History & Background: AKA The Boring Context
For the uninitiated, the script of a musical is made up of three parts: the music, the lyrics, and the book. The music is the actual melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. The lyrics are the words that are sung within that music (and sometimes spoken words during a song, but that can blur into the final element). And the book is all the spoken dialogue, occasionally inserted within a song but often whole scenes that help connect the songs through the course of the show. All three of these components work together to shape the story.
The original production of “Paint Your Wagon” opened on Broadway in 1951. The music was written by Frederick Loewe, and the lyrics and book were both written by Alan J. Lerner. Lerner and Loewe have worked as a team often, and together are responsible for other well-known musicals: “Brigadoon,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Camelot,” all of which they wrote with that same division of responsibilities.
In 1969, the show was adapted into a film of the same name starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg. Lerner is credited with the screenplay alongside Paddy Chayefsky (of Network fame) for the adaptation.
Pulitzer prize-nominated playwright Jon Marans wrote a new book for the musical which premiered in 2016 in Seattle, and also showed that same year in St. Paul, MN. This is the version that is playing at The MUNY from July 27-Aug 2.
My only experience with this show is in its latest iteration, but I have perused the synopses, and all three have markedly different plots and characters – primarily sharing the central character and general premise of ‘things that might happen in a gold-rush boomtown.’
I did not know the plot or premise before watching the show. I only inferred that it had a Western flair due to the titular wagon on stage prior to curtain emblazoned with “California or Bust,” and the fact that I was aware of Clint Eastwood’s casting in the movie. So judgement here will be passed purely on the merits of the show based on the script and production I witnessed Sunday evening in Forest Park.
Disclaimer: I Apologize For All My Broad Generalizations
Any sweeping claims I make do not necessarily reflect my overall perspective on the art form of theatre, but likely informed my expectations for viewing this piece. Plus if I don’t make mention of such now, I know I will hem and haw over, “when I say this, I mean is this or that context, but broadly I accept…” and that would be difficult and disinteresting to read, I imagine. And I may still qualify my statements regardless, such as in the first sentence of the next paragraph.
Setting Tone: You’re Not Required To Tell Me How To Feel, But You Probably Should
A piece of theatre does not need to telegraph its message to be good, but leaning on tropes and archetypes can be a useful way to quickly bring an audience into the world of the story. As we will see later in the song breakdown, the overall structure of shows from this era nearly requires this type of shorthand to get us started, because there’s a heckuva lotta songs to sing, and we still need to tell a story.
Ultimately my biggest complaint is that I’m not sure how I feel about the show due to either a lack of clarity in the overall tone, or possibly a disjointed relationship between the new book and the source material.
In broad strokes the plot is this: when all the things our protagonists hoped for finally came true, it inevitably leads to their destruction.
Many more things happen through the course of the show, but that’s just it: things happen. There is no greater through line pushing or pulling our characters to some other end through escalating conflict. They only make decisions because they woke up that day and encounter the natural circumstances of life in a soon-to-be boomtown.
Our main protagonist, Ben Rumson, begins as a wanderer, and is only brought to town when he pities a wayward soul and helps him find his way there. Once in town, Ben hangs out because…Armando promised him money? There is no dramatic tension, no motivation blocked by a conflict that needs to be overcome. Eventually he falls in love with the Only Woman In Town, but before he has a chance to, what keeps him there? Why doesn’t Ben go back to trapping pelts?
It is not until the wife-auction do we see any dramatic stakes beyond “digging for gold is hard work and uncertain.” There is a bit of social tension between the equalizing nature of the wilderness vs the privileged class trying to assert oligarchical structures out west, but that is never highlighted as a true dramatic conflict, so it only serves as matter-of-fact world building texture.
Throughout the exposition, Ben is moved only by the inevitable virtue of Being The Good Guy, rather than being motivated by his wants. It is not until he has acquired a windfall of sweet, sweet, nuggs do we learn of his desire to build back his lost former life. And maybe that’s a strong statement about what money does to the heart – but if I’m only discovering deeper thematic insights after reflection and analysis, do they really count? Theatre lives in the moment, and if the audience doesn’t connect in the moment, they don’t connect at all.
These structural foibles leave us with no clear entry point into the story. These elements are not necessary to exist as a piece, but they are expected by virtue of the medium. If your goal as a writer is to frustrate the genre by doing something unexpected, then you have to DO something unexpected, not just be unexpected. Unless the goal is narrative torpor as a comment on the entire medium of storytelling in general, but the Muny is not that hip.
Up to this point, I’ve characterized the show as a bit of a downer, which isn’t entirely true. But honestly it would have had a stronger identity if it was a downer the whole way, not a Muny identity, but still.
There is an odd disconnect between the two acts. The first act feels like it’s trying to be “Singin’ In The Rain,” and the second act is trying to be “Ragtime,” until the final scene when it turns around and ends on a hopeful sounding note.
However the journey through destruction and despair does not end with a concrete lesson learned other than, “well that was bad and we burned it all down, let’s not do that.” There is no reason to believe the characters have been inexorably changed – we have only seen an external journey, not an internal one. Take the Wheels Off echoes the same optimistic uncertainty of I’m On My Way. The only difference is one is about adventure out there, and the other is about adventure right here.
