On March 7th, 1967, the delightful musical comedy, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, made its debut at Theatre 80 at 80 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. With music written by Clark Gesner (and the book written by, “’John Gordon’…a collective pseudonym that covers Gesner, the cast members, and the production staff, all of whom worked together to assemble the script”), a 1971 New York Times review described the play as a “surprise hit.” Of course, looking back, its success perhaps comes as no surprise at all.
Who’s a Good Man?
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown follows Charles M. Schulz’s classic characters in an uplifting story about happiness and doing your best – a reminder we can certainly all use! The play centers on Charlie Brown struggling to figure out what it means to be a “good man” and if he fits the bill (I won’t give it away!). He faces countless tests of his confidence, from his lunchtime choices (“Some psychiatrists say that people who eat peanut butter sandwiches are lonely. I guess they’re right,”) to his romantic troubles, to his inability to fly a kite. Meanwhile, the other characters go about their own daily business. Linus contemplates his future with his blanket, Sally (originally Patty, a different Peanuts character) contests a bad grade in school, Schroeder creates buzz about Beethoven’s birthday, and Lucy dreams out loud about becoming queen.
The world has adored Schulz’s Peanuts for decades, “arguably the longest story ever told by one human being.” The perceived obstacle, though, was turning a beloved, printed cartoon into a theater production. Having written and composed for Captain Kangaroo and Mister Mayor early in his career, and, surely, already a fan of Schultz’s work, Gesner easily won over audiences. In fact, he had been writing the songs before he had any permission to use Schulz’s characters, but swiftly got permission after sending a demo recording to Schulz himself in 1966. The following year, the stage adaptation began at Theatre 80.
Famous Visitors and To-Be-Famous Players
According to the Village Alliance, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown brought some big-name audience members to Theatre 80. “…The families of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon as well as other politicians, from Mayor John Lindsay to Indira Gandhi” visited during the play’s run, which ended in February of 1971 (after 1,597 performances). A couple of recognizable actors also played in Charlie Brown’s original cast. Bob Balaban, who has appeared in countless popular movies and TV shows (including Seinfeld and Friends), played Linus, and Gary Burghoff of M*A*S*H fame took the lead as Charlie Brown.
Later (Apparently Mediocre) Productions
Mel Gussow’s 1971 New York Times review describes a bit of the feel of the original Theatre 80 production, saying “The audience sat on low bleachers, like parents at a playground, a feeling that was confirmed by Alan Kimmel’s nursery-block props.” But at a larger venue like the Golden Theater on West 45th Street, to which the production eventually moved, “intimacy is abandoned.” Gussow also expresses his longing for the original cast, again giving us the sense that the show’s first actors really embraced the characters’ six-year-old selves.
But the enduring success of the show is not much of a surprise given Gesner’s clever songwriting and the characters’ sincere silliness. I personally enjoyed Sally’s thorough rant to her teacher about receiving a C grade for her coat hanger sculpture. Long a home for offbeat and exemplary works, Theatre 80 seems the perfect place for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Theatre 80 was named a Village Preservation (GVSHP) Business of the Month in December 2017, and received a Village Award from us in 2010. Learn more about the history of Theatre 80 and its building here.