|About this Recording
8.120877 - LOEWE, F.: Paint Your Wagon (Original Broadway Cast) (1951) / WEILL, K.: Love Life (1955)
Paint Your Wagon
Herb Harris or Percy Brice, drums
There’s a fairly simple rule for evaluating the lasting merit of the shows written by Alan Jay Lerner: the stronger the original source material, the more durable the final product.
That’s why My Fair Lady (based on Shaw’s Pygmalion), Camelot (from White’s The Once and Future King) and Gigi (from Colette’s play of the same name) generally stand the test of time better than originals like The Day Before Spring and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This selection of songs from Paint Your Wagon (1951) and Love Life (1948) proves this theory, but also makes you aware that even when Lerner the librettist could be on shaky ground, Lerner the lyricist was still capable of turning out some first-rate work.
Both shows were quirky, ground-breaking works that weren’t giant hits in their original presentations and have rarely been revived since. They also both have some glorious songs in their scores, thanks to the music of Frederick Loewe (Paint Your Wagon) and Kurt Weill (Love Life).
Lerner was originally inspired to write Paint Your Wagon by the gold rush stories of Bret Harte, even though none of them were specifically referenced in the final work.
As frequently happened to the procrastinating Lerner during his career, the time lapse between inspiration and execution spanned several years and after conceiving the show shortly after Brigadoon opened in 1947, it took him over three years to sit down and write it.
The final plot combined the lusty atmosphere of the mid 19th century Gold Rush in California with two personal stories: one of a grizzled prospector who couldn’t stop wandering and the other concerning the interracial love affair between the prospector’s daughter and a young Mexican.
From the very beginning of the out-of-town tryout, critics praised the show’s score and its eclectic cast (which combined veteran James Barton with newcomers Olga San Juan and Tony Bavaar), but had trouble with the disjointed and overly ambitious book.
Unfortunately, no amount of late-night rewrites could fix the problems of the script and when it opened on 12 November 1951, the critics were fairly chilly.
Walter Kerr attacked the show’s ‘rather tenuous and deflated romance’ while Wolcott Gibbs, out for blood, said that while Lerner was ‘credited’ with the book, ‘it’s hard to believe everybody around the premises didn’t just make it up as they went along’.
Notices like those brought the show’s run to an end after 289 performances and it has never been professionally revived on Broadway.
Strangely enough, it did turn into one of the most expensive ($20 million) flops of its time when made into a 1969 movie, cast almost totally with non-singers like Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.
So with all this against it, why do we keep turning to Paint Your Wagon? As with so many similar shows that didn’t quite succeed, the attraction is the glory of the score.
Lerner may not have known how to put the feelings he wanted to convey into dialogue, but – combined with the melodies of his marvellously protean partner Loewe – he certainly did it in his songs.
The opening miners’ chorus I’m On My Way is one of the lustiest, most energetic beginnings a musical has ever had and that stirring emotion is duplicated in their other choral numbers such as There’s a Coach Comin’ In and Hand Me Down That Can of Beans.
Barton wasn’t much of a singer, but he acts his two big numbers (Wand’rin’ Star and I Still See Elisa) beautifully. Leading lady San Juan doesn’t get the best material but does nicely with what she’s been given, in particular What’s Goin’ On Here? and How Can I Wait?.
Two of the best numbers fall to the young Bavaar: I Talk to the Trees which became a standard and the haunting Another Autumn.
But an indication of what was wrong with the show comes from the fact that its finest song, They Call the Wind Maria, is given to a minor character in a scene that’s largely there for atmosphere.
Paint Your Wagon will never be remembered as a great show, but its score has many memorable moments and this recording preserves them in fine style.
As a bonus, there’s also a pair of the lyricist’s own renditions (Wand’rin’ Star and I Talk to the Trees) from the Lyrics by Lerner album, which reveal a light voice but an understandably deft way with the words.
The remainder of this album consists of selections from Love Life in a 1955 studio recording featuring Lerner and Kaye Ballard, a popular stage, TV and cabaret artist of the period.
One of Lerner’s most ambitious shows, the 1948 Love Life, written in collaboration with Kurt Weill, may not have succeeded on its own, but laid the groundwork for many influential shows of the future like John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, as well as Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
It tells the story of a married couple, Sam and Susan Cooper and follows their relationship from 1791 to 1948, although they never grow older.
Conceived as a vaudeville show, it featured sequences, for example, on a tightrope or one in which the leading lady was sawn in half.
When it opened on 7 October 1948, some critics, such as Richard Watts, hailed it as ‘a musical play of excitement, distinction and style’, but the most influential scribes, like Brooks Atkinson, derided it as ‘showmanship gone wrong’. It closed after 252 performances and has also never had a major revival.
There are many virtues to be found in the score, however, and it’s refreshing to hear the saucy Ballard give her all to numbers like Green-Up Time and Here I’ll Stay, while Lerner’s martini-dry voice is perfect for the satire of Progress or the bittersweet Love Song.
Even when writing for shows that never really realized their full potential, Alan Jay Lerner was always capable of crafting lyrics of wit and warmth, while bringing out the melodic best in his collaborators. These songs from Paint Your Wagon and Love Life are winning illustrations of his unique talent.
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