By Steven Suskin
31 Mar 2008
EARTHLY PARADISE: Susan Watson Sings Jones & Schmidt [Nassau 96598]
An hour with Harvey Schmidt, for me, has always been like a day's vacation. His various musicals have been set in locales ranging from Paris to Texas, but in some ways the music always sounds like it comes from Harveyville and I'm ever ready for another visit.
Susan Watson apparently agrees, fortunately so. She sang an evening of Schmidt & Jones songs last summer at the Gardenia in Los Angeles, following which she took them into the recording studio. "Earthly Paradise" is the title of the album, after a song the boys wrote for Colette (the Off-Broadway play that starred Zoe Caldwell, not the musical). A nifty song it is, too; "Earthly Paradise" might well serve as an apt description of the CD itself.
Watson came to New York to attend Juilliard, but was quickly shipped off to London for the 1958 West End premiere of West Side Story; she played Velma, one of the Jet girls, and understudied Maria. Upon her return, she began her longstanding relationship with Schmidt & Jones, doing backers' auditions and the initial one-act version of The Fantasticks in the summer of 1959 at Barnard College. When the show was expanded for Off-Broadway, she was suddenly unavailable — already in her twenties, Watson landed the role of 16-year-old Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie. She followed this as the teenaged Lili in the national company of Carnival (from Birdie's Gower Champion and Michael Stewart), playing the role on Broadway for a while as well.
That same month, the inbound musical Ben Franklin in Paris fired their ingénue in Philadelphia. In came Watson. (Anyone remember who she replaced? Answer: the 16-year-old Jacqueline Mayro, the original Baby June in Gypsy.) Next came the 1965 New York State Theatre production of Carousel, as Carrie Pipperidge to Reid Shelton's Enoch Snow, with John Raitt recreating his Billy Bigelow. The following year she was once again a tryout replacement, playing a preacher's daughter who falls in love with Raitt as a wandering (and much older) folk singer. A Joyful Noise quickly fizzled, despite the presence of young choreographer Michael Bennett and younger dancer Tommy Tune. The departed ingénue this time? Donna McKechnie. And then it was back to Schmidt & Jones, for workshops and the eventual Broadway production of their experimental Celebration. She played the heroine Angel, as the character was named, with whips and a fig leaf no less.
Just when Watson seemed to be finished with teenaged roles, she received an emergency call to take over the title character in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette. At 32, she was once again playing a teenager. The production, which was to become a massive hit, was famously troubled. Watson provided the enterprise with a proverbial shot in the arm; it is to her great credit that even though she had developed a reputation as Broadway's "perennial ingénue," there appeared to be nothing resentful about it. Watson played this role — as she had Birdie — with a friendly charm and a sunny disposition that seemed to automatically brighten the show. Following Nanette, Watson headed out west to raise a family, with intermittent appearances along the way — including last summer's stint of Schmidt & Jones at the Gardenia, which resulted in "Earthly Paradise."
Ms. Watson takes us on a fine tour of the songbook. She sings two of her songs from The Fantasticks — "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You" — naturally enough, and recreates "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want" from Celebration. There are several songs from I Do, I Do, including a medley combining three alternate versions of the title song; two selections from 110 in the Shade, including the incredibly tender cut song, "Sweet River"; and two obscurities, "The Middle of the Road" from The Bone Room (which Watson did in 1975) and the uncharacteristically comic "Autumn at the Automat" from a 1961 television special. Colette/Collage is represented with four songs, including an especially moving "The Room Is Filled with You." Watson ends this lovely collection with "Joy," fittingly enough. Continued...