How a Wrong Turn at the Lambs Club Introduced Lerner to Loewe, and An Anomaly Explained

News   How a Wrong Turn at the Lambs Club Introduced Lerner to Loewe, and An Anomaly Explained Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel explains how the Lerner and Lowe musical Paint Your Wagon is a fascinating anomaly from the songwriting team best known for My Fair Lady and Camelot.

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On the face of it, there could hardly be two less likely authors of the 1951 Gold Rush musical Paint Your Wagon than Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Loewe, the elder of the two by 17 years, was born in Berlin to Viennese parents, and grew up in the world of operetta — his father was a singer, and he, himself, a classical piano prodigy. Lerner was a dyed-in-the-wool (and other fabrics) New Yorker whose father founded Lerner Stores, a chain of dress shops. Each was a consummate big-city sophisticate in his own way: Loewe a product of old-world European Jewish culture, Lerner of the Choate School and Yale. The rough-and-tumble world of Paint Your Wagon would seem to be about as far from their collective personal experience as one could get.

That they created this show might be less surprising if Paint Your Wagon were an antic farce of the type routinely put together by Cole Porter or the Gershwins in the 1930s. Those kinds of girls-and-gags shows, their great scores notwithstanding, could take place anywhere, with no authenticity required. But Lerner and Loewe came later, and had much larger dramatic ambitions for the follow-up to their 1947 hit Brigadoon. They wanted to make a mark of a different sort.

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

They had met at the Lambs Club, where Loewe took a wrong turn heading to the men's room and bumped into Lerner's table. They began to write together, with escalating success. First came Life of the Party in 1942, which never made it out of Detroit. A year later, What's Up? managed 63 performances at the National (now the Nederlander) Theater on West 41st Street, followed by The Day Before Spring, which racked up 167 performances at the same venue in 1945. Then came Brigadoon in 1947, which put the team on the map for good.

Brigadoon has always been classified as an original musical rather than an adaptation of a preexisting work like a novel or a play, though the plot closely resembles that of an 1862 German short story called "Germelshausen," which Loewe might well have known; Lerner denied it all of his life. But it's at least possible that Lerner and Loewe's first solid hit (like their subsequent ones) was, in some ways, an adaptation. With Paint Your Wagon, Lerner went back to the idea of starting from scratch, with nothing to rely on but his own sense of invention. Nonetheless, the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition hovers over Paint Your Wagon. Like Oklahoma!, Carousel and South Pacific, the show is rendered on a big, heroic American canvas, and deals with social issues—ungoverned capitalism, religion, racism, sexism—that have always dogged the American consciousness and provided fodder for seriously intended musicals. Unlike Brigadoon or the subsequent My Fair Lady and Camelot, all of which are set in the British Isles, this was a purely American show with a purely American subject. And, as it turned out, Loewe had spent part of his poverty-stricken youth as a rural mail carrier in the untamed West — so their new show might not have been quite as far from home as one would naturally suspect.

If Brigadoon was romantic fantasy, Paint Your Wagon was poetic realism. The California Gold Rush provided a great melting pot in which to examine the difficulties of creating community from diversity, not to mention the endless push to the frontier that seems to be at the core of the American character. And in Ben Rumson, the aging, unrepentant prospector who is perpetually on the move, Lerner invented a character both familiar and original: a man with an individual moral compass, an unapologetic desire to satisfy his appetites for adventure, power, women and alcohol, and a deep-seated sense of responsibility to his young daughter. Ben is a man of classic American contradictions — ornery and sentimental, bull-headed and wise, and forever a little lost.

Like the lone gunfighters and deeply private war heroes so often played by John Wayne, it's hard to make this kind of character sing. His inner thoughts don't want to go public. And, indeed, Ben doesn't sing a lot in Paint Your Wagon. The show's music is mainly in the hands of his daughter, the young Mexican prospector she falls in love with, and the various miners and saloon girls who surround them. In addition, there's a lot of dance.

