The All-Star Musical
By Peter Filichia –
In my recent book Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010, I gave awards that baseball annually bestows but theater doesn’t: Most Valuable Player, Comeback Player of the Year and Reliever of the Year, among others.
I also thought about what the ultimate “All-Star Game” would be. True, every year there’s at least one musical that could be said to be all-star-studded. But looking over the past fifty seasons, there was no question which was the all-starriest: I Do! I Do! which opened forty-five years ago this week.
Even the musical’s source material — The Fourposter – was a winner, as it copped the Tony for Best Play in the 1951-1952 season. But it was the musical’s star power that gives it the honor. Its producer was David Merrick, who by 1966 had already amassed 24 Tony nominations, five wins and one special award. The entire cast consisted of legends Mary Martin (four Tonys) and Robert Preston (one Tony and one Oscar nomination). The director and choreographer was Gower Champion, who’d already won five Tonys and had had one other nomination.
Finally, there was the marvelous score, with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt. They’d each “only” garnered one Tony nomination (for their first Broadway effort, 110 in the Shade), but their little off-Broadway show The Fantasticks was still around after more than six years. Little did anyone know that the run of that one was only one-seventh over, en route to a 42-year stint.
Speaking of long runs, I Do! I Do! covered one: a fifty-year marriage between Michael and Agnes that had started in 1898. The show begins with three different songs resulting in almost six minutes of music – one of the longest opening sequences of its era.
Michael and Agnes prepare for their wedding (“All the Dearly Beloved”), take their vows (“Together Forever”) and celebrate (the title song). The more cynical among us might say the biggest lyrical joke of all time occurs during the third song, when both Michael and Agnes proclaim, “You can throw away your ev’ry care and doubt, ‘cause that’s what married life is all about.” But isn’t that what youth believes?
“Goodnight” has Michael and Agnes singing in order to stall the inevitable: having sex for the first time. In this age of the TLC TV series The Virgin Diaries, it seems that everything old is new again.
One of the oldest show-biz conventions is the soft-shoe, but there has never been a softer shoe than the one that Preston did in “I Love My Wife.” The reason: he was barefoot, and danced while in his nightshirt. The image is gone, but the song lives on thanks to this cast album.
Actually, both husband and wife love each other, which is why they tenderly sing “My Cup Runneth Over” — with love. The song was a bit of a hit in 1966, getting a few cover recordings and renditions on variety shows of the day.
Perhaps it would have done even better if it had had a more varied structure. Jones and Schmidt opted for A-A-A instead of the usual A-A-B-A that so many show songs had in the ‘60s. With one section heard three times in a row, there may not have been enough of a variation on a theme.
Martin shows a sense of wonder in “Something Has Happened,” when Agnes muses on her pregnancy. Actually, “pregnancy” was a pretty frank term at the turn of the century, which is why Michael prefers the euphemism “confinement” to discuss what happened to Agnes before his son and daughter were born. Births of children are almost always cause for celebration in musicals, and they are here, too.
Michael may be delighted at being a father, but to Agnes, “Love Isn’t Everything” because two kids are a great deal of work. She’s not stern enough, however, to miss that “love is what makes it sorta fun.”
Ah, into every life, a little rain must fall, and Category One hurricane winds start with “Nobody’s Perfect,” which is what Michael and Agnes think of each other after years of living together. Snarls Michael, “You give me Russian dressing which I happen to detest.” For the record, that dressing can’t be very popular in England, for the 1968 London cast album has Ian Carmichael complain to Anne Rogers, “You give me pickled onions which I happen to detest.”
The hurricane reaches Category Two when Michael observes “It’s a Well-Known Fact,” a hat-and-cane number that Preston delivers in razz-ma-tazz style. He insists “that a man gets more attractive” as he ages. But even in less-enlightened 1966, lyricist Jones was treading on dangerous territory when he had Michael glibly sing, “Men of forty go to town; women go to pot.”
Such a statement would incense a woman of any era, and soon the hurricane reaches Category Three with “Flaming Agnes.” It’s Martin’s barn-burner which she accents with a flamboyant hat that she’s been saving for an emotionally rainy day.
And we reach Category Four in “The Honeymoon Is Over.” So is Act One. Act Two avoids a Category Five hurricane, but instead begins with a kinder, gentler couple. “I think we’re getting older,” Michael admits; he gets no argument from Agnes. “Where Are the Snows (of yesteryear)?” he asks in a charming and melodic song that makes many of us wonder “Where are the shows of yesteryear?”
That’s sung on New Year’s Eve, making for the most low-key Dec. 31st song in musical theater history. And yet, there’s still a good deal of life yet in Michael and Agnes, who perk up in the next song. They can’t wait for life to start again “When the Kids Get Married” and they’re empty-nesters.
Everyone assumes that current director John Doyle was first to think of having his actors play instruments, too, but Champion had his two stars do it in this number. Preston plays the saxophone, albeit about as well as his ol’ alter ego Harold Hill would have played it. As for Martin, she played the violin; she tucked it right under her chin, and she bowed.
“When the Kids Get Married” turns out to be one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for moments, for the next song is called “The Father of the Bride,” as Preston realizes that daddy’s little girl is leaving home. The song has one of those obfuscating titles that prevents the big joke from being spoiled.
Think “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” in A Chorus Line, which really should be called “Tits and Ass” – and in fact was originally, until director Michael Bennett realized that the song wasn’t getting much response because everyone had read the title in the program. Once he changed the title, the song got its laughs. “The Father of the Bride” does too, as soon as Preston divulges the song’s first line and “real” title.
Once both the kids are married, Agnes feels unwanted. Martin does a poignant rendition of another song that saw some 1966 covers and popularity: “What Is a Woman?” That stirring song is the closest that I Do! I Do! has to an eleven o’clock number; the last three songs are tender in nature, befitting a husband and wife now in their seventies.
I Do! I Do! lost the Best Musical Tony to Cabaret, and ran less than half as long (560 performances to Cabaret’s 1,165). But talk to any unhappy fan of the 2004 New York Yankees or a deliriously thrilled fan of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Each will tell you that the team that’s expected to win a championship doesn’t always – even with a Champion on board.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com