Art Buchwald’s Sheep on the Runway: A Columnist’s Debut as a Playwright

Authored by Patricia Monaghan

This folder contains a unique selection of clippings compiled by the late William Harris, a drama and dance critic who assembled a sizable collection of theater memorabilia. The contents of the folder consist of reviews and articles, as well as a half-page advertisement, of Art Buchwald’s debut play, Sheep on the Runway. The play was a comedy directed by Gene Saks at the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 46th Street in Manhattan.

As “the most widely published American journalistic humorist of the second half of the 20th century,” Art Buchwald was a writer unlike any other (Biography Reference Bank 2007). Buchwald spent the majority of his career writing a satirical column that, at one time, was syndicated in 550 newspapers (Nilsen 1996, 80). His contributions to journalism earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 (Folkenflik 2007).

Buchwald also experimented with playwriting. He penned Sheep on the Runway in 1969, which opened on Broadway the following year (RWU 1971). The play, directed by Gene Saks, was “a comedy about a political crisis in the placid mythical Himalayan country of Nonomura” (Gussow 1970). In the months leading up to its premier, the play underwent numerous re-writes. Buchwald eventually enlisted the help of respected playwright Joe Stein, who knew “how to shape a scene and build towards a laugh, something I apparently have yet to learn” (Buchwald 1970, 40).

Sheep on the Runway opened on January 31, 1970, at the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 46th Street in Manhattan (Playbill, n.d.). It received reviews that Buchwald described as “75 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable” (Buchwald 1970, 81). Clive Barnes of the New York Times called it “an always endearing, often very funny play” (Barnes 1970). After 105 performances, the play closed on May 2, 1970 (Playbill, n.d.). It went on to have successful productions in Washington, D.C. and Europe (Buchwald 1970, 84).

Barnes’ review is included in the folder pictured above, which was compiled by the late William Harris, “a drama and dance critic” who amassed a significant collection of theater memorabilia during his career (Brown, n.d.). His collection, known as “The William Harris Papers,” was donated to Marymount Manhattan College after his passing in 2000 (Brown, n.d.). Box 25 of the collection contains a folder of unique materials, all of which pertain to Buchwald’s debut play. Other items in the folder include a half-page advertisement and articles written by various theater critics (Harris, n.d.).

The folder serves as an excellent representation of the Vincentian core value of opportunity. In 1969, Roger Stevens, then chairman of the National Council of the Arts, encouraged Buchwald to write what would become Sheep on the Runway (Buchwald 1970, 3). Stevens had “produced…125 Broadway shows” in his career and promised that he could take Buchwald’s play to the stage (Buchwald 1970, 3). In the log book of his experience as a playwright, Buchwald wrote, “I thought of all the playwrights in the country with plays already written trying to find a producer, and here…I had everything I needed” (Buchwald 1970, 5). The creation and reception of Sheep on the Runway provided “circumstances favorable to serving others and preparing one’s self for a fulfilling life” (St. John’s University 2019). Each performance of the play gave members of the theater community and the general public a different way in which to experience Buchwald’s humor. Ultimately, Stevens’ encouragement provided Buchwald with the opportunity to expand his repertoire as a writer.

References

Barnes, Clive. 1970. “Theater: Art Buchwald’s ‘Sheep on the Runway.’” Review of Sheep on the Runway (play), written by Art Buchwald, Helen Hayes Theatre, New York, New York Times, February 2, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/02/02/archives/theater-art-buchwalds-sheep-on-the-runway-satire-on-imperialism.html.

Biography Reference Bank. 2007. “Buchwald, Art.” EBSCOhost. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brb&AN=203045535&site=ehost-live.

Brown, Mary Elizabeth. n.d. “The William Harris Papers.” Accessed September 15, 2019. https://www.mmm.edu/live/files/98-harrisguidepdf.

Buchwald, Art. 1970. Counting Sheep: The Complete Log and the Complete Play: Sheep on the Runway. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Folkenflik, David. 2007. “Columnist Art Buchwald Leaves Us Laughing.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5249437.

Gussow, Mel. 1970. “Buchwald Agonizes As Play Rehearses.” New York Times, January 22, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/01/22/archives/buchwald-agonizes-as-play-rehearses.html?searchResultPosition=1.  

Harris, William, comp. n.d. MMC Collection 001, box 25, folder 0627, William Harris Papers, Marymount Manhattan College, New York.

Nilsen, Don L.F. 1996. “Humorous Contemporary Jewish-American Authors: An Overview of the Criticism.” MELUS 21, no. 4 (Winter): 71-101.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/467643.pdf.

Playbill. n.d. “Sheep on the Runway.” Accessed October 12, 2019. http://www.playbill.com/production/sheep-on-the-runway-helen-hayes-theatre-vault-0000004491.

RWU (Roger Williams University). 1971. “Art Buchwald: At Commencement.” The Quill, May 3, 1971. https://docs.rwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1152&context=the_quill.

St. John’s University. 2019. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *