Only once, in the entire history of the Tonys, has a Best Play been adapted into a successful Broadway musical.
Now that both bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt have been taken from us, let’s remember to give them credit for doing what other adaptors of Tony-winning plays couldn’t accomplished.
Those who musicalized The Teahouse of the August Moon as LOVELY LADIES, KIND GENTLEMEN saw it fold after 19 performances. THOMAS AND THE KING, despite having John Williams as composer, couldn’t make Becket score in London. SERAFINA, a musical version of The Rose Tattoo, could only manage a regional production or two.
Jones and Schmidt, though, made the 1951-52 Tony-winner The Fourposter sing in I DO! I DO! It was the second-longest-running musical of the 1966-67 season. (Only CABARET bettered it.)
In Jan De Hartog’s two-character play, Michael and Agnes marry in 1890 and move into a house where they remain until 1925 – a span of 35 years. Musicalizations of plays almost always give more than the source material, and I DO! I DO! did that not just in music and lyrics, but in time, too; the show went from 1898 to 1948, making for an even 50 years.
Writers of musicals usually open up a play, too, but Jones and Schmidt didn’t bother. Just as The Fourposter never leaves the bedroom in which that item resides, I DO! I DO! almost doesn’t; occasionally, a scene representing another room is played near the lip of the stage, but by and large, the large bedroom is where we stayed.
Needless to say, marriage was quite different in the early 20th century, when husbands went out to earn the daily bread and wives kept house. Surprise! Both Agnes and Michael work in the cozy confines of their home because he’s a successful novelist. So, they’re only a few rooms apart 24/7.
“It’s a wonder that they didn’t kill each other,” Jones liked to joke (if he was joking …).
At I DO! I DO! begins, Michael and Agnes, barely out of their teens, are preparing to get themselves to the church on time and see “All the Dearly Beloved.” Schmidt’s melody for “Together Forever” is a little cautious, almost as if the two are having second thoughts about tying the knot. Yet it is three-quarter time, the most romantic time signature of all.
Then, after Michael and Agnes trade their “I do”s, the title song swells with joy and excitement. Seventeen of Jones’ words sum up their naïvete: “You can throw away your every care and doubt, ‘cause that’s what married life is all about.”
(Ev’rybody has to go through stages like that …)
Because the late 1890s was not a Golden Age of pre-marital intercourse, the two are shy virgins. When Agnes admits she’s never even seen a man in the raw, De Hartog provided the words that Jones appropriated: “Well, you really haven’t missed very much.” However, when she asks her husband about his background in such matters, Jones came up with the droll “Well, I must have seen one once, I suppose.”
(The male ego demands that a man sound experienced.)
That first night apparently goes well, for Michael is soon singing “I Love My Wife.” It’s not a soft-shoe, but a soft-foot; he’s still in his nightshirt and barefoot when he delivers the delightful tune.
Women in those days expected to be expecting soon after the honeymoon. “Something Has Happened” is the demure way that Agnes puts it while pointing to her belly, even breaking the fourth wall when proclaiming to the audience, “as you can plainly see.”
Many Broadway musicals have sported the expression “I am, too.” “I Have a Love” (WEST SIDE STORY) has Maria mean “I am as well”; “Hymn to Hymie” (MILK AND HONEY) has Clara use it to express excess: “I am too old for Hialeah but too young to shoot.” Agnes must be the only character in a musical who sings, “I am two” – meaning her pregnancy.
Impending childhood can make couples sentimental, which Michael and Agnes express in another waltz: “My Cup Runneth Over (with Love).” It stepped out of the show to become a genuine hit record for Ed Ames, reaching as high as #8 on the charts on March 25, 1967. That’s pretty impressive, considering that rock had truly taken over the market. (The survey’s first three songs were sung by The Turtles, the Beatles and The Mamas and the Papas.)
It’s the fifth track on the recording, but if you see the musical today, you hear it in Act Two. Jones probably repositioned it because of his lyric “In only a moment, we both will be old.” Ah, but twentysomethings seldom if ever think about aging and inherently believe that such a fate will never happen to them. Jones was wise to eventually switch the song to the couple’s middle years, when people start becoming aware that they won’t live forever.
Agnes delivers a boy, and not much time passes before she gives birth to a girl. Back then, this was the ideal family. Still, “Love Isn’t Everything,” as Agnes drolly notes. “It doesn’t pay the bills,” she moans, which as every parent will tell you, is an issue once Junior and Sis arrive.
Soon the spouses are defending themselves in “Nobody’s Perfect.” His “You are always late!” and her “You are always early!” are just two of many complaints. Michael’s include “You give me Russian dressing which I happen to detest!” and, in a cold reference to Agnes’ bedtime slathering of cold cream, “Every night beneath the sheet, must you look like Trick or Treat?”
Fun facts: London had Michael hate “pickled onions” instead, and that “Every night when we recline, must you look like Frankenstein?”
Soon Michael has an affair. In “It’s a Well-Known Fact,” he sings, “Men of forty go to town.” What Jones has him say about women of the same age won’t win the lyricist any admiration.
De Hartog’s Agnes gets more brittle than angry, but Jones makes her furious, which inspired him to come up with a showstopper. She’ll become “Flaming Agnes” and wear “an eighty-five dollar hat.”
Really? An inflation calculator tells us that in today’s dollars, that comes to more than $2,600. No wonder that in “Nobody’s Perfect” Michael complains, “You’re overdrawn – again!”
Back to the London production: Agnes says that the hat cost “25 guineas” – then equivalent to $128 – which was even more expensive. Today? Guineas are no longer in circulation.
Let’s face it: “The Honeymoon is Over.” The couple that once insisted “Together forever” is now growling, “Together forever looks more like it’s never” just before the Act One curtain descends.
During intermission, Michael and Agnes apparently calm down, and at the start of Act Two, admit that they’re slowing down in “Where Are the Snows (of Yesteryear)?” They’re nostalgic as they croon, “Oh, what we were! We were something to see!” And the kids? “Our daughter bought her first brassiere,” notes Agnes.
Yes, they grow up so fast, as Michael becomes “The Father of the Bride.” It’s an obfuscating title, like “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three,” which should really be called “Tits and Ass.” But A CHORUS LINE learned not to give away the joke in the program, Jones did the same, although Michael’s song really should be called “My Daughter Is Marrying an Idiot.”
When both children are gone, they assume “We’ll be free! Think how happy we will be!” Ah, be careful what you wish for. When Agnes sings “What is a Woman?” she may well be singing about her kids, too: “A woman is only alive when in love.”
So, like millions before and after them, they downsize. But that doesn’t mean their lives are over, for almost a decade before a little girl in a red dress optimistically trumpeted the values of tomorrow, Michael and Agnes decide “The best day of all is the day that is on its way.”
Many who bought tickets in advance must have felt that, too, as the day approached when they’d be able to see Mary Martin and Robert Preston in the two-person musical. She’d won three competitive Tonys, and although he’d “only” won one, he’d get a little closer by winning a second for I DO! I DO!
But Preston couldn’t have done it without Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon.