By Peter Filichia
Let me spell it out for you so you won’t be as disappointed as Homer and Bart Simpson were on January 4, 1998.
Simpsons pere and fils went to a video rental store (remember them?) and took out Paint Your Wagon. They figured that any movie starring Lee (The Dirty Dozen) Marvin and Clint (Dirty Harry)Eastwood would have to have enough violence to stoke their savage souls.
You’d think that the title Paint Your Wagon would be a clue that film would have little in common with The Wild Bunch or Cut-Throats Nine. Actually, writer Steve O’Donnell should have addressed this issue by having Homer and Bart assume that the wagon would be painted by someone’s spilled blood.
Anyway, the guys were shattered when the first few moments revealed this would be a very different cinematic experience. “They’re singing!” Homer exclaimed. “Why aren’t they killing each other?!” – to which Bart replied “Yeah! The guns are right there!”
The songs were ringers and not the actual ones that lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe wrote as their fourth musical (following their first hit: Brigadoon). But you can hear the score they wrote later this week when Encores! presents Paint Your Wagon with Keith Carradine in the Lee Marvin role of Ben Rumson, the nineteenth century miner who comes to California in 1853 in hopes of striking gold. If you can’t get to New York between March 18-22, be assuaged by the excellent original cast album with James Barton.
And who played the Clint Eastwood role when the stage show debuted on Nov. 12, 1951? No one – for the 1969 film version ofPaint Your Wagon is substantially altered from what Lerner, Loewe and director Daniel Mann had put on stage eighteen years earlier.
In fact, if Homer and Bart had stayed with the film, they might have been glad they did. Into the mining camp saunters Jacob Woodling, his wife Sarah Woodling and his wife Elizabeth Woodling. (One of them Mormons, y’know?) Sarah’s favored, Elizabeth’s unhappy, so Jacob auctions her off and Ben wins her.
That happens in the stage show, too, but here’s where the plots part company. On stage, the complication was that Ben’s sixteen-year-old daughter Jennifer doesn’t like that a new woman has replaced her mother in her father’s eyes and heart. But in the film, Eastwood plays a character solely known as Pardner, for he is Ben’s colleague in all mining activities – and is so enamored by Elizabeth that she suggests that both men share her.
Funny; the death of movie musicals in the ‘60s was often attributed to saccharine plots. But here’s one that opened three months before Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice swapped spouses. What Ben, Pardner and Elizabeth were doing couldn’t be found in the ‘60s musical movies centering on Finian, Dolly, Mr. Chips, J. Pierrepont Finch, Gertrude Lawrence or Charity Hope Valentine. Even the adulterous Guenevere settled on one man.
Of course, if Homer and Bart had stayed with the film, they would have lost quite a bit of time. Noel Coward thought that Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot was “twice as long as Parsifal and not nearly as funny” – but what would he have thought of the Paint Your Wagonfilm at (gulp!) 169 minutes?
The verb “collapsed” is an apt one for the film plot, for it also involves digging under “No-Name City” for gold – but the tunnels are so broad and deep that the town’s buildings fall into them. The stage show instead spent a good deal of time on Jennifer, who had three solos and shared a duet. She went from a clueless lass who didn’t understand “What’s Goin’ on Here?” what with all the men in town avoiding her. As one man says, “There was a famine in Ireland when I left. No potatoes. But I had a girl. Now what made me think I couldn’t live without potatoes?”
Then Jennifer fell in love with Julio, a Mexican. That’s why in the excellent song “How Can I Wait?” – meaning to see Julio again –Trude Rittman added some Spanish-flavored dance music.
They won’t dance for long. Back in 1853 (and, alas, later), race would be an issue.
When you listen to the cast album, you may think Lerner erred in Jennifer’s last solo, “All for Him.” Only a few songs earlier, she was painfully naive, but here she was citing Alexander the Great, Mozart and Nero. Ah, but since her last song, she’d gone back east to a fancy school. She knows things now.
Needless to say, with no Jennifer in the film, her songs – including “Carino Mio,” a Mexican flavored melody she shared with Julio — were cut. That’s a pity, for they’re all excellent and Olga San Juan has a robust voice that befits a miner’s daughter. Sad to say of the fifteen songs heard on Broadway, only eight were retained for the film – a shockingly low percentage in an era when movie musicals usually embraced far more of the stage score.
But Lerner, co-writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Joshua Logan certainly knew enough to retain two songs that had become popular.
The first is “I Talk to the Trees,” in which Julio says he’s grateful to have found Jennifer, who’s far more rewarding as a conversationalist.
Tony Bavaar sings it splendidly on the album. But I haven’t forgotten that Wednesday night in the ‘60s when Danny Kaye’s variety show offered a sketch in which a goateed psychiatrist had a concerned look on his face when his patient on the couch began to reveal in song what was wrong with her: “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me.”
The show’s most famous song is “They Call the Wind Maria” – pronounced “Mariah.” In fact, spelling notwithstanding, Mariah Carey’s parents even named her after this song. It’s been recorded by musicians from every walk of life: pop (Robert Goulet), pop-folk (The Kingston Trio), jazz (Art Blakey), country (Burl Ives), opera (Bryn Terfel), operetta (Earl Wrightson), easy listening (101 Strings), Latin (The Baja Marimba Band), rock (Michael Jackson) and even comedy (The Smothers Brothers). But Rufus Smith on the original cast album got there first.
I’ll say something bound to be controversial. Loewe composed the elegant My Fair Lady, the sophisticated Camelot and the charmingGigi, but in one way Paint Your Wagon is his most amazing score. The guy was born in Berlin to Viennese parents, and yet, he was able to come up with convincing sounds for butch miners, starting with their exciting opening number “I’m on My Way.”
The song includes the word “damn,” which made the album. This was not unprecedented, for Oscar Hammerstein had used it inSouth Pacific two years earlier. But the album did censor one song: Barton’s “In Between” to his new wife Elizabeth. At Encores! you’ll find that it concludes a bit saucier than it does on the cast album.
Barton was famous for playing drunk, so Lerner wrote a nice nine-minute sequence in which he could do his specialty. During the Philly run, Barton had found a way to increasingly stretch his bit so that it eventually rang in at twenty minutes. That spurred Loewe to tell Barton in no uncertain terms that if he tried that again “I am going to get a gun and kill you.”
Talk about trouble out of town!
There was more. Still in Philly, Billy Rose, a big investor, soothed producer Cheryl Crawford’s fears, saying that, yes, the reviews weren’t good, but that the show could be easily fixed. A few days later she saw an ad he’d placed in Variety in which he offered to sell his shares in the show.
But here’s Paint Your Wagon sixty-four years later. At Encores! we’ll hear three songs that went unrecorded in 1951. “Trio” has Jacob kneeling to pray with his two wives, each of whom reveals no love lost for the other woman. (It might have seemed a bit too ribald for home listening.) “Movin'” involves the miners’ hoping for better luck somewhere else. “Strike!” does not deal with issues found in either The Pajama Game or Pins and Needles, but celebrates the miners’ having found gold in them thar hills forty miles away.
But the fifteen songs we do have on the original cast album ofPaint Your Wagon are worth their weight in gold.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday atwww.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming bookThe Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order atwww.amazon.com.