And to think there was a time when musical theater enthusiasts assumed they’d get a new show from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt every three years.
Do the math. THE FANTASTICKS in 1960. 110 IN THE SHADE in
1963. I DO! I DO! in 1966. CELEBRATION in 1969.
Every 1,100 days or so, we felt that we could count on a new window card that proudly proclaimed, “Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones. Music by Harvey Schmidt.”
No. The reason, though, is that both Jones, who died on August 11 at the age of 95, and Schmidt, who predeceased him five-and-a-half years ago at the age of 88, weren’t true Broadway babies. The downtown sensibility they displayed in THE FANTASTICKS represented their true wheelhouse.
After the three-month run of CELEBRATION – which had little scenery, more masks than costumes and an off-Broadway sensibility – they preferred to work small, tell offbeat stories and not worry about Broadway.
Case in point: PHILEMON, their 1975 musical, told of a third century convert to Christianity who would suffer martyrdom. Does that sound like a surefire, genuine, walkaway, blockbuster, lines-down-to-Broadway, boffola, sensational box-office lollapalooza, gargantuan hit to you?
True, in the midst of writing three other small shows, they did try to return to Broadway on two occasions:
- COLETTE (1982), about the early 20th century French novelist, closed out of town. But Ethan Mordden thought it worthy enough to devote six pages to it in his book on late 20th century musicals.
- GROVER’S CORNERS (1985) was their musical version of OUR TOWN that didn’t get very far. Mary Martin was announced to play the Stage Manager, but her fatal illness prevented that. Only a small production followed before Thornton Wilder’s estate pulled the rights.
But none can deny that each of the team’s two commercial Broadway outings was a hit, which is defined by a production that returns profits to its investors and its producer; in both cases, that meant the then-notorious David Merrick.
This week, we’ll concentrate on 110 IN THE SHADE and save I DO! I DO! for next week.
N. Richard Nash wrote the libretto based on his 1954 play The Rainmaker. Lizzie Curry sees herself as the least sought-after woman in rural Three Point, Texas, so she’s relegated to live with her father H.C. and brothers Noah and Jimmy. They do have her best interests at heart, so they send her on vacation in hopes she’ll find a man.
Carolyn Leigh, the expert lyricist of LITTLE ME, WILDCAT and HOW NOW, DOW JONES, said that the hardest task for a songwriter was to pen a love song that didn’t use the word “love” in it. Although she really meant romantic love, we can argue that Jones nevertheless accomplished this difficult feat in “Lizzie’s Comin’ Home,” where the Curry men show their love for her by saying how glad and grateful they are that she’ll soon be returning.
Part of their love is their appreciation that she keeps house, cooks and cares for them. Lizzie would prefer to do that in her own home with a husband. Jones had her state to the spouse she imagines in “Love, Don’t Turn Away” that “I have so many longings that belong to you.”
Lehman Engel, creator the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop, said a song’s words should sing as well as the music. “Longings” and “belong” do just that.
We’re also told that musical theater songs should advance the action. That doesn’t happen in “Poker Polka,” in which the Curry men endeavor to get local Sheriff File interested in Lizzie. When their suggestions of card playing, dancing and a good, home-cooked meal don’t get him to take the bait, the Currys at song’s end are back where they started. But that’s the point of the song: they’re getting nowhere in getting Lizzie married.
Actually, we see that File’s problem is that his wife left him for another man; he’s so embarrassed by it that he claims that she died.
The Currys’ other difficulty is one that they share with the town. No rain has fallen in weeks; horses and livestock, on which these people depend for a living, have died from heat exhaustion.
Enter Starbuck, who has nothing to do with coffee, but something with water. In “The Rain Song,” he claims that he can bring just that and has “forty-‘leven different methods” to accomplish it. Jones could have obviously written “forty-seven” but chose a clever way to characterize a man who promises more than even he expects to deliver.
Starbuck has another moment that shows Jones’ words are music: “I shout like hell ‘till I scare the hail,” he sings. Then he assures them that it’ll be such a downpour that they’ll “make up stories” about it. Interesting word choice from a con man, no?
The cost: $100. H.C. and Jimmy are willing to pay; neither Noah nor Lizzie believe Starbuck can do anything but take money from desperate people. After Lizzie and Starbuck each insist, “You’re Not Fooling Me,” she’s stung when he belittles her femininity. She’ll consider being “Raunchy” to the point where she’ll not only be “shaking my caboose” but she’ll be “sippin’ Dr. Pepper mixed with booze.” The former is the quintessential Texas drink, created in Waco; Jones knew that, for he hailed from Littlefield, Texas.
Lizzie then has a heart-to-heart conversation with File, who now has a need to admit that his wife left him. He becomes plaintive in “A Man and a Woman,” a smart choice of words on Jones’ part. Writers are told to be specific, so many might have written “Betty and I.” Jones knew that File would find explaining easier if he were generic and indicated that all men and all women have problems. At song’s end, he does allow a ray of hope that makes us see he may be husband material after all – that marriage can work “as long as they are both willing to try.”
Still, an altercation between him and Lizzie leads to her realization – reinforced by unfeeling Noah – that she’ll be an “Old Maid.” Here’s where Jones went for the specifics that Nash had overlooked. Lizzie sees a life that will have her “rearrange the furniture; there’s nothing left to do” as well as “buy a tiny mockingbird and lock him in his cage” – an image that suggests Lizzie will be in a type of cage, too.
That a woman can only find happiness through a husband will rankle many today; keep in mind, though, that both the play and the musical were set in 1936. Remember, too, that almost 20 years after the musical had opened and nearly a half-century after the property’s time-period, women made a best-seller out of Penelope Russianoff’s Why Do I Think I Am Nothing Without a Man? It’s still in print.
Starbuck insists that Lizzie needs a grander name: “Melisande,” the daughter of King Hamlet of Mexico. Nash came up with the fanciful moniker, but Jones added “Mexico,” which allowed Schmidt to go mariachi. Did Jones just need a rhyme for “(love her) so” and thus set the song in that country, or did Schmidt come up with his melody first and inspired Jones to set his locale south of the border? Alas, with both gone now, we’ll probably never know.
Lizzie’s knowledge of Hamlet lets her tell Starbuck that something is rotten in the state of Texas: him. She rebuts that she’s no princess and all that she wants is “Simple Little Things.” Again, Jones gets specific where Nash didn’t; she wants someone to ask her, “Lizzie, are the children all in bed?” Oh, how we hope that can happen.
Credit where it’s due, Starbuck does get Lizzie to improve her self-image. When he insists that she has beauty, “Is It Really Me?” she wonders. And how can she actually see her beauty? Jones scores a victory here, too, by having her see herself reflected “deep inside your eyes.”
Now that Lizzie’s come into her own, Starbuck wants to marry her (or so he thinks). File, who until now had taken her for granted, decides he’d better act fast.
Jones was careful here to have File refer to kids – that as his wife, she’ll be “watching the children running inside; running with arms open wide.” We’ve seen Lizzie already mention kids, and so we know he and she are the ideal pair.
Unlike Madge in Picnic, who rejected the man with his feet firmly on the ground in favor of one with his head in the clouds – and this only 20 months before The Rainmaker opened – Lizzie wisely opts for stability rather than adventure.
One other thing. Nash has Starbuck admit to Lizzie that he’s chosen that name, for he was born “Smith! Now what kind of handle is that for a fella like me.” Perhaps of all the people who worked on 110 IN THE SHADE, one named Jones understood that line best of all.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available for pre-order on Amazon.