Flipping through one of Neil Simon’s scrapbooks in the Library’s recently arrived collection of his work, one comes across an article about his first Broadway play, “Come Blow Your Horn.”
The 1961 play was a huge success, running for more than 600 performances. But one New York newspaper, echoing Simon’s own worries, wondered if he might be a one-hit wonder. Simon was a working professional in his mid-30s, after all, busy with a day job of writing quips for comedians and hosts on radio and television. It had taken him more than three years and a dozen top-to-bottom rewrites to put together “Horn.” Plus, he said, playwriting was “totally different” from his usual work.
“Now I’m supposed to come up with another hit to prove my first smash wasn’t some sort of fluke,” Simon told Newsday, the Long Island daily.
The resulting headline: “His 1st Play Drew Raves, Problem Is How to Repeat.”
If this was a Simon play, this is the part where the lead character, after reading that aloud, would turn to the audience, deadpan, and with merely a knowing look, let the laughs rain down.
Simon, of course, went on to become the most commercially successful playwright in American history and one of the most honored. “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Plaza Suite,” “Lost in Yonkers.” By the time he died at age 91 in 2018, he his career included 28 Broadway plays, five musicals, 11 original screenplays and 14 film adaptations of his own work.
Focusing on comedy and usually autobiographically inspired, he rarely took on the heavy socials issues of the era, yet he and his work won the Pulitzer Prize, four Writers Guild of America Awards, four Tony Awards, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a Kennedy Center Honor and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, among others. His screenwriting earned four Academy Award nominations.
His collection was donated to the Library earlier this year, an acquisition marked with a ceremony featuring his widow, Elaine Joyce, and actor Matthew Broderick, who starred in many of his works. Mark Horowitz, a senior specialist in the Music Division, says Simon’s vast collection is “everything we hoped for and more.”
“It preserves and documents the history, work and creative process of one of our most significant American writers,” Horowitz says.
It’s a dazzling addition to the Library’s collection of theater work, including at least some script material for more than 180 plays, films and musicals. In addition to numerous drafts of all of his famous works, there are many completed works that went unproduced and are unknown to the public. Other titles are fragments, with only a scene or two.
There is also a vast trove of letters, photographs, programs, newspaper clippings, and most unexpectedly, several notebooks filled with his drawings, cartoons and artwork. There’s even a pair of his glasses and a collection of signed baseballs. (The latter includes Hall of Famers such as Tommy Lasorda, Eddie Murray and Tony Gwynn.)
His first drafts are neatly written out in longhand — in cursive you can read! — in dime-store notebooks. Most typescript drafts are dated, numbered and often signed, such as “7th draft, 9/99.”
Writing in pen, in notebooks he often mimicked a play’s typeset layout— neatly rendering the play’s title, his name and the date in the style of a title page. He did the same in his handwritten script pages, centering the dialogue and set directions with the character’s name above their lines.
Sometimes, even after typing up a second or third draft, he would go back to handwriting for later drafts. This is a fascinating thing to note — despite his mammoth success, he was still copying and rewriting line after line in pen. He changed or deleted words, sentences and sections. He marked those changes by hand in the margins, or in additional notebooks, or sometimes he inserted different colored pages to mark new passages. Those scenes were listed in the front of the manuscript. When, deep in these notebooks, he wanted to indicate a change to be typed up later, he would write in act and scene numbers along with pagination of where the inserts were to go.
Despite Simon’s record-breaking success, it didn’t mean that everything he did made it to the market.
One unproduced screenplay in the late 1980s had at least three different titles. It started off as “Just Looking,” was then titled “Jake and Kate” and, finally between 1987 and 1989, was called “A Couple of Swells.” One early draft is written in longhand in a green notebook. Later drafts are typed, signed and dated, along with notes indicating the earlier titles.
Still, the show remained unproduced.
By 1989, he was back to writing in longhand on a third draft, this time in a notebook with a bright yellow cover. He worked on it meticulously, changing small things from the first page to the last.
And still, even at the peak of his career, it never made it to the screen. (He did use “A Couple of Swells” as a chapter title in his memoir, fittingly titled “Rewrites,” in 1996.)
You want the mark of greatness? It’s that sort of far-from-the-glamour dedication, right down to making word edits on a script that, even after three years of off-and-on work, showed no signs of being brought to life. Even then, he kept up with each draft, each set of changes, neatly labeling and signing the work.
The most successful playwright in American history didn’t get that way by chance – he just kept sweating the details, getting the laughs just right.
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