motivated than the men are. If anything, there's a feminist vibe to the show.
TM: That applies to the Abner-Daisy Mae relationship, doesn't it?
SS: Yes. She's much stronger than he is -- and Christeena Michelle Riggs, who's playing Daisy Mae, is quite brilliant in the way she manages to show this love she has for Abner, this swooning affection, while still remaining a strong, smart woman. It's tricky.
TM: What do you think is the main reason why the show isn't produced more frequently?
SS: First of all, it's very large. We have a cast of 24 onstage and three swings; that's big for any professional theater where you're paying your actors. And there are a lot of scene changes, so the physical production is challenging. Also, the show is written in a strange mixture of styles. It's based on a comic book but it's quite sexy; it's very edgy and satirical. Maybe one reason it's not done more often is that, for some reason, people have come to think of it as a kid's show. I can't tell you how many people have told me, "Oh, I did L'il Abner when I was in camp!" or "I did it when I was in high school!" That's weird to me, because I think the show is very grown-up.
TM: The guy you have playing Abner is a total newcomer, right?
SS: Yes, Glenn Lawrence. He's 6'5" and incredibly handsome. I'm not sure exactly how old he is, but he has to be in his early 20s. He's like Abner in that he's this incredibly nice, sweet boy. He actually has the naïveté of the character; it's not put on. Abner is another tricky role, and if it's played by someone who's knowing and older, it could feel a little bit arch. I've worked with the cast to make sure that we're not winking at the audience. In that way, oddly enough, this show reminds me of Bat Boy; it's the same kind of aesthetic. I always feel that if we make fun of the story and the characters, why should the audience care? The show has to be taken seriously -- and we've discovered that the more seriously we take it, the funnier it is.