'Assisted Living: The Musical' embraces seniority
Chad Jones, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, June 29, 2011

For some of us, getting older is no laughing matter. For others, it's downright hilarious.

Rick Compton and Betsy Bennett fall into the latter category, but only to a point. The duo has been working together for about 15 years performing original satirical revues. One night, after a successful show in Florida, where they both live, an enthusiastic booker asked them what their next project would be. They happened to be in a parking lot, and Compton looked up and saw a woman using a walker.

"Oh, I don't know, something on assisted living," Compton remembers replying.

Bennett elbowed him in the side and added, "Assisted Living ... The Musical!"

They were kidding, but the booker wrote it down in her book because she had a brochure going to press in a few days.

"We looked at each other and said, 'OK. Now we've got to write this thing,' " Bennett says.

The two are on the phone from their respective homes in Naples, Fla., to discuss "Assisted Living: The Musical," the hit show born from a joke in a parking lot. From its premiere two years ago, starring its creators, "Assisted Living" has been a sensation as it lovingly pokes fun at the vagaries of aging. Here are some sample song titles: "Help, I've Fallen for You and I Can't Get Up" and "Goin' to the Chapel and I'm Gonna Get Buried." Or try this, sung to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight": "In the bedroom, the darkened bedroom, Via-ga-ra tonight."

The show is now in San Francisco at the Imperial Palace, though with stars other than Compton and Bennett. "Assisted Living: The Musical" is performed Florida style, which is to say the jokes and tunes are preceded by a dim sum meal.

When asked their ages, like the well-oiled comedy duo they are, Compton says, "I'm 60." To which Bennett adds, "And I'm not." Both are Baby Boomers, a generation rolling into the golden years, and they see no reason not to enter laughing.

"We're not mocking people or making fun of old age any more than 'Little Shop of Horrors' makes fun of flower shops," Compton says. "There is no need to mock people who are getting older. We're just looking at life the way we've looked at each stage of life and having some fun."

Compton and Bennett started creating the show with some ground rules. There would be no Depends jokes and no jokes about respirators. "We decided everything we'd write would be done with love and respect," Bennett says. "We'd love it if this show could change the way folks see maturity and how they see themselves in maturity."

When "Assisted Living" opened in Florida two years ago, it hit a nerve and started selling out. Then, news outlets like the Associated Press, the BBC and ABC News started calling. That led to a relationship with a New York producer and to productions outside Florida.

The San Francisco gig, which stars Bob Greene, Zoe Conner and pianist Robbie Cowan, follows productions in Delaware and Pennsylvania, where reaction was as enthusiastic as it was in the Sunshine State.

"After the show in Delaware, a woman came up to us, pushing her husband in a wheelchair," Compton says. "She said to us, 'My husband was laughing so hard I had to go out to the car and get a second bottle of oxygen.' "

That sounds like it could be a line from the show, but Compton insists it really happened.

With such a late-in-life surprise success, Bennett and Compton are taking everything in stride, trying to enjoy the attention and praise. For their next show, they may even write a sequel.

"This is the biggest thing to happen to our writing careers," Compton says. "And the most gratifying and challenging. We're blown away by this. And it shows there's no accounting for taste."

For now, Bennett and Compton say their feelings are best expressed by the lyrics from a song in the show called "The Pelican Roost (Reprise)": "We're living ev'ry moment, loving all we do. Take a chance, join us here, you will feel it too. Maybe you'll consider the other choice you've got. Cause living here is living, and the other choice is not."

copyright compton & bennett inc. 2008
all rights reserved