Full Blume

How the Annoyance Theatre hooked up with the goddess of girl talk.

By Jack Helbig

People start queuing up at 6 on Friday night for tickets to the 8:30 show. And by the time the box office opens, 45 minutes before show time, the line snakes nearly a block down Clark Street, almost to Waveland. It’s a phenomenon the Annoyance Theatre hasn’t seen since The Real Live Brady Bunch moved to New York eight years ago.

That show, tongue-in-cheek recreations of episodes from the TV series, became a huge hit at Annoyance’s old space near Broadway and Belmont. This time the show is What Every Girl Should Know…An Ode to Judy Blume, a stage adaptation of Blume’s novels for teenage girls. And like the Brady Bunch parody, What Every Girl Should Know began as a totally pirated production.

When comic actress and director Susan Messing sat down with her collaborator, Mary Scruggs, to adapt her three favorite Blume novels for the stage–Deenie, Forever…, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret–she didn’t bother to get the rights. Messing, who teaches at the ImprovOlympic, says at first it was only supposed to be a writing and acting exercise. But once the adaptation was finished, she found she had a pool of actresses eager to audition, and the Annoyance quickly offered to produce it.

Messing had been a fan of Blume’s stories since the seventh grade, when she first became curious about puberty and her mother was reluctant to go into detail. “She just slunk into my room and handed me a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and that didn’t answer anything.”

But Blume’s books did. The controversial novels were required reading for junior high school girls in the late 70s and early 80s, the first to talk frankly about things like dysfunctional families and emerging sexuality. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret deals with the anxiety associated with the start of menstruation. In Deenie, about a girl who has to wear a brace for her scoliosis, Blume touches on masturbation on her way to tackling the book’s big issue, self-esteem. And Messing calls Forever…, about a high school senior who becomes sexually active, “the verboten book. Everybody read it.” Copies of the book, banned from many school libraries because Blume treated teenage sex as natural, inevitable, and fun, were passed around from girl to girl like samizdat literature. “Judy has an extraordinary way of speaking to her audience without appearing condescending, which is a difficult thing,” says Messing. “She just explained things very simply and made us feel we weren’t alone.”

Unlike the Brady Bunch show–which parodied the insipidity of the plots and the two-dimensional characters–What Every Girl Should Know is a loving, somewhat nostalgic homage to books that were a rite of passage for adolescent girls. Such feelings of proprietorship blinded Messing to the legal ramifications of adapting the books without permission. “I really didn’t think about the consequences,” she admits.

From the moment the show opened in August it was a hit. “The first night we set up conservatively 120 chairs,” Messing says. “The audience just kept coming. There were 150 people, 180, and we just crammed people in.” Since then, she says, they’ve had to turn 80 to 100 people away every night.

Then, in September, the Tribune ran a review. “It said something like ‘I wonder if Judy Blume knows about this because it could make piles of money,'” Messing says. Soon afterward the theater was hit with a cease and desist order from Blume’s attorneys.

“I was aghast,” Messing says. “It was not like, ‘I’ve been caught now.’ It was like, ‘I never meant to hurt anyone.'”

As luck would have it, one of Messing’s students was a copyright lawyer. He volunteered to talk to Blume’s lawyers and found they were willing to let the show run until its initial closing date in early November. Apparently a friend of Blume’s had spoken highly of the production.

When the Annoyance found itself in a similar jam nine years ago with The Real Live Brady Bunch, Jill and Faith Soloway, who codirected each episode, invited The Brady Bunch’s creator, Sherwood Schwartz, to come see the show. His enthusiastic response, and his subsequent willingness to license the rights to the theater for a dollar, is the stuff of off-Loop-theater legend. The Real Live Brady Bunch went on to become a national hit off-Broadway and in Los Angeles, and even inspired the two Brady Bunch movies.

Messing, who played Cindy Brady in The Real Live Brady Bunch back in 1990, may have had that story in mind when she decided to invite Blume to see the show. She and Annoyance artistic director Mick Napier even offered to fly in Blume and her husband, George Cooper, from New York. Blume said they’d come but would pay for their flight themselves.

Blume and Cooper arrived in town earlier this month. It was pouring out, one of the first cold evenings of the season, but there were still several hundred people lined up outside when Messing ushered the couple into the theater. Blume wanted to remain incognito, but just before the lights went down, Messing told her, “I’m going to look at you at the end of the show, and if you nod your head I will introduce you. And if you don’t I won’t do a thing.”

At the end of the 90-minute show a beaming Blume nodded at Messing. The audience gave her a standing ovation. “She signed a million autographs, ” Messing says. “Then she took us all to the Piano Man and bought us drinks.”

The next day Blume invited Messing and Scruggs to the Drake Hotel for breakfast. Over eggs and toast Blume asked Messing what she wanted to do with the show. Messing told her they would do whatever she wanted, but they’d like it if the show ran until Christmas.

Blume and her husband looked at each other. Cooper turned to Messing and Scruggs and said, “Had you asked permission for this show we would have said no.”

“I just kinda went, ‘Uh-huh,'” Messing says.

“You have a lot of chutzpah,” he said sharply.

Messing nodded weakly.

A few days later Blume’s lawyers called and said the Annoyance could run the show to the end of December.

“I was thrilled,” says Messing. “Our final night is going to be December 21. It’s going to be an actors’ night, and we’re going to have a big blowout after. I’ve had some calls from LA wanting to do the show. But it’s a moot point. I tell them, it starts with Judy, and it ends with me.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Susan Messing photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.