Justin Guarini, Alexandra Socha and Keith Carradine star in the Encores! production
Justin Guarini, Alexandra Socha and Keith Carradine star in the Encores! production Photo by Joan Marcus

This makes for colorful variety and a musical sound that embraces Western and Latin influences as well as pure campfire corn. But despite the undoubted temptation to "write down" to the untutored characters and primitive setting that they had created, Lerner and Loewe remain natural sophisticates, which creates a useful tension in the show. There's an inner dignity to the principal characters, and their music expresses simplicity while never feeling simplistic.

From the propulsive opening number "I'm On My Way" through ruminative ballads like "I Talk to the Trees" and "Another Autumn" (the show's most under-appreciated gem), Loewe deploys all of the skills of a great Broadway composer with brio and confidence, and Lerner's lyrics achieve an easy vernacular language while remaining beautifully crafted. There is a rowdy, rhythmic energy in numbers like "Whoop-Ti-Ay" and "There's a Coach Comin' In" that capture the exuberance of the pioneer spirit, and a gentle folksiness to Ben's remembrance of his late wife, "I Still See Elisa," that is classic mid-period Broadway.

As to the songs for the young lovers, the outcast miner Julio sings romantic, full- throated and long-lined melodies accompanied by Latin rhythms in the orchestra, while the not-quite-yet-adult Jennifer employs a stop-and-start musical language perfectly suited to teenage confusion about love. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the unique "They Call The Wind Maria," which begins with a simple banjo line, but which Encores! music director Rob Berman calls "an extraordinary piece in composition and arrangement, with the insistent rhythmic rising fifth in the accompaniment evoking rolling wheels heading West. The haunting, almost other-worldly lyric and the vocal arrangement make it into a kind of ensemble art song for gold miners." Indeed, much of the score suggests that Loewe spent time listening to the classic Western movie music of the 1940s composed by people like Dimitri Tiomkin and Richard Hageman. Still, Paint Your Wagon retains a classic Golden Age Broadway musical identity.

In addition to the songs themselves, Paint Your Wagon featured choreography by Agnes de Mille, whose own Broadway breakthrough came with Oklahoma!, and who had made a name for herself with Rodeo, a Western-themed ballet she had created in 1942. She was an obvious choice for the job, and created several elaborate dance sequences which added to the bulk of the show and reinforced its serious intentions.

In the end, Paint Your Wagon may simply have buckled a bit under the weight of everything it was trying to accomplish. Critics were respectful, but tempered their enthusiasm with plenty of cautionary notes. The show was seen as big, bold and smart, but also seemed to be trying to muscle its way to greatness through sheer heft. Eagerly anticipated, it ran a season on Broadway and had a somewhat longer run in London, where it must have seemed especially exotic in its American-ness.

Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg starred in the 1969 film version
Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg starred in the 1969 film version

The show eventually recouped its investment 16 years after it opened, thanks to a movie sale. The resulting 1969 film, which Lerner produced and co-wrote with Paddy Chayefsky, jettisoned the plot and some of the original score, with André Previn providing new music, as Loewe had retired. Despite the presence of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, it was not a critical or financial success, and the title Paint Your Wagon has gone underground since.

In reexamining the original, we've rediscovered the glory of Lerner and Loewe's score and of their ambition to climb to the top of the musical theatre mountain and sit with the great ones, with R&H, with the Gershwins, with Lorenz Hart and Porter and Berlin. They didn't quite get there with Paint Your Wagon. But just as its Broadway fortunes were beginning to fade in the spring of 1952, Lerner, who was out in Hollywood working on the movie of Brigadoon, got a phone call. On the other end of the line was filmmaker Gabriel Pascal, who had produced the movie version of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in 1938. He was offering Lerner and Loewe the opportunity to transform his film — and the play on which it was based — into a Broadway musical, the most sophisticated one ever written. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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