Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were a dynamic theatrical team. Known primarily as comedy writers, they created a number of hit plays and musicals, produced others, and, as play doctors, helped rewrite innumerable shows when they were on the road to Broadway. They also set an important high water mark in Broadway theatre history.
Anything Goes, Really!
One principle of comedy is that humor is often born from a spontaneous observation, and it is as if the career of the writing team of Lindsay and Crouse was guided by that basic comic principle.
In the 1930s, both men were actors in New York. They also started writing at that time, travelling in the same circles. In 1934, they got their big break. The show was the musical comedy Anything Goes with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. It was the first time that Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse worked as a writing team. The partnership would last more than thirty years.
Anything Goes already had a deliciously funny book by the famous and successful writing team of P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. But there was a problem with the book. The premise centered on a sinking ocean liner in the Atlantic, off the East Coast of the U.S. Prior to the show going into production, but after the book was written, an ocean liner did sink off the East Coast and there were numerous fatalities. All of a sudden, a comic premise had tragic undertones.
But Wodehouse and Bolton could not be called upon to rewrite the libretto, as they were in London working on another show. Lindsay and Crouse were asked to revise the book, and they did so in a major way. Anything Goes opened at the Alvin Theatre on November 21, 1934. It ran for 420 performances, making it the fourth longest-running musical of the 1930s. Lindsay and Crouse were a hit!
Life with Father
Bigger things awaited the writing team. In 1939, they adapted Clarence Day’s comic novel Life with Father, and they created one of Broadway’s first mega hits. Life with Father, in which Crouse starred with his actress/wife Dorothy Stickney, became the second show to break the 3,000 performance mark on Broadway, and it set the new record for long runs, offering audiences 3,224 performances. That record would stand for 25 years, until Fiddler on the Roof set the new mark at 3,242 shows.
Life with Father, which went on to be a hit movie starring William Powell and Irene Dunne, is still ranked 17th amongst all long run Broadway shows, and it still hold the record as the longest running play in Broadway history.
In the early 1940s, Lindsay and Crouse were producing a new play by Joseph Kesselring. Entitled Arsenic and Old Lace, the original script was a drama focusing on real life events that occurred in a house in Windsor, Connecticut. Kesselring based his drama on Amy Archer-Gilligan, an elderly woman who took in boarders and poisoned them for their pensions.
But Lindsay and Crouse saw great comic potential in the script and convinced Kesselring to make it a comedy. The comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace, ran for 1,444 performances. It also became a major hit comic film, directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. Of the dozen plays written by Kesselring, it was his most successful.
In 1946, the writing team’s comedy, State of the Union, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. They also created the book for the Tony-winning musical The Sound of Music, which opened in 1959. The Sound of Music would mark the final major collaboration between Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics), and it would run for 1,443 performances. Of course, it also became a major motion picture, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plumber.
A Legacy of Comedy
As writers, producers, and play doctors, the team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were two of the best. Their attention to detail, ability to discover and create comedy in the moment, and finesse in weaving intricate plots that utilized quirky characters delighted audiences and set box office records. Lindsay and Crouse: they were two of a kind.