Broadway already had Starbucks long before every street corner did. Starbuck Number One appeared as a pivotal character in N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker fifty-nine years ago next week, on Oct. 28, 1954. Starbuck Number Two showed up fifty years ago this week on Oct. 23, 1963 in the play’s musical version, 110 in the Shade.
Today, of course, the musical would be called The Rainmaker: The Musical. And composer Harvey Schmidt recently told me that he believes the show, although it was an investment-returning hit, would have done even better if it hadn’t had that clunky title.
“We never could find the right name for it,” he said. “We were calling it Rainbow for a while, but then we heard that there had already been a musical by that title in the ‘20s, so we thought we’d better change ours.”
Such a problem certainly didn’t bother Rodgers and Hammerstein. When they opened South Pacific in 1949, they didn’t worry that a 1943 play – a five-performance flop — had had the same name. Perhaps Schmidt, his lyricist Tom Jones and Nash, who’d adapted his own play, should have just gone with The Rainmaker.
“But in those days,” said Schmidt, “a musical had to have a new name to indicate that it was something new.”
No question, though, that Schmidt and Jones found the right score for this tender story that takes place during the famous 1936 Midwestern drought. The unabated heat is especially ferocious in the Texas panhandle, where temperatures have reached – well, you know.
Sweating it out is Lizzie Curry, who lives on a ranch with her father and two brothers. They’re mighty glad to have her around to cook and clean, and yet, because they love her and know she’d like to be married, they consider matchmaking. Sheriff File is a widower, isn’t he?
In fact, no; File is divorced, but he’s so ashamed that his wife dumped him that he lies about it. Although everyone in town infers the truth, Lizzie is the one who’d most like to alleviate his pain. Truth to tell, with her thirtieth birthday having come and gone, Lizzie is also afraid that she’ll soon be branded with one of the worst names a woman could endure back then.
Into every life a little rain is supposed to fall, but during this drought, the town instead gets a self-proclaimed “rainmaker.” The way Starbuck talks, he’ll bring a deluge that will make what Noah endured seem like Les Miserables’ little fall of rain.
Starbuck gets many to believe, but Lizzie is a staunch holdout. So he’ll take advantage of her weakness and pretend to romance her. Or is he pretending? Whatever the case, once File sees that the previously unwanted Lizzie has an admirer, he’s inclined to go into action.
How exhilarating at show’s end to see both men kneeling, File clasping her left hand and Starbuck holding her right, each imploring her to marry him. When it rains, it pours – at least in terms of Lizzie’s admirers.
The song that Schmidt and Jones created for that moment speaks for the entire score: “Wonderful Music.” When the show opened, many were stunned at how much they’d stretched themselves. After all, these guys had only written The Fantasticks. Yes, it was about to celebrate its 1,400th performance, which was already an off-Broadway record for a new musical (and who would have ever predicted that it would run three-and-a-half- years?). But it had delicate music and nothing in common with a quintessentially all-American story.
Ah, but both Schmidt and Jones were Texas natives. The former knew how to create that grand, wide-open-spaces sound, while the latter had the folksy vocabulary. And yet, they knew that they’d be working for producer David Merrick, Broadway’s biggest tyrant. He always threatened to close a show during its tryout if he felt that the creators weren’t working hard enough.
In The Show Goes On, a 1997 off-Broadway revue of Schmidt and Jones’ material, the lyricist actually appeared on stage and said, “In our eagerness to do it right – and in our terror of doing it wrong — before the show went into rehearsal, we had written 114 songs – the theory being that whenever we got in trouble out of town, we could just go to our hotel room, lock the door, order a drink from room service, turn on the television set, come out looking very tired, and saying, ‘Well, we got one for you.’”
As a result, we can call the sixteen songs on the original cast album 110 in the Shade’s Greatest Hits. One of them, to use a quaint expression, had the tail wagging the dog: the song in which the three Curry men try to entice File to drop by and play poker – to get better acquainted with Lizzie, really. Schmidt musicalized it as a polka so that the song could be called “Poker Polka.”
There’s a seventeenth cut that wasn’t on the recording when it was first released as long-playing record: the overture. It was actually recorded on the same day as the rest of the album, but wasn’t part of the original LP. Some have alleged that there wasn’t room on the record; others said that the overture was never intended to be on the recording, but the musicians played it just so the engineers could get the right levels for the microphones; others claimed that it was always meant for the recording, but a trumpeter’s playing a clam (the term musicians like to use to define a mistake) kept it off.
Whatever the case may be, when 110 in the Shade made its CD debut in June, 1990, the overture was suddenly included. If you listen to the overture, fifty-eight seconds in you might believe the third theory.
Because Nash’s script constantly mentioned that Lizzie was “plain,” Schmidt and Jones stressed her inner beauty by making her a glorious soprano. Longtime TV fans may be surprised to hear that she was played by Inga Swenson, whom many came to know as Miss Gretchen Wilomena Kraus from 154 episodes of Benson. But however she sounded on the series, she had the pipes to do justice to the songs.
With five solos and two duets, Lizzie is a pretty demanding role. Taking the solos first: “Love, Don’t Turn Away” and “Simple Little Things” show her intense yearning for a relationship; “Raunchy” has her deciding to become far less demure; “Old Maid” is Lizzie at her lowest and “Is It Really Me?” has her daring to believe what Starbuck is telling her: that she really is beautiful.
But that happens only after she dukes it out with Starbuck in the muscular “You’re Not Foolin’ Me” and after she sympathizes with File in the delicate “A Man and a Woman.”
Stephen Douglass, the original Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, was File. As Starbuck, we have one of those names that everybody knew back then and few know now: Robert Horton, one of the stars of TV’s Wagon Train. It too is pretty much forgotten, but, oh, there was a time when it was the number two show in 1959 and 1960 and the number one show in 1961.
In 1962, it plummeted to twenty-fifth place. Did Horton’s leaving the series that year have anything to do with the decline and fall? You be the judge.
He’s marvelous in his two tour de forces, “Rain Song,” in which he promises to deliver that downpour and “Melisande,” which has him telling Lizzie she needs to change her name to a far more dramatic one.
(Lizzie doesn’t listen, but apparently Ella Peterson of Bells Are Ringing fame must have seen The Rainmaker; Melisande was the plummy nom de plume that she chose when becoming Jeff Moss’ woman of mystery.)
Lizzie’s father was Will Geer, who’d become a household name when he played the grandfather on The Waltons from 1972-78. Gretchen Cryer, who later wrote book and lyrics for Now Is the Time for All Good Men and The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, was in the chorus. Playing Snookie, the flibbertigibbet who flummoxes Lizzie’s younger brother Jimmy, was seventeen-year-old Leslie Ann Warren. Because she was then still in high school, she had to get permission to leave school early on Wednesdays.
Oh, and did Starbuck come through with that industrial-strength rain? Those who sat in the mezzanine and balcony of the Broadhurst Theatre from Oct. 23, 1963 through August 8, 1964 had no doubts that there was a big rain a-comin’; they could easily see that the front part of the stage had been replaced by a grate that would allow the rain that poured from above to flow down a drain in a matter of seconds.
Luckily enough, 110 in the Shade’s original cast album has lasted substantially longer. Here’s wishing a happy golden anniversary to a golden score.