What makes a murder-mystery set in a unisex hair salon so beloved that it’s run nonstop for three decades?
There’s no better person to answer this question than Bruce Jordan, the former high school teacher who co-created “Shear Madness” in the late 1970s with friend Marilyn Abrams.
The original co-producer and director of the famous “hair-raising” whodunit arrived in Sarasota this month to direct Florida Studio Theatre’s production of the play.
After last season’s sell-out run, Jordan jumped at the opportunity to return to FST for a second go at the madness.
Based on a German play about an offstage murder of a concert pianist, “Shear Madness” opened in 1978 in Lake George, N.Y., with Jordan playing the role of Tony, salon owner and head beautician.
Last year, the 55-year-old actor, director and playwright celebrated the show’s 30th anniversary at Boston’s Charles Playhouse.
“When we became the longest-running play in Boston after 27 weeks, we thought that was a big deal,” Jordan says. “And that was 31 years ago.”
Jordan is seated in a beauty salon chair in an upstairs rehearsal studio at FST. The cast has split for lunch, leaving the director alone with his jokes amid an assortment of barbershop chairs, a sink, an old-fashioned hair dryer and a smattering of shampoo and conditioner bottles.
“We think of ourselves as a wonderful entry-level production,” Jordan says of “Shear Madness.” “It doesn’t matter if you’re 80 years old or 8 years old. Even without the humor, there’s a wonderful whodunit story.”
And for every city that presents the production, the script changes slightly to include local humor.
With the help of the show’s Sarasota crew, Jordan has tweaked the script to include jokes that reference the city’s propensity for fruit-related street names and Bradenton snubs.
“Every day we open the papers hoping some sort of scandal pops up,” Jordan says.
Last year, the Art Nadel scandal was still ripe enough to reference, so Jordan and company folded hedge fund jokes into the usual beauty shop banter.
“In smaller cites, people are delighted by the local references,” Jordan says. “The first people to get tickets are usually the ones who’ve seen it before. They love to see how it’s changed. It’s more than a play — it’s a game they get to play.”
But, as Jordan knows, when you’re pulling from an arsenal of changing jokes, you run the risk of inserting a bomb into an otherwise airtight script.
In 2009, following the death of Michael Jackson, Jordan decided to slip in a few comic jabs concerning the late pop star. The jokes fell so flat they were cut from the script after two nights.
“When you have talented actors, you’re not supposed to know whether a joke bombed,” Jordan says. “If it’s obvious, the best thing to do is comment on it in some way. It helps take the sting out.”
JORDAN’S FIVE BEAUTY SHOP MUST-HAVES
“It’s always hard to find an old-fashioned barbershop chair that can do it all. It needs to spin, move up and down, recline, lock and have a footrest.”
“Two people get their hair washed, conditioned and cut, so the water in the sink needs to run. The problem was solved very easily here. We ran lines under a sub stage, but in a lot of theaters it’s quite a challenge. Usually we don’t have the pleasure of warm water.”
A functioning phone
“We need a real telephone you can actually call out on.”
“Mrs. Shubert gets her hair done, so one of the stylists has to study how to do the hair before the show opens. We’re pretty sure we’re going to put this Mrs. Shubert (played by actress Lisa McMillan) in hot rollers.”
“We need 150,000 towels. We go through them constantly.”
IF YOU GO
“Shear Madness” runs through March 7, in the Gompertz Theatre, at Florida Studio Theatre. For tickets, call 366-9000 or visit www.florida-studiotheatre.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]