Hootenanny tonight

This week in New York you can see your choice of two musicals depicting Mormons and your choice of two musicals using the same jaunty minor-key bridge. (Many know this with the words “will you join in our parade?” but the superior 1951 version goes “when I learned to talk the word they taught me was goodbye.”) I recommend you opt for Paint Your Wagon, beautifully staged for City Center’s Encores by Marc Bruni.

The focus, as it’s supposed to be, is on the music of a rarely-seen musical. And that’s where the evening’s strengths lie. Conductor Rob Berman gets glorious sonic splendor out of 31 (!) instrumentalists. A male chorus of 17 (!) puts out a gorgeous macho sound. And there’s this guy,

Nathaniel Hackmann,  who manages to be powerful and plaintive, the sort of strength some complain is lacking in voices today.

While Keith Carradine and Justin Guarini are names you might know (from television), the true star of Paint Your Wagon is one Alexandra Socha. I’ve praised her in the past – she introduced the wonderful Majoring In Joan in Fun Home off-Broadway. But I was wholly unprepared for the fabulousness – playing another female lead who’s the daughter of the protagonist – of her portrayal here. Fun Home‘s a contemporary musical, and, as you’d expect, Socha acted and sang in an utterly “today” way. Paint Your Wagon‘s a mid-twentieth-century Broadway show and Socha uses all the devices of the great performers of the 1950s.

To quote a quote Alan Jay Lerner quoted in a different show, Socha’s star-making turn beggars all description. In her first verse she sings the word “on” over two bars. Today’s belters would loudly blare all eight beats.  Socha starts quietly and lets the note grow, her face registering the enjoyment of steadily turning up the volume. She also prioritizes comedy over mere sound: if cutting a note short will help a joke land, that’s the way it’s going to be. She’s also a physical actress, imbuing a dance with a man’s shirt with heart and humor. The audience slumps down a little when the plot sends her offstage.

That plot, an Alan Jay Lerner original, is the Achilles Heel. There are jokes, thankfully, but the gold rush town being depicted is subject to a force of nature: there’s either gold in the river or there isn’t. So the story feels arbitrary. There’s no villain standing in anyone’s way. Prejudice (against a Mexican) is mentioned, but has no discernible effect on the characters. One might credit the show for featuring an “interracial” romance, but bigotry, here, is no impediment to the lovers.

On the plus side, the Latino lover inspires some beautiful beguines from composer Frederick Loewe. I could feel the influence of Copland’s El Salón México. But really, when music captures the spirit of the Wild West, can thoughts of Copland ever be far behind? What Lerner & Loewe wrought is the best set of show tunes ever to be set in this time and place. Many are structured like folk songs, with repeated lyric lines and a minimum of rhymes. (There’s even a glaring false rhyme, not that that’s ever a good thing.)

This is the first time Encores has done a Lerner and Loewe show, and this Broadway season will also see their Gigi on the boards. When you listen to that score, you could swear it had to be written by a Frenchman. When you listen to the songs for two disparate classes in Edwardian London in My Fair Lady, it seems the most British of compositions, ever. Brigadoon gives jazz to its contemporary American hero but the 18th century Scots are chock full of burrs in Loewe’s music. Was there ever a better musical chameleon that Vienna-born Frederick Loewe? It’s my feeling that every theatre composer ought to study the panoply of devices he used to get his scores to sound so different, so true to their settings. The verisimilitude of Paint Your Wagon may be the most impressive accomplishment of them all.

How I wish his collaborator had come close to matching his brilliance. The plodding plot, as aimless as a tumbleweed, has nothing much to say about the Gold Rush, and manages to say a number of rather unpleasant things along the way. Alan Jay Lerner dreamed up a situation rife with musical comedy possibilities: A remote mining town populated by men and the only female is the mayor’s daughter. One trouble is she’s 16, and nobody’s told her about the birds and the bees. So, the men can’t make advances, there’s no humor in the possible rape of a minor, and, in 1951, you couldn’t do a lot of gags about what outlets men might seek for their sexual urges. Then, as luck would have it, a Mormon man arrives in town, and he has two bickering wives. The townspeople force him to auction off one of them, as if she’s his property, or a slave. Does the top bidder get a sexual partner? It’s a rather awful question. Musicals – especially 64 years ago – must have a certain amount of charm to survive.

Alan Jay Lerner, sequentially (of course), married eight women. Some of his heroines, like the one here, come off as painfully naive. But the more disturbing thing, to my mind, is that he frequently likes to explore misogyny. Henry Higgins expresses contempt for women in dazzling diction:

Their heads are full of cotton, hay and rags
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating

Calculating, agitating, maddening, and infuriating hags

and somehow we don’t recoil from his sexism. In the Lerner and Loewe musical that came just before My Fair Lady, Paint Your Wagon, a girl goes off to finishing school and returns us to tell us the trivial lessons she’s learned she’s learned “all for him” as if women’s education has no value other than making one better wife material. It’s a little hard to applaud a song like that.

So, as I said at the start, there are two musicals depicting Mormons in town. But the other one, the musical comedy that actively tries to offend people, doesn’t seem as offensive as Paint Your Wagon, which didn’t.

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