You probably know it as the novella you had to read for ninth grade English class, but John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men also has a storied stage history. Another chapter gets written on April 16, when a new Broadway revival opens at the Longacre Theatre. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the production stars James Franco as George and Chris O’Dowd as Lennie, two friends and migrant workers whose quest for the American dream takes a hard turn. Let’s learn more about this American classic! Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.
Steinbeck Wrote What He Knew
Growing up in the agricultural region of Salinas Valley, CA, young John frequently observed the field hands in their shacks. Later, Steinbeck worked as a ranch hand on local ranches. The experiences and people of rural California affected him and found their way into his writing. Of Mice and Men is set in—you guessed it—Salinas Valley.
...But the Dog Ate His Homework
"After two months of fooling around, my new work is really going and that makes me very happy—kind of an excitement like that you get near a dynamo from breathing pure oxygen,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1936. Steinbeck probably wasn’t so stoked when his Irish Setter ate nearly half the manuscript. The author had two months to recreate the missing parts.
Steinbeck Was a Multitasker
While writing Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck, covered the tough lives of the migrant workers who flocked to California during harvest times. The resulting journalism, a series of articles for The San Francisco News in 1936 ("The Harvest Gypsies”), provided the inspiration for Steinbeck’s classic 1940 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Of Mice and Men Became a Hot Title
Before it became a rite of public school education, Of Mice and Men was a critical success and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Steinbeck became an international name, touring England, Russia, Ireland and Sweden.
A Play Was Always In the Cards
Steinbeck described Of Mice and Men as a “play-novelette,” a form of his own invention. Basically, it’s a short novel with “the sparseness of language and description of a play.” As soon he finished the book, Steinbeck began working on the script.
Steinbeck Enlisted Help...
With the help of playwright George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take it with You), Steinbeck expanded the role of Curley’s wife—the character deliberately does not have a name—to “add more of a love interest and to enhance the melodrama,” according to The New York Times. The novel and the play both debuted in 1937, during the Great Depression.
...But He Skipped Out on Opening Night
The play opened at the Music Box Theater in November 1937, featuring stage and screen stars Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie—the production won the New York Drama Critic Circle Award. Steinbeck, however, wasn’t there for opening night; he was living in an Oklahoma migrant camp while researching The Grapes of Wrath.
Mice Was a Hit
After 207 performances, Of Mice and Men headed to Los Angeles in 1939, with Lon Chaney Jr. assuming the role of Lennie. That same year, Cheney Jr. and Burgess Meredith starred in the Aaron Copland-scored movie, which received an Oscar nod for Best Picture.
The Revivals and Remakes Mounted
The play-novella inspired an opera by Carlisle Floyd in 1970, which was later performed by the New York City Opera in 1983. The play returned to Broadway in 1974 with James Earl Jones playing Lennie. Two TV movies were followed, paving the way for the 1992 feature film with Gary Sinise (who also directed) as George and John Malkovich as Lennie. Adapted by Horton Foote, the film was a labor of love: A 16-year-old Sinise had cried when he first saw the play on a class trip to Minneapolis, and he and Malkovich subsequently starred in a production together at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1980.
Wanna Work with James Franco? Ask!
When Director Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner for August: Osage County) first approached Franco to star in Of Mice and Men, he was definitely interested. "[The play] gives us everything about life in a compact little parable," he explained. "Work, friendship, love, jealousy, violence, death, loneliness, everything is there. It’s the ultimate dramatic bromance and something that has lived in my heart from the first time I read it for Mrs. Paugh’s ninth grade English class." But sadly, Hollywood’s notorious project juggler was unavailable. Shapiro tried again a few years later, their schedules aligned, and soon, Of Mice and Men was on its way back to Broadway.
Lennie & George Might Be Funnier
Steinbeck's play isn't exactly a comedy, but the two best friends have their moments in the new revival. “Anna has said a few times, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that [line] done in that way before,’” Franco told The New York Times. “It’s not like [O’Dowd and I are] cracking jokes—it’s not like Steinbeck is Chris Rock—but it’s fun.”
...But No One's Messing with the Dialogue
For stage and screen stars James Franco, Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester (Curley's Wife), who are all making their Broadway debuts, the new production is a learning experience. “[With new plays], there are usually rewrites on the fly because new dynamics are found while putting the scenes on their feet,” Franco wrote in his column for Vice.com. "With a classic play—especially if the writer is dead, like John Steinbeck is dead—it’s the opposite. The words are holy; do NOT fug with them!”
See Of Mice and Men, opening April 16 at the Longacre Theatre.