You can’t be entirely sure what you are getting when a singing mouse features prominently in a play decidedly written for adults. So when Capital Stage was considering the new musical “The Behavior of Broadus,” the theater thought its subscribers should have a peek at it first.
A staged reading in the spring of the wildly inventive satire went so well that the play was given the always-troublesome holiday production slot this season. Even on a bare stage with performers often holding scripts, there was an ingenious quality to the show and plenty of laughs, especially for a play that’s not at all a feel-good work.
The fully staged production opens this week at Capital Stage with one of its original creators, Albert Dayan, directing the show.
Dayan co-wrote the play as one-fourth of Burglars of Hamm, a Los Angeles-based writing and performing collective that’s been creating original comic works since 1998. He began working with the group regularly as actor in 2001 and became a full partner/writer in 2003. The other ensemble members are Carolyn Almos, Matt Almos and Jon Beauregard.
The 2014 world premiere production of “The Behavior of Broadus” was named best book of an original musical and best lyrics/composition of an original musical at this fall’s Los Angeles theater Ovation Awards. (The songs are credited to Matt Almos, Brendan Milburn and Burglars of Hamm).
In an interview at Capital Stage, Dayan said the creation of “Broadus” was the result of the Burglars’ unique collaboration style.
“We’re essentially a four-headed playwright,” the mirthful Dayan said. “We write original satire. Typically the target of that satire is vanity, which is bottomlessly entertaining.”
Collective writing requires patience, ego-free collaboration and continual revision.
“We usually write about a subject with no organization or outline; we just write to find what entertains us or interests us,” Dayan said.
In this case, the unlikely subject of interest was John Broadus Watson (1878-1958), the American psychologist who established the school of behaviorism through research on animal behavior (the singing mouse), child-rearing (a famous case study called “the Little Albert Experiment”) and advertising (he is credited with creating the “coffee break” for a Maxwell House coffee campaign). Some of Watson’s work was controversial, especially his work with children, and his personal life had contained extramarital drama as well. All in all Watson seemed a ripe subject for something, but just how to make his fascinating life into entertaining theater was a long-term challenge for the Burglars.
“We started working on it in 2003, and we wrote about 150 pages of material that didn’t get in the show, none of it,” Dayan said. “We tried and failed to write it in between every other show we did write for the next decade or so.”
The Burglars created five other plays during that period but kept coming back to the “Broadus” project. For a time they had tried writing around a fictional life of Albert, but eventually realized the scientist was the richer character and decided to make Watson the center of the play.
“He was such an amazing guy and had so many different lives at such critical moments in American history,” Dayan said.
“Moments of tremendous transformation and change while he was going through these tremendous transformations and changes himself.”
As the Burglars write, they read their material to each other, take notes and then go back and write some more. Eventually they begin to focus the ideas and start connecting with what each other is writing.
“We all own the plays equally, except in unique circumstances … and nobody’s trying to win,” Dayan said. “… So if I spend all night working on a scene and I come in and Matt has written something better, I’m legitimately happy, it’s better.”
Dayan said that as they kept adding music, “Broadus” sprang to life, and “individual characters started getting songs.”
At one point, the literary manager, who became their dramaturge, said, “Are you gonna stop pretending it’s a play with music and just call it a musical?” Dayan recounted.
“The music lifted what is sort of a dark story in many ways,” Dayan said. “It brought a sense of delight. … Between the comedy and the music it can stay up … and be fun and entertaining and help the medicine to go down where there is medicine to go down.”
The Behavior of Broadus
What: Capital Stage presents the Sacramento premiere of a new musical, more or less about John Broadus Watson, father of behaviorism and modern advertising. Written by Burglars of Hamm and directed by Albert Dayan.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: Previews Wednesday, Dec. 9; opens Saturday, Dec. 12, and continues through Sunday, Jan. 3; 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. No performances Christmas Day or New Year’s Day.
Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org