OL’ SPOON RIVER, THAT OL’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY By Peter Filichia
So this week, Masterworks Broadway finally gives you the opportunity to hear a 1963 Broadway hit on a CD or download.
Yes, hit – although it could only manage 111 Broadway performances. That’s not a long run, but in the 1963-64 season, it was enough to outdistance Mary Martin’s new musical Jennie as well as Kirk Douglas as Randle McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But Broadway doesn’t define a hit by the length of a show’s run. Also irrelevant to hit status is a production’s critical reception, although Spoon River Anthology received fine notices from the seven New York daily papers after its Sept. 29, 1963 debut.
Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror dubbed it “absorbing theater.” Norman Nadel of the World Telegram & Sun said it was “a powerful evocation of life.” The Journal American’s John McClain agreed that it was “enormously warm and compelling.”
Those were, however, the three New York dailies with the least circulation – which was only to get worse. The Mirror, in fact, shuttered only eighteen days after Spoon River opened. Fewer than three years would pass before the passing of the World Telegram & Sun, the Journal American and even the lofty Herald Tribune with its equally lofty theatre critic Walter Kerr, who called Spoon River “excellent.”
Of the still-with-us-today newspapers, the Daily News’ critic John Chapman said Spoon River was “quite an inspiration,” while the Post’s Richard Watts, Jr. wrote that it was “moving and beautiful.” And in those days of yore when a review from the New York Times would make or break a show, critic Howard Taubman called Spoon River Anthology “a glowing theater experience.”
Nevertheless, the one and only definition of a hit in conventional Broadway parlance is a show that shows a profit. If it paid back every dime that its investors had wagered and added plenty more dimes into their coffers, then it’s a hit. Only eleven of the season’s seventy-five productions would eventually be able to brag that they made money, but Spoon River was one of them, although its cost of $35,000 was modest even by 1963 standards, when the average play-with-music came in at around $100,000.
Although Spoon River dealt with the past, the way it was produced anticipated the future. Producer Joseph Cates (father of the then eleven-week-old Phoebe) caught it at UCLA and decided to bring it to Broadway, although he’d already planned to open What Makes Sammy Run? only a few months later in the season.
Finding new shows in faraway theaters is now the norm, but it wasn’t then. The success of Spoon River — as the show was soon officially renamed to make it sound less literary and more entertaining – may have inspired other producers to say, “Hmmmm, let me see what’s out there.”
There’s more play than music on this cast album, which won’t surprise those familiar with the 244 poems that Edgar Lee Masters wrote and put in book form in 1915. He lets us hear from more than twenty dozen residents of this fictitious Midwestern town named Spoon River, wider than a mile, but not by much.
But here’s the thing: all the people we hear from are speaking from the grave, dead as the Edsel, New Coke and Google Glasses. John Barrymore once said a man was getting old when his dreams turned to regrets – but a bigger tragedy occurs when regrets can no longer be expressed because death stops them cold. Here in this modest Spoon River graveyard, there are enough regrets to fill Arlington National Cemetery.
Of course Spoon River didn’t have a cast of 244, but four: two men and two women. Charles Aidman, who adapted Masters’ work and directed, split the male roles with Robert Elston. The women had a little more name recognition: Betty Garrett had starred in the musical films of On the Town and My Sister Eileen, and Joyce Van Patten had been in eight Broadway shows since she was six years old. (You can see her as Sally Cato in the film of Mame if you can bear to watch the film at all.)
Among the characters Elston played were Lucius Atherton, once the town’s most handsome hunk who was “a knave of hearts who took every trick.” Ah, but as Lorelei Lee taught us, “We all lose our charms in the end.” Now he still has a young man’s lust, but he’s the laughingstock of all the young women who regard him as nothing but a dirty old man.
Did Edgar Lee Masters know Sophocles’ Antigone? We may ever know, but a case can be made that he did, for that classic’s mistaken identity turns up here. Aidman, in a thick Jewish accent, played Barney Hainsfeather, who was burned beyond recognition in a train wreck. That was the fate of John Allen, too, who was confused for Hainsfeather and was buried in a Jewish cemetery while Hainsfeather was interred among a bunch of WASPs – and was none too happy about it.
Ollie McGee, whom Garrett played, snarled that her husband and marriage “robbed me of my youth and my beauty.” Even less happy with her marriage was Margaret Fuller Slack, whom Van Patten brought to life. Since her grammar school days, Margaret had yearned to be a writer and was on a path to achieve that goal. Then one of Spoon River’s wealthiest men told her that if she married him, why, she could be a lady of leisure who’d have time to write whatever she wanted.
What her husband didn’t tell her is that she’d eventually have eight children by him, and that she’d spend more time tending to nappies than novels.
Later, Van Patten portrayed Mrs. Charles Bliss, whose identity was so lost in marriage that Masters didn’t even bother to tell us her actual first name. The missus wasn’t happy with her husband but stayed with him “for the children.” That didn’t work out as well as she’d hoped; although two kids would side with her against their father, the other two allied themselves with their daddy and wouldn’t speak to her. Moral of the story: an unhappy marriage is not the solution to making a family happy.
Lest the show become too heavy, there was music to lighten it. Oddly enough, musical comedy star Garrett didn’t sing; two musicians, Naomi Caryl Hirshhorn and Hal Lynch, were also on stage to deliver a dozen folk standards (in the “Skip to My Lou” vein) with four new ones. The lovely little title song, “Spoon River,” a Hirshhorn-Aidman waltz, will stay in your head much longer than 111 days.
Adults disagree on so many things: food, movies, politics, religion and virtually everything else. But there’s one thing on which every person who’s the veteran of a few decades concurs: time goes fast. Spoon River illustrates the point extraordinarily well. And while the show has been absent from Broadway for nearly fifty-three years, the original cast album lives on.
Spoon River Anthology is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. Listen on Spotify.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.