We are left with no hope that after the curtain Ben & Co will see prosperity and happily ever after. His language does not telegraph a clear and definitive paradigm shift. Maybe it won’t be dancing girls and roulette this time, but it will be something. And that conclusion may be truer to life, and I don’t expect every show to be a fairy tale. But the show did not actively set my expectations, so in the vacuum I assigned my own based on the era of the original production.
I refuse to believe the purpose of this show is to present a cynical, plainspoken look at the moral entropy of man (and men) left to their own devices. But ultimately that’s how the show comes across – just not as elegantly stated. And all that has a lot to do with how the book and songs fail to work equally together in shaping the story.
Why Write More Lyrics When We Can Sing The Chorus Again?
With its initial debut in 1951, “PYW” falls squarely into what is often referred to as the “golden age” of musical theatre. Shows of this era tend to have simple plots, centering around a romantic relationship between two main characters (the ‘A’ story), including a secondary plot line (the ‘B’ story) often involving a romance between supporting characters. There may also be a villian, and/or some greater societal crisis.
Few of the songs in this show actively drive the plot or set up motivations, and none of them dynamically move us from one place to the next in the story. That fact in and of itself is no flaw, and for “golden age” musicals this is a feature, not a bug.
In a typical example, all the songs are laid on an efficient foundation of archetypal characters and a nearly guaranteed happy ending. There’s a familiar framework that’s uncomplicated. The songs don’t need to do a lot of heavy lifting in moving the plot forward because, well, there’s not that heavy of a plot to move. It’s tried and true and it works, and that’s just a hallmark of the genre – neither good nor bad.
To this point, the bulk of the songs in this show fit into one of three categories: (a) love songs, (b) emotions-manifesting-as-nature-metaphor songs, and (c) we’re-out-here-doing-western-things songs.
Proof: (a) What Do Other Folk Do?, How Can I Wait?, I Talk To The Trees, Carino Mio; (b) Wand’rin’ Star, Another Autumn, They Call The Wind Maria; (c) I’m On My Way, No Name City, Four Hundred People Came To No Name City, Whoop-Ti-Ay!, Gold Fever, There’s A Coach Comin’ In, Rumson City, Take The Wheels Off The Wagon.
The only exception is I Still See Elisa, which is an emotional response song without a poetic metaphor. It serves for the main character to reassure his daughter that he still loves/cares for his late wife, her mother, even though he has remarried. Also, Wand’rin’ Star also doubles as a character establishment song.
But the new book has attempted to make the show more than what it was, which is ambitious, and maybe even commendable. But taking what we know, it’s not hard to imagine how that aim can lead to trouble.
Let’s Face It: A Reworked Classic Is Functionally A Jukebox Musical
In both cases, the job is to take established popular songs and interpolate them into a book musical. Within that proposition the options tend to be: vignettes, simple story, or mash-up and re-work the source songs to help tell a layered, dynamic tale.
If we have sixteen songs plus six reprises (which we do), and none of them move the character perspectives or drive action of the plot, then you won’t have enough time to develop a multi-faceted story with stakes and characters the audience can connect to and care about.
Marans’ version of the gold-rush drama inserts enough plot to fill a novel. This is exciting, as contemporary audiences are often happy to have something a little more to chew on than the standard A-plot and B-plot and a quadruple wedding in the sky. It is also foolhardy – not so much the task of updating and enlarging an older property, but trying to do so by only adjusting the book.
Songwriters have access to cheat codes of the human emotion. And that’s one of the wonderful things about musical theatre – there is an efficiency in music. Singing a song is like speaking in two languages at once, and if done well we can fit a rollercoaster of emotional buy-in across an A-plot, several C-plots, and even some pointed philosophical musings or broader societal commentary within two-and-half to three hours. But not every show is “Into The Woods.”
Now the songs of “Paint Your Wagon” were not written that way. These songs were written to fit the classic, simple, golden-age show structure. By trying to fit an A-story and several C-stories into this setting, you have to speed through vignette moments with the characters, telling and not showing motivations so we can comprehend the struggle.
The songs as they stand do not do any of the narrative heavy lifting, so that responsibility lands with the book. And when you add the complexities we have in this version of the show, the book has to put its foot on the gas of the plot details to keep the show from bloating to four hours in length. The audience is not given time to relate to the characters, and therefore cannot connect to the show.
Back to the proposition of classic updates and jukebox musicals, let’s take a stroll down correlation lane. This season at the Muny also brought us songs from a classic show accompanied by a contemporary updated book in “Cinderella,” as well as a categorical jukebox musical in “Footloose.”
In the original production of “Paint Your Wagon,” the lyricist also wrote the book. In “Footloose,” the lyricist co-wrote the book. I don’t know the critical reception of 1951’s “PYW,” but it’s endurance and film adaptation seem to suggest success. “Footloose” has a strong book, and overall tells the story it presents in a clear and unified manner.
Both “Cinderella” and the current iteration of “Paint Your Wagon” have bookwriters far removed from the lyricists, and as far as my nominal research goes, I am unaware of any contemporary contributions to those lyrics for these updated versions. Both of these shows, regardless of how you feel about the content of the story, suffer from a lack of unity in how the book and songs come together to connect that story to the audience.
Okay, So Am I Supposed To Not Like This Show?
Eh. The story that is being attempted is not without value. And the songs are not without value. But as it stands, the elements of the show are irreconcilable. The saccharine, gilded nature of the songs clash with the gritty, social drama of the book. Both are presented in earnest on separate tonal planes, leading to dramatic cognitive dissonance.