Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1994

Okay, get ready for a TV Trivia question:   What’s the most syndicated show in the history of television? No peeking in your bedside Trivia bible. Are you thinking “I Love Lucy”? “M*A*S*H”?   Think again.   It’s “Gilligan’s Island.”   Thirty years, and the show still has 25 million viewers a week.   In any given half hour of any given day, it’s rerun somewhere in the country. “If you choose your airlines carefully,” says Sherwood Schwartz, the original creator/writer/producer/songwriter of “Gilligan’s Island” (and “The Brady Bunch”), “you can see 24 episodes a day.” Amazing.

As the song goes, it’s been “a fateful trip” — from sitcom to syndication king, from spawner of award-winning reunion specials to inspiration for two animated series, an upcoming TV production text and a Turner-produced feature film, and this month, at the Theatre in Old Town, a stage musical (“Gilligan’s Island: The Musical”, opening May 11).

Why, you may ask, this little, frothy, slapstick sitcom about seven (cartoonish) strangers stranded on a desert island??    First, clarification for trivia-hounds: the reason “Gilligan” gets the number one syndication slot is that it was only on the air for three years (1964-1967), and only has 99 episodes (whereas “Lucy” has about 400), so each episode is rerun more than any other show’s.

As for the ‘Why,’ Sherwood Schwartz, age 77, writer of the new musical’s book, offers this: “It all started with “Robinson Crusoe,” the original classic.   I multiplied that by seven…   It’s a lovely escape for people, and it’s got many kinds of comedy, different levels of humor.”   For a more ‘nineties’ explanation, try this from 27 year-old Jeff Ramirez: “It’s about dreams and reality — a real, scary circumstance presented in fantasy terms. A bad dream turned good de-fuses our anxiety. It’s something anyone in a dysfunctional situation, fueled by denial, could relate to.”

Schwartz prefers not to delve deeply; he just keeps churning it out. This venture, like most of his others, is family entertainment that’s a family affair. The musical’s book is co-written with son Lloyd Schwartz (the upcoming movie is co-written with son Lloyd and brother Elroy). The lyrics are composed by daughter Hope and the music by son-in-law Laurence Juber, former Grammy Award-winning lead guitarist for Paul McCartney and Wings.  

A classically-trained graduate of the London University School of Music, Laurence proposed to Hope twelve years ago, on the day he saw his first baseball game and his first “Gilligan’s Island” rerun.   Hope grew up on the “G-I” set. The Jubers have worked on “Brady” and “Gilligan” projects, have written a series of children’s musicals and perform in their own “domestic rock ‘n’ roll group,” The Housewives.    They describe the score as “pop, family kind of music — not Andrew Lloyd Webber” — with a broad range of musical styles inspired by the disparate characters. The show has everything from a country ballad (for Mary Ann) to a torchy blues song (Ginger), to a Mozartian minuet (for the Howells). And, of course, there’s the ever-popular TV theme song, which serves as prologue, epilogue and source of musical in-jokes.

The plot is driven by the 25 musical numbers.   What’s unique about the piece, says composer Juber, is that “it’s not like the stage version of “The Brady Bunch,” a re-enactment of the original series.   This is a whole new story line, but true to the character of the TV show.”

Nobody’s divulging much about the story, but Schwartz revealed that “a force descends upon the island. Just as aliens visited Stonehenge and Macchu Picchu, they also visited Gilligan’s Island.”

One is never quite sure how seriously to take all this.   Everyone seems in deadly earnest.   The fact is, the show already has a past and a future. An earlier version was a success several years ago in North Carolina, but less so in Chicago, where there was, according to Schwartz, “too much attention to the physical production, which detracted from the music and the jokes.”   The next stop will probably be Off-Broadway in the fall, at the John Houseman Theatre.

After the Chicago experience, the “Gilligan” creative team wanted a regional theater to help re-tool the musical.   Old Town artistic director Paula Kalustian, ever on the lookout for new musicals, saw their ad in Theatre Week magazine, and the rest may be history, especially if the Old Town production, with local actors and Kalustian directing, makes it to New York.   Meanwhile, Kalustian is bubbling about “a really fulfilling collaboration,” which is heartily corroborated by Schwartz and company.

“What’s so great about the show,” says Kalustian, ” is that it “is” ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ not someone else trying to do ‘Gilligan’s Island’… The dialogue is fun, the characters and situations are cute and funny, and the music is wonderful… I doubt that anyone except for very small children won’t know ‘Gilligan.’ It’s like apple pie. But you don’t “have” to know it to enjoy the show.”

With three decades of Gilligomania, does Sherwood Schwartz feel stuck in a rut? “Niche would be a better word,” he says. “I don’t really mind. It ain’t broke, and I ain’t fixin’ it.”

©1994 Patté Productions Inc.