Though Harvey was written over sixty years ago, it speaks to us just as strongly now as it did then. Since it premiered, two Broadway productions, a classic film, and three television productions have guaranteed Harvey’s place in the theatrical canon and collective consciousness.
Harvey first opened on Broadway at the 48th Street Theatre in 1944 to great commercial and artistic success. Directed by Antoinette Perry (of Tony Award fame), the original production starred Frank Fay as Elwood and Josephine Hull as Veta, and ran for over four years. Mary Chase won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A successful production followed on London’s West End at the Price of Wales Theatre in 1949.
In 1950, James Stewart starred in the film version of Harvey, forever preserving the play and bringing it to a wider audience. Josephine Hull reprised the role she made famous on Broadway. This version expanded the play into the “real” world, adding scenes on the street and at Charley’s Place. 1958 saw a live television broadcast starring Art Carney, with Elizabeth Montgomery as Miss Kelly and Larry Blyden as Dr. Sanderson. Being a live telecast, it returned to the play’s original structure and streamlined it for length.
James Stewart returned to the role of Elwood in a 1970 Broadway revival with Helen Hayes as Veta; she won a Tony Award, and he a Drama Desk. Stewart reprised his role yet again in 1972 along with Hayes in a television movie, this time with Madeline Kahn as Miss Kelly. Another television movie was produced in 1996 starring Harry Anderson as Elwood, Swoosie Kurtz as Veta, Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Chumley, and Jessica Hecht as Miss Kelly. And now in 2012, Ms. Hecht returns to this play in the role of Veta, alongside Jim Parsons as Elwood and the rest of this fantastic cast.
What is it about this play that has inspired so many stage and film productions over the years? And what inspires so many incredible actors work on it, often multiple times?
The answer lies in the very substance of the play. People come to the theatre (as well as see films) for both escapist entertainment and heartwarming messages; Harvey has both. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, so that is a sure way to keep it around in the hearts of people, the repertory of theatres, and the minds of producers. It offers many fantastic roles for actors: vehicles for beautiful acting and great comic situations.
But most importantly, it is a beautiful and charming comedy, celebrating timeless ideas of friendships, beliefs, and morals. Exploring what it means to be a friend, how people live their lives, and how we interact are some of the most common of human thoughts and desires. Further, the magical element turns this story into a modern-day fairy tale. Believing in what we cannot see or understand, and having that help us to see the good in the world is the basis behind so many philosophies and religions in the world—and that is what Elwood learns from Harvey. An invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit, Harvey represents a belief in good, letting your life happen on its own course, staying true to your beliefs, and ultimately being a happy, kind, and honest person. What could be more human than that?
Harvey plays at Studio 54 through August 5, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Harvey, Upstage