Imagine you’ve sat down in the audience of an amateur British theater company’s murder mystery production, “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” The show starts off well enough but then things start to go, well, wrong. The set may not be entirely secure. There may not be any trained understudies. The actors may not be fully prepared for their cues. While most normal folks would probably just stop the show when a certain amount of chaos ensues, this amateur theater troupe refuses to acknowledge the pandemonium and will stop at nothing to perform their show, no matter what gets destroyed along the way.
The result is a physical comedy romp and two hours of laugh-out-loud fun, says producer Kevin McCollum. And McCollum, who is 1984 graduate of UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and currently a distinguished profession there, knows his comedy. He was also the lead producer on the hilarious Shakespearean musical comedy Something Rotten! and the delightfully goofy The Drowsy Chaperone. “It has a lot of Monty Python, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and the Carol Burnett Show, in terms of its humor,” he says.
The Play That Goes Wrong was created by the London-based troupe Mischief Theatre, formed in 2008 by a group of graduates and students of the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. In 2012, three friends – Play writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – decided that instead of the long-form improv comedy they had been doing, they’d quickly draft something a bit different one night. They wanted to do a send-up of a well-known genre because it’s a lot easier to see what’s going wrong when the audience knows what’s supposed to happen. So an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery seemed just the thing. The result was The Play That Goes Wrong, a show that started off playing a tiny room in the upstairs of a pub, went on to play the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, and eventually became massive West End hit, winning the coveted Olivier Award for best comedy.
Enter McCollum and his U.S. producing partner on the show, renowned TV and film director/producer J.J. Abrams. McCollum and Abrams opted to bring the show to Broadway as an open-ended run – a rare choice for a play without established title recognition in the US – and it became a smash hit, ending up as the longest running play on Broadway.
“I was in London shooting The Force Awakens,” Abrams told Playbill.com in 2017. “I had a free night, and I looked to see what was playing. I thought, ‘That sounds funny.’ I went to the theatre, and I had never laughed that hard. I hadn’t seen an audience laugh that hard. I remember asking the producers afterward, ‘What are your plans?’ They looked at me like I was crazy. Their plan was just that the show not fail.”
Not only has it not failed, it’s become a phenomenon, having played more than a dozen countries worldwide. Word-of-mouth is the fuel for the engine – audience members can’t help but tell everyone they meet about what a fun show it is. “It truly is two hours of sheer hilarity, it’s man against the elements, and it’s unapologetically funny,” says McCollum. “It’s never been so fun to watch something go so wrong.”
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG plays the Aronoff Center November 27 – December 2, 2018 as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati series presented by TriHealth.