The making of “Jaws” may not have gone swimmingly, but it did set the scene for an epic play.
On Thursday, “The Shark Is Broken,” a 90-minute, one-act play written by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon chronicling the behind-the-scenes relationships and turmoil that ensued during the filming of “Jaws,” opens on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre. The new production, in which Shaw also stars, follows performances in Toronto and the West End, where the play picked up an Olivier nomination for best comedy.
“The Shark Is Broken,” both dramatic and quick-witted, explores the many mishaps that occurred during the 159-day film shoot, originally scheduled to last 65 days. The animatronic shark, named Bruce after director Steven Spielberg’s lawyer, rarely worked. Actors Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider struggled to maintain peace on the extremely tight boat “The Orca.” Robert Shaw grappled with alcoholism that, as depicted in this play, often caused conflict on set. These setbacks led to “Jaws” lore that is still enjoyed by fans today — including documentary “The Shark Is Still Working,” “Jaws” co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s book “The Jaws Log” chronicling the production, and now “The Shark Is Broken.”
While the 1975 film presents a sense of nostalgia for viewers of all ages, “Jaws” is especially significant for Ian Shaw. His father, Robert Shaw, played the larger-than-life shark hunter Quint in the film and is perhaps best known for his character’s speech about the USS Indianapolis.
Creating “The Shark Is Broken” and portraying his father onstage wasn’t an easy decision for Ian Shaw, as it involved revisiting his father’s 1978 death. “My friends and family gave me the courage to start exploring that,” says Shaw, who bears a striking resemblance to his father.
In order to create the show, Ian Shaw dove deep into his father’s past, watching interviews and reading his personal drinking diaries that explored his struggles with addiction. The father-son dichotomy is also a key theme throughout the play, as each character is tasked with exploring their own relationships.
“What helped me was when I heard my father talking about his father, and I have a son myself, so then there’s all four of us there, and I didn’t feel so alone,” says Shaw. “It was cathartic.”
Alongside Shaw, Alex Brightman, known for the eponymous role in the musical “Beetlejuice,” stars as Richard Dreyfuss, and Colin Donnell, known for the Broadway revival of “Anything Goes” and television series “Chicago Med,” stars as Roy Scheider.
The three costars have a daunting task: stepping into the shoes of three iconic actors who starred in one of Hollywood’s most-beloved films.
While on-stage the trio are often fighting or working to tamp down each other’s egos, off-stage they are all chums.
“We have hugged each other before and after the show,” says Brightman, noting none of them have missed a performance to-date. “That’s important because we’re about to be at each other’s throats for 90 minutes and so there’s love behind everything that we have to bury sometimes.”
Donnell seconds this notion.
“None of us are holding on to anything that we’re doing on stage,” Donnell says.
Plus, the trio finds time to have a bit of fun outside of the theater.
“We’ve been bowling,” Shaw notes.
They also have their own blow-up shark backstage named Bob, a nod to the original Bruce. The camaraderie among the three men is palpable, as they finish each other’s answers and constantly find ways to sneak in “Jaws” puns.
But staging the new production didn’t come without struggles. Like the actual “Orca,” the set at the John Golden Theatre is quite tight. But as it did with the film’s three actors, the confined space creates chemistry on stage.
While the filming of “Jaws” was filled with tension and turmoil, the play’s cast agrees that the movie wouldn’t be the same without the technical mishaps, without the on-set tension, without, of course, the broken shark.
And, if “Jaws” had gone according to plan, “The Shark Is Broken” wouldn’t have been possible.
“I wouldn’t be on Broadway without [‘Jaws’],” says Shaw. “Thank God it broke.”