Sunday Morning Michael Dale: THE BAKER'S WIFE Sublimely Returns and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE's Satire Remains Uncomfortably Relevant

Two musicals that were disastrously unsuccessful when first produced now evoke cheers and devotion.

By: Mar. 13, 2022
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This week I saw productions of two decades-old musicals, each written by one of theatre's great composer/lyricists, which, in their original productions, ran a combined total of nine performances on Broadway.

"Neil Simon asked to have a meeting with me to talk about ideas for us to write a musical"...

...Stephen Schwartz explained to Artistic Director Robert W. Schneider in a on-stage post-performance discussion after J2 Spotlight Company's sublime production of his infamously unsuccessful, yet eventually beloved musical The Baker's Wife.

"He told me all these ideas and I didn't like any of them," continued the composer/lyricist who by then had achieved the distinction of having three musicals -- Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show -- running on Broadway simultaneously.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: THE BAKER'S WIFE Sublimely Returns and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE's Satire Remains Uncomfortably Relevant
Kelly Lester and Company

But Schwartz became intrigued by the last idea on Simon's list, to musically adapt The Baker's Wife, a 1938 film by French director/screenwriter Marcel Pagnol, when the playwright told him about the act of passive aggression that gave the story its ending.

The two of them started on the project, but Simon dropped out after his wife, dancer Joan Baim, died at age 41. Schwartz figured he'd go on to something else, but then Joseph Stein, bookwriter of Fiddler On The Roof and other fine musicals, expressed interest in taking on the assignment.

As with Pagnol's film, the musical was set in a small French village where the young wife of an elderly baker runs off to be with an attractive man closer to her age. The baker is so distraught that he cannot bake anymore, so the people of the town try and find her and convincer her to return to her husband so they may have fresh bread again.

But Schwartz and Stein delved deeper into the main characters, creating a backstory where the young Genevive has had her heart crushed by a lover, and, feeling she is unable to love again, accepted the devoted attention of the much older Aimable, who treats her like gold. Because she appreciates his unconditional love, even if she can't return it, she at first rejects the flirtations of the sexy Dominique, but, finally feeling passion again, she runs off with him.

For director Schneider's J2 Spotlight mounting, the relationship between Madison Claire Parks' Genevive and Howard Pinhasik's Aimable is truly heartbreaking to watch, as you can delight in the sincerity and joyousness of the baker's devotion, but feel the pain of the young bride who doesn't want to hurt the man who shows her such love, but feels compelled to follow her own heart. While Dominique is a cocky cad, who, in pursuing Genevive, shows her a great deal of disrespect, Bruce Landry's swaggering charm and sexy singing voice are formidably alluring.

But the spark wasn't igniting in Boston when The Baker's Wife was trying out in 1976, with Patti LuPone, Topol and Kurt Peterson playing the leading roles and producer David Merrick agreed when the authors requested that the production close without moving to Broadway.

That would have been that if record producers Doris and Bruce Yeko, who specialize in underappreciated theatre scores, hadn't requested the rights to make an album. There was no budget for a chorus, but with LuPone and Peterson on board and Paul Sorvino singing Topol's role, an album was made of solos and duets.

Remarkably, as Schwartz explains, there were so many changes done during the Boston tryouts of the show that the album's complete song list was never heard in any individual performance.

The recording became extremely popular among theatre fans, especially when Genevive's Meadowlark started being heard frequently in cabarets, but it seemed to Schwartz that without the chorus' involvement, it gave a false impression of what the musical was.

That all changed when Trevor Nunn expressed interest in doing a west end production, because so many actors were auditioning for him with songs from the score. It was Nunn who insisted that the show was the story of the whole village, and individual roles for the townspeople were fleshed out, especially when it came to the wives of the village longing for their husbands to treat them with the same kind of affection the baker shows his wife.

In the J2 production, this theme is beautifully acted and sung by Kelly Lester, playing the wife of a café owner who misses the romance of her marriage.

