January 17, 2019

This weekend, ‘Enter Laughing’ at the Wallis

The superlatives fall liberally and un-begrudgingly out of Carl Reiner’s mouth in praise of a musical he claims reaches new comic heights. Given Reiner’s own pedigree in making people laugh across the spectrum of TV (“Your Show of Shows,”  “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) books and movies (“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “Where’s Poppa?”), few would argue the man knows funny.

The musical he’s praising, “Enter Laughing – The Musical,” is based on his own autobiographical novel, yet Reiner refuses to take credit for even a single laugh. “It had nothing to do with me,” he said.

“Stan Daniels wrote what I think are the funniest, most clever lyrics ever written for a musical comedy,” he added, “and that includes Mel Brooks, who I think wrote the funniest musical ever.”

A revival of “Enter Laughing” opens Feb. 8 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in Reiner’s hometown of Beverly Hills. The revival of the largely forgotten 1976 musical follows successful productions of “Enter Laughing” in 2008 and 2009 at The York Theatre Company in New York and a 2011 remount at Long Island’s Bay Street Theatre. The New York productions and the production at The Wallis were all directed by “Forever Plaid” creator Stuart Ross, who made it his quest to give the once-neglected musical a new life.

When Reiner saw the York Theatre Company production, he found himself surrounded by people laughing just as uproariously as he was.

“You know how people put their money where their mouth is? Jerry Seinfeld took out an ad in The New York Times the day after he saw it, calling it the funniest show he had ever seen in his life, and that he had never laughed so much,” recalled Reiner. “It’s true. I had the exact same experience.”

Written in 1959, Reiner’s novel chronicles the adventures of young David Kolowitz, an errand boy from Brooklyn who dreams of a life on the stage despite the disapproval of his parents, who want him to become a pharmacist. David falls in with a company of actors, who give him a small part in a play. Long-suffering girlfriends, zany company managers and wary bosses complicate David’s quest.

The story is set during the Great Depression, but Ross and company contend that, in an era when ordinary people are still trying to grab their 15 minutes of fame via “American Idol,” “The Voice” or YouTube clicks, David and his star dreams still resonate.

“That’s a very timeless journey that young people go through: loving their parents, but feeling like ‘I need to leave to pursue something, and yet I don’t want to leave them behind,’ ” said Noah Weisberg, who plays David in the revival at The Wallis. “I happen to be lucky that I have lovely Jewish parents who are very supportive and who are not like my parents in the show.”

Reiner was inspired to write the novel upon discovering an old typewriter in his New Rochelle basement and wondering if the typing skills he had learned while in the Army were still up to snuff. They were, and he banged out a series of short stories. A publisher told him that novels were more profitable, so Reiner expanded one of the stories into a novel, completing “Enter Laughing” in 13 weeks.

The story struck a chord. His fellow “Your Show of Shows” writer Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Zorba”) thought “Enter Laughing” would make a great play, and Reiner essentially dared Stein to write it. The play ran for a year on Broadway in 1963, earning Alan Arkin a Tony Award. Reiner and Stein co-wrote the screenplay for the 1967 film, which Reiner directed.

Less successful was the musical, originally titled “So Long, 174th Street,” which closed after 16 performances on Broadway in 1976. The production, featuring then-45-year-old Robert Morse as David, was “an abomination,” Reiner said.

“I walked out on it, and I never looked back,” Reiner said, “until Stuart Ross got his hands on it and made it what it is today.”

Ross worked with Stein during a “Musicals at Mufti” festival, which produced stage readings of several of Stein’s musicals. In revising the musical “Enter Laughing,” Ross and Stein went back to the play and rediscovered the work’s heart.

“We did a reading, and I got to work with Joe Stein and the cast for four days,” Ross said. “We started to pull away the stuff that didn’t work and replace it with stuff from the play and things that worked. I said, ‘I don’t want to stop doing this.’ ”

Whatever else went sideways with “Enter Laughing — The Musical” the first time around, Ross and Reiner both insist it was not the score. “Enter Laughing” was the only Broadway credit for another funnyman: Daniels, the eight-time Emmy-winning writer and producer of “Taxi” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Ross and Reiner both point to a ditty titled “The Butler’s Song,” in which a butler revels in David’s salty daydream. To be more specific would give away the fun, but the very thought of the song draws another superlative from Reiner, who calls it “one of the great comedy songs ever written.”

Daniels died in 2007, and Stein in 2010. The widows of both men have given input into the revision of “Enter Laughing — The Musical,” although Ross said he has to practically extract any criticism by force.

“They’re very close to the show, but they trust me, and I trust them,” Ross said. “Sometimes it’s better to lose a laugh and get the heart.”

Following the success of the New York runs, Ross became determined to bring the show to Reiner’s backyard. A reading at The Wallis (featuring Weisberg) had the audience rolling, and theater administrators jumped at the opportunity to stage a full production in its intimate Lovelace Studio Theatre. Joining Weisberg are Robert Picardo, Anne DeSalvo, Amy Pietz, Joel Brooks, Sara Niemietz, Janet Dacal, Jeff Skowron and Gerry McIntyre.

Following the Wallis run, Ross hopes the production can find new life elsewhere. Maybe even a journey back to Broadway?

“Why not?” Reiner said. “What better on Broadway than the story of somebody who wants to be an actor and becomes one? That actor actually exists. It’s me!”

“Enter Laughing – The Musical” runs Feb. 8-March 1 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. 

For ticket information: https://tickets.thewallis.org/events