Jaws: The Musical? With Back to the Future on Broadway never say never. Before then we have The Shark is Broken, which might be called Jaws: The Stage Prequel, as much of its production facts are lifted from The Jaws Log, a behind-the-scenes account penned by the film’s cowriter, Carl Gottlieb. But don’t expect to see much of “Bruce,” the fearsome, and extremely unreliable, mechanical shark. Indeed the show could also be called Waiting for Bruce, as the three human stars of the film, which was plagued by cost and weeks-long schedule overruns, sit and stew on the Orca, adrift off Martha’s Vineyard, waiting for something to happen.
Opening on a credible facsimile of the vessel (Duncan Henderson reproduced the movie set and costumes) the show begins with another round of kibitzing by Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) and Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman). Relatively secure in his profession, Scheider, an Oscar nominee for the Oscar-winning French Connection, takes the delays mostly in stride, as “Steven,” the 27-year-old wunderkind director who is heard but not seen from time to time, figures things out on the open water, where most filmmakers fear to tread. But Dreyfuss is as usual a mess, chronically insecure despite having a hit with American Graffiti (“All of a sudden, I’m seeing me… and I’m shaped like Smokey the Bear, and I’ve got this this awful monotonal, nasal voice and I’m the worst, right?”) and wishing he could do Shakespeare instead. After a few minutes they’re joined by costar Robert Shaw, and the conversation turns to the headlines of the day (Nixon, Vietnam). Before long, however, Shaw and Dreyfuss turn on each other, Shaw exasperated by Dreyfuss’ immaturity and mannerisms, and the intimidated Dreyfuss put off by Shaw’s supercilious attitude and drinking.
The veteran English actor (hot off The Sting and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) and playwright (the Tony-nominated The Man in the Glass Booth) is the whole raison d’fish of the play. He’s played by Ian Shaw, one of Shaw’s nine children, and the cowriter of the piece (with Joseph Nixon). Trimmer and more hale at 53 than his dad (who was a grizzled 47 when he made the film, and died at 51) Shaw looks and particularly sounds the part, and drew the most intimate parts of the show from family memories and his father’s accounts. Despite his tough talk and salty demeanor Shaw is none-too-successfully battling the bottle and a host of demons centered around his difficult childhood and career (he’d rather have been a writer-actor than an actor-writer, or better yet a rugby player). His problems with Dreyfuss come to a head when the younger actor (himself nipping at coke and pot) finds one of Shaw’s carefully concealed bottles on the boat and tosses it overboard, but there’s also the matter of the lengthy “Indianapolis” monologue, which Spielberg gives him leeway to rewrite. “By Christ there’s some stinky writing here!” Shaw expostulates. “And it’s five pages long! We’re not doing a bloody play!”
As a Jaws fan so fervent I streamed John Williams’ soundtrack as I trekked to the Golden Theatre I was predisposed to enjoy this “bloody play,” and so I did. The writing is a bit too on the nose in places–just as you might be thinking “where does Robert Shaw end and Quint begin?” someone actually asks it, and there are references to the “sequels and remakes” to come that seem a bit premature as the film threatened to capsize at any moment. But Guy Masterson’s direction keeps the one-act piece (which came in on the tide from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the West End) bobbing along smoothly, buoyed by John Clark’s lights and watery projections from Nina Dunn for Pixellux. Acting as peacemaker (an image at odds with his turbulent behavior during the Jaws 2 shoot) Donnell as Scheider doesn’t have a lot to do, and does it with a Phil Hartman-ish accent, but he does get to strip down to a Speedo in one sunbathing scene. Nepo-Shaw scores in the role he was born to play yet the show is pretty much stolen by Brightman. The actor, who put his own Tony-nominated mark on movie roles played by Jack Black (School of Rock) and Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice the Musical), is an absolute delight playing the neurotic Dreyfuss (“Jews should stay away from water. Nothing good ever happened to any Jew on the water!”). He’s the show’s Great White Thespian, sinking his teeth into every laugh.
“Do you really think people are going to be talking about this in fifty years?” Shaw asks. Jaws, yes. The Shark is Broken, questionable, but this true-life fish story reeled me in more often than not.