Actor Frank Ferrante talks about the timelessness of Groucho Marx
Comedy can have a brutally short shelf life. Ask the kids behind the "Damn Daniel!" meme. Or that guy who still quotes Austin Powers. Or Dane Cook. One minute, you're the toast of the town; the next minute, you're #problematic – or, worse yet, a punchline.
The expiration date on the classic comedic stylings of the Marx Brothers, however, remains far off in the distance, the sounds of laughter still echoing from their century-old vaudeville origins and on-screen heyday during the Great Depression to today. And proving that still-vibrant pulse has been actor Frank Ferrante's mission for more than three decades and over 3,000 performances, trekking across the globe performing as the brothers' mustachioed frontman Groucho and interpreting his life on stage.
"My job is how do I engage people whether they know him or not," Ferrante said, "and there are plenty of people who don't know who he is necessarily, because he's been gone for 40 years. My job is to make it resonate whether you know who Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers are or not."
The solution was "An Evening with Groucho," a 90-minute cavalcade of comedy featuring everything that made the lead Marx brother one of entertainment's most electric livewire performers – songs, stories, riffing off the audience or whatever serves a suitable springboard for wild, occasionally wicked and always witty jokes. The show – which Ferrante also wrote – has seen London, New York City, Australia, and now it's in the Milwaukee Rep's intimate Stackner Cabaret, opening this weekend and running through May 28.
The premise of the show, according to Ferrante, is simple: What if Groucho Marx gave a one-man show during 1934 in between the shooting of "Duck Soup" and "A Night at the Opera," arguably the golden age of the Marx Brothers comedy act, not only tapping into a nation's funny bone but also its anxieties.
"He was insulting people in the positions of power in those movies – professors, lawyers, politicians, the wealthy and the empowered – and we all identified with him as outsiders," Ferrante explained. "We all feel like outsiders, and he was the ultimate bad boy outsider, along with his brothers Harpo and Chico, knocking things over. Their humor is Depression-era humor, where everyone needed that.
"Groucho was always that voice of madness, but I always refer to him as a truth-teller. In those movies, he's saying the things we want to say and doing the things we want to do."
It was that bold, brash sense of freedom that captured Ferrante's imagination when he first discovered Groucho, watching "A Day at the Races" on the television as a 9-year-old growing up in Sierra Madre, California.
"I was taught by nuns, so there were a lot of rules, and I was in fear constantly," the actor jokingly recalled. "Then I see Groucho is fearless. When you're nine or ten years old, when you're watching the television, it's real. I thought here's this crazy wild man with a mustache and a cigar, attacking everything around him. It really was exhilarating."
The rush sent young Ferrante to his town's library to watch and find out more about Groucho and the Marx Brothers. From there, his world opened up outside of his "quaint, quiet" California hometown – not only to the world of comedy, the Marx Brothers leading him to Laurel & Hardy to Chaplin to Gleason and Sid Caesar, but the world in general, learning about cities across the globe through his favorite stars' travels. Groucho was always the brightest star for Ferrante, however, even after the comedian's death in 1977.
"When he died – I was 14 – I cried, and I met other people my age who said, oh yeah, they cried too when Groucho died. Now what kind of artist is that who can make that impact, who can make teenage boys cry? What did he represent to us?" Ferrante said. "He was like this super-grandfather to us. We all want to be able to throw out a one-liner to get us out of a mess or to take down the banker or clerk who makes us feel less than."
His undimming light eventually led Ferrante toward his own on-stage comedic travels. While studying acting at USC, he performed an early version of the show – complete with Groucho's son Arthur Marx, Groucho's daughter Miriam and Morrie Ryskind, the Pulitzer-winning and Oscar-nominated writer who helped craft one of the comedian's most famous lines ("One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know"). So no pressure.
Ferrante not only survived the stressful show, but wound up performing in Arthur Marx's own tribute show, "Groucho: A Life in Revue," in New York at age 23. And thus began the actor's life growing up with Groucho.
"This has been a kind of a nice throughline in my life, this role," Ferrante said. "I'm able to do other things, but it's fun to come back to this, grow with it and mature with it."
Ferrante, as well as the world around him, have changed over the years, but for the actor, Groucho and his brothers' impact is still felt, whether it be the generations of comedians they inspired – he sees Groucho's spirit in the unexpected verve of Sarah Silverman or the escalating screwball daringness of Sacha Baron Cohen and "Borat" – or the continued relevance of their original material, maybe even more so now.
"I think we're all anxious," Ferrante explained. "I think there's an anxiety no matter where you live politically, and I think humor's always been ameliorating. It's always been a salve or a balm.
"He's still very much part of the ethers, part of our pop culture, and he never really left. He could be working today. I kept thinking this guy's mind is so fresh, and he's not old fashioned. He feels current. His mind is a contemporary mind; it's ageless in a way, and I think that's why the humor still holds up."
Even after three decades and three thousand shows, performing as the great showman and comedian is still fresh for Ferrante too, still a thrill and still a mystery.
"We always talk about the crackle," he said. "Does it feel like it's on fire? And some nights crackle more than other nights, depending on the audience, the interplay, whether it's a full moon – there's so many factors. You're always trying to figure out why the audience responds the way it does, and after thousands of performances, none of us can figure it out. I think that's why we keep coming back."
And while the mystery may remain unsolved and the performances change every night – thanks in part to a significant improv component – Ferrante's goal remains the same, going all the way back to his days watching "A Day at the Races" and "You Bet Your Life."
"Before I go on, I go, 'Exhilarate the audience the way you were exhilarated by Groucho himself.' Take a deep breath and – it sounds corny – share the joy you had, the pure joy of a little kid. And I still feel that way."
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