When a 27-year-old Steven Spielberg set out to make Jaws, he faced a string of disasters. The cast wasn’t finalized until days before filming began. Shooting on the ocean left the team at the mercy of unpredictable weather. And then, of course, there were the three mechanical sharks—which kept malfunctioning in the saltwater off of Martha’s Vineyard.
“Every single day the shark was put in the water, something went wrong: A hose burst, there would be geysers that would go a hundred feet in the air. The sea-sled shark ran aground,” remembered production executive Bill Gilmore, per Michael Schulman’s book, Oscar Wars.
Now, nearly 50 years later, these behind-the-scenes struggles are the inspiration for a new Broadway play, The Shark Is Broken, which opens at the Golden Theater on August 10. But rather than trying to chronicle all of the problems of the shoot (which ran more than 100 days over schedule and millions of dollars over budget), the one-act play zooms in on the rocky relationship between the three lead actors: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.
“It was a grueling, difficult shoot,” Ian Shaw, who plays his father, tells Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press (AP). “And there was a clash of personalities, particularly between my father and Richard Dreyfuss. But it’s complicated because they were friends as well at times.”
The play takes place over the course of one day during the filming of Jaws. The three actors are stuck waiting in the tiny Orca, the fishing boat featured in the movie, while the crew deals with one of the many mechanical shark malfunctions that plagued the production. “Within the boat’s confines, fictionalized conversations and monologues show the characters humorously squabbling and wondering if their cinematic efforts will amount to anything,” writes the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff.
“I liken it to NASA—when they put three astronauts in a cockpit the size of the center of the Orca, they had to pick those guys very, very carefully,” director Guy Masterson tells Playbill’s Talaura Harms. “In Jaws, they didn’t pick those guys carefully. They just shoved those guys in there and said, ‘Make the best of it.’”
Shaw, who also co-wrote the play with Joseph Nixon, prepared by reading interviews with his father, who died in 1978. “In a world where those types of interviews weren’t stage-managed, Robert would sometimes say things that were quite shocking,” he says to the Times. He also reviewed a drinking diary that his father, who had a history of alcoholism, kept at the time.
Alex Brightman, who plays Dreyfuss, tells Broadway Direct’s Paul Art Smith that the production is “really, truly about fathers and sons, a little bit of alcoholism, ego and the trauma that leads us to who we become.” At the same time, Shaw maintains that it’s primarily a comedy. “We dip into the serious elements, but our intention is to entertain,” he tells the AP.
The play, which previously ran at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in London’s West End, isn’t the first stage production about the making of Jaws. Bruce, a musical following Spielberg as he shot the 1975 blockbuster, premiered in Seattle last year. (The three mechanical sharks were nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s lawyer, writes Schulman in the New Yorker.)
Ultimately, despite its disastrous production, Jaws became “the prototype of the modern blockbuster,” wrote the Atlantic’s David Sims in 2015. “If there’s anything you love or hate about the big-budget, studio action movie, it can probably be traced back to Jaws.”
Shaw hopes that The Shark Is Broken reflects some of the ingredients that made the movie such a hit. “One of the things I love about that film is the way you don’t know where it’s going to go next,” he tells the AP. “It lurches from comedy to horror in a heartbeat. And we tried to do that with the play.”