The 1951 Lerner & Loewe musical is loaded with great songs, but the plot and characters are hopelessly out of date. Playwright Jon Marans is keeping the tunes but is introducing the “real cultural diversity of the Gold Rush” for the 5th Avenue’s production.
There is a certain kind of Broadway musical that rarely, if ever, gets revived on the Great White Way.
These shows have beguiling scores by famous composers. They’ve spun off hit tunes and racked up respectable runs. Yet over the decades, they’ve been largely bypassed.
The reason? Faulty books (librettos) with, by current standards, outdated characters, outmoded attitudes and/or shoddy plots.
‘Paint Your Wagon’
Previews June 2-8, plays June 9-25 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets from $36 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Famous examples include Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey,” Cole Porter’s “Can-Can,” and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Paint Your Wagon.”
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Believing there’s mileage left in “Wagon,” 5th Avenue Theatre has overhauled the 1951 Westward-ho tale with a replenished score and an ambitious new book by Jon Marans. After previews, it premieres June 9, then moves to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn., — and, if the stars align, maybe Broadway later.
With permission from the Lerner and Loewe estates, Marans has come up with a “radically changed” take on “Paint Your Wagon.”
Despite a colorful setting (Gold Rush-era California), and memorable songs (“They Call the Wind Maria,” “I Talk to the Trees”), the show has long languished while other Lerner-Loewe works (“My Fair Lady,” “Camelot”) have continued to flourish.
5th Avenue artistic honcho David Armstrong, who directs the 5th Avenue’s makeover, says “The problem has always been the book.” Marans, a noted playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist (for “Old Wicked Songs”), emphasizes he’s “taken almost nothing from the show’s original book. I’m basically starting over.”
The original “Paint Your Wagon” focuses on grizzled prospector Ben Rumson and his teenage daughter Jennifer, who discover gold in 1853 and are soon joined by a crowd of miners seeking their own fortunes.
That rough-and-ready bunch is rowdy, mostly white and starved for female companionship. The wobbly plot folds in a romance between Jennifer and a young Mexican prospector, a visit from a troupe of lusty female dancers and the “sale” of a wife by a Mormon man with one to spare.
In 1951, “Paint Your Wagon” won kudos for Loewe’s folksy, rapturous music, Lerner’s lyrics and Agnes de Mille’s choreography. The book was found lacking, and the show lasted a year on Broadway.
In a New York Times essay before the premiere, Lerner recalled his fascination with Gold Rush history, and desire to create “a musical which would embrace all the robustness and vitality and cockeyed courage that is so much a part of our [American] heritage.”
Yet he also admitted, “The show itself was a brute to write. There was too much material. It was hard to coordinate it all and distill it to its purest meaning.”
During weeks of pre-Broadway touring, songs and dialogue were edited, dropped, rewritten. And serious themes of bigotry, and other difficult historical realities, were eclipsed by broad comedy and rousing musical numbers.
In 1969, a substantially rewritten (by Paddy Chayefsky), big-budget film of “Paint Your Wagon” starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin and filmed partly near Baker City, Ore., did good box office. But it lost money (the mining-camp set alone cost $10 million). And critics like Roger Ebert savaged the movie. (He called it “a big, heavy lump.”)
In recent years, Armstrong and 5th Avenue music supervisor Ian Eisendrath grew convinced that “Paint Your Wagon” could thrive with a better book, while retaining its musical mother lode. Working closely with Marans, they road-tested the new version last summer in the company’s New Works development lab, featuring Broadway star Robert Cuccioli (who also headlines the current production).
This isn’t the first venture to apply fresh paint and a new chassis to the faded vehicle. It recently had a brief, successful revival in New York’s Encores! series.
The 5th Avenue production is likely the most ambitious: It retains the original score, plus songs André Previn composed for the film. For the book makeover, Marans started from scratch. “I only read the original a couple of times, so I wouldn’t be too influenced by it. The new plot and characters have some of the same names, but are completely different. I was really free to reinvent the story as I saw fit.”
An avid researcher, he wanted to portray “the real cultural diversity of the Gold Rush when different races, nationalities and cultures converged in one place, all bumping up against each other and learning how to live together.”
New characters include a “slave who comes with his master to California, which isn’t a state yet and has no rules about slaveholding. There’s another black miner who is a free man. There are also Chinese characters. Chinese miners often worked claims abandoned by others, and faced intense racism.”
A more empowered Mormon wife “puts herself on the auction block to escape a miserable marriage.” And the dancers aren’t “shady ladies,” because “women also came West to seek economic opportunities, and some became successful entertainers who were not prostitutes.”
Marans also wants to convey that the ’49ers’ dream “was not just about finding gold and getting rich. It was also searching for, and finding, a place to be yourself, to find your real home in the world.”
Can “Paint Your Wagon” find a new place in the Broadway musical canon? We’ll find out soon if there’s still gold in them there hills.