Further tinkering was done for productions at Goodspeed Opera House and Paper Mill Playhouse and now, as playing on Theatre Row through next Sunday, The Baker's Wife is as strong and captivating a musical about love, passion and realistic expectations as anyone can ask for.

When yesterday's satire is today's reality...

The record collect in the public library of the small village I grew up in during the 1960s and 70s had a handful of Original Broadway Cast Albums. There was a My Fair Lady, as you might expect, but the rest were unusually obscure: Donnybrook! (based on the John Wayne western The Quiet Man), Noel Coward's The Girl Who Came To Supper (Florence Henderson playing the Marilyn Monroe part in a musical version of The Prince and The Showgirl), and my favorite, the one I kept renewing and renewing and listening to even more than my Monkees albums, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' "wild new musical" (as it was billed) of 1964, Anyone Can Whistle.

My older siblings revolted against the establishment through the music of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Anyone Can Whistle was the protest music I could relate to.

It tells the story of a bankrupt town whose mayoress (their word, not mine) Cora Hoover Hooper promotes a fake miracle (water coming out of a rock) to lure in tourists and pilgrims willing to buy tickets in hopes of rejuvenating their lives. When nurse Fay Apple of the local sanitorium known as The Cookie Jar arrives with 49 of her patients ready to be cured, they accidentally mix into the crowd. A fellow identified as Dr. J. Bowden Hapgood is asked to separate the sane from the insane and, in a lengthy musical scene, he conducts individual interrogations that reveal a mob desire for safety through conformity and divides everyone into either Group A or Group 1.

I wasn't cultured enough to recognize the score's Kay Thompson parody or to appreciate the lyric "crazy business this, this life we're livin'" (Why isn't it just "is this life"?) but I was hooked by the catchy revivalist "Miracle Song" ("If water is a boon, we'll soon be in clover / Better issue stock, my rock runneth over."), the defiantly rebellious "Everybody Says Don't" and the faux French flirtation number, "Come Play Wiz Me." (I'm now convinced that what killed Cole Porter was his finding out that another lyricist came up with, "In time, mais oui, we may.")

Despite its 9-performance Broadway run, I came to regard Anyone Can Whistle as a masterpiece of social satire and to me and my college buddies hanging out in our parents' Long Island basements dreaming of the day we all move to the city, J. Bowden Hapgood was our Che Guevara.

Another person who thinks pretty highly of the show is Ted Sperling, artistic director of MasterVoices, that terrific classical music company that regularly does concert presentations of older musicals at Carnegie Hall.

Last Thursday's one-nighter was a gem, with Sperling taking his traditional place conducting the orchestra playing Don Walker's original 1964 orchestrations and a concert choir standing upstage.

With Joanna Gleason humorously supplying narration and the actors performing book in hand, Vanessa Williams was a cool, elegant presence as the corrupt mayoress and Santino Fontana's Hapgood was, like many successful political manipulators, a warm, friendly authority figure you might want to have a beer with. The evening's high points were supplied by Elizabeth Stanley as Nurse Apple, so touching in the title ballad as an emotionally bottled woman longing for the ability to let loose. When the character does attempt to escape her comfort zone with the belty "See What It Gets You", her transformation is so gutsy and inspiring that the audience responded with a large, extended ovation.

Shortly before the pandemic hit, MasterVoices' last musical in concert was Let 'Em Eat Cake, the 1933 Gershwin/Kaufman/Ryskind entry about an American president who, after losing his re-election bid, hires a profession rabble-rouser to stage a coup at the Capital. Viewers laughed at the silly satire, having no idea what was coming. With Anyone Can Whistle, watching a regular guy winning the devotion of people hungry for acceptance, we knew exactly where this was going.

Post-theatre treat of the week...

Anyone who has shared a table with me at Bar Centrale knows that I'll peruse the menu for a minute or so, then automatically request one on my favorite post-theatre treats, their chickpea fries.

Light and crispy, and dipped in a tasty coriander-yogurt sauce, they're the perfect accompaniment to lively discussions about which of the wives from Six truly did suffer the most or comparing notes on all the cuts and revisions you caught in The Music Man.

While I'm no expert on feminist theatre, like some people I know, I really enjoyed two examples that can still be seen Off-Broadway.

"It's a great time to be a cunning woman."

When I first heard that the title of Talene Monahon's new comedy was Jane Anger, I immediate envisioned a riot grrls Brontë sisters spoof.

I was off by about a century and a half, but nevertheless delighted at the goofy silliness sugar-coating a serious message. The play may have been inspired by a 1598 feminist pamphlet titled "Jane Anger Her Protection For Women," but the style of the sharp-witted romp, directed by Jess Chayes, seemed to me more reminiscent of the sketch comedy that used to make America belly laugh every week on The Carol Burnett Show.

It's no great stretch to imagine Burnett as the title character, though Amelia Workman gives the role an provocative intellectual flair. Little is known about the actual Jane Anger, but Monahon envisions her as a cunning woman, the period term for a folk healer, taking advantage of the terror-stricken masses of plague-infested London.

There's a punch-line parallel to social distancing that the playwright milks for a running gag, but for William Shakespeare, his severe case of writer's block being suffered while the theatres remain closed is serious business. Michael Urie and Ryan Spahn slickly handle the comical banter between the narcissistic bard and his dim-witted intern much the same way you might expect from Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, though an intricate bit involving an unusual surname hits the Abbott and Costello bullseye.

The plot involves Jane Anger's desire for Shakespeare's help in getting her pamphlet published, figuring he owes her one for being the inspiration for some of his nastier sonnets. Complications arise when Monahon herself appears, playing the bard's wife, Anne Hathaway, a role which I hope she won't mind my calling the Vicki Lawrence part.

Naturally Feminism triumphs in the end, though the business with a silly costume Urie and Spahn are given to play representing the fall of their patriarchal ways comes off a little too weird to really land.

But you know how it goes with men trying to be funny.

While promoting plays written by women isn't a part of The Mint Theater Company's stated mission... should be noted that, at the current season's end, 18 of their 59 productions since the company's 1995 premiere will have had women authors.

This is far from achieving parity, of course, but they do a lot better than most non-profit theatre companies, especially when you consider that their stated mission is to find and produce worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten. The likelihood of a worthwhile play from the past penned by a woman being produced or published is significantly lower than the likelihood of even a mediocre play from the past penned by a man being granted those privileges.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: THE BAKER'S WIFE Sublimely Returns and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE's Satire Remains Uncomfortably Relevant
Amy Blackman and Tom Coiner
(Photo: Maria Baranova)

And even when The Mint does mount works by men from over a hundred years ago, it can be surprising to see how feminist some of them are. Take their current offering, D.H. Lawrence's The Daughter-In-Law, which they previously produced in 2003.

It's the story of Minnie, a newlywed of refined upbringing dealing with how her coal minor husband Luther still sees his mother as the most important woman in his life. Very well played by Amy Blackman and Tom Coiner, Minnie, though shocked and saddened, accepts her husband's immature insensitivity towards her... until she doesn't. And when she doesn't, there were women in the audience the night I attended who boisterously voiced their approval.

Though completed in 1913, The Daughter-In-Law was never staged until 1967, when the rapidly expanding popularity of what was then called The Women's Liberation Movement was taking debates on gender equality from government chambers to suburban kitchen tables. I wonder how many second wave feminists attending that year gave similarly boisterous reactions to Minnie's demand for respect, and even more, how many who were sitting next to their own immature and insensitive husbands wanted to, but wouldn't dare show such public approval.

Some people defend the revising of older scripts as a way to avoid turning theatres into museums. But the thing about museums is that while the works of art go unchanged, the society reacting to them doesn't. And that's what keeps revivals fresh.

Curtain Line...

Stephen Schwartz, explaining how, when working on The Baker's Wife, he got the idea for the score's most psychologically complex and enduring song, Meadowlark, one morning, went to a piano and wrote the whole thing in one burst or creative inspiration: "It just happened."