By Peter Filichia —
We’re having a heat wave in most of the country. Temperatures are hitting 110 in the shade.
Well, many of you have already inferred where this column is going: to 110 in the Shade, the first Broadway musical written by bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt in 1963.
It’s the musical version of The Rainmaker, “set in a western state from dawn to midnight of a summer day in a time of drought.” N. Richard Nash’s play had lasted for only 125 performances in the 1954-1955 season, but it became much more popular through its film version in 1956. Katharine Hepburn was Lizzie Curry, the woman who was fast becoming what women most dreaded in those days: an old maid.
Her father H.C. and brothers Noah and Jimmy had tried everything they could to marry her off, but no one seemed interested. Their last hope was File, the local sheriff. But he’d closed the door on romance after his wife had left him for another man. File was so humiliated at being cuckolded that he told everyone that his wife had died.
Actually, nobody was feeling romantic at that moment because it was, as Cole Porter remarked about a similar situation in Kiss Me, Kate, “too darn hot.” But there would soon be a big breeze arriving – when Starbuck got to town. He was a fast-talker who made Harold Hill seem like Demosthenes before he found his marbles. He claimed that in 24 hours, he could bring rain – but he’d want $100 for the privilege.
Young naïve Jimmy believed, while Noah and H.C. were quite wary. But most skeptical of all was Lizzie. Starbuck knew how to get to her, however: by pointing out that she was a woman no one wanted. And yet, he’d make it his personal challenge to make her feel beautiful. Maybe Starbuck can’t bring rain, but he does accomplish something special in giving Lizzie a chance to believe in herself. He’s the catalyst who spurs File into proposing. The woman who had no man that morning suddenly had two vying for her that night.
Jones and Schmidt’s resumé back then wouldn’t have suggested that they were the right people for the job. There wasn’t much Wild West in the one off-Broadway show they’d written: The Fantasticks.
But, as they entered producer David Merrick’s office in late 1962, they could boast that The Fantasticks had been running for more than a thousand performances. How amazing! No other original off-Broadway musical could remotely boast that it had run that long. Whoever expected that this modest little show would have stayed around for two-and-a-half years?!
If you think David Merrick was unduly impressed, you’re wrong. By this point in his career, Merrick had already had his name on 29 Broadway productions. He’d never produced off-Broadway, and, in fact, in the next third-of-a-century, he never would. So Merrick certainly wasn’t going to be in awe of these two writers who didn’t even have one Broadway show to their credit.
“And,” Jones has said, “Merrick’s all-red office was intimidating in itself. Not only that, we had to stand, because Merrick didn’t have any other chair in his office but his own — all to keep his visitors ill-at-ease.”
What Jones and Schmidt did have going for them was that both writers hailed from Texas. They literally knew the territory that was covered in The Rainmaker. It’s one reason they got the job. (Great talent is another.) What they wrote got them a 1963-1964 Tony nomination for Best Score, beating out scores by Dietz and Schwartz (Jennie) , Bock and Harnick (She Loves Me) , Stephen Sondheim (Anyone Can Whistle) and Noel Coward (The Girl Who Came to Supper) . As expected, Jerry Herman won for Hello, Dolly!
Jones and Schmidt deserved their nod. You can feel Texas in the wide-open-spaces, Copland-esque overture. Interestingly enough, the original cast album didn’t include it in the first 27 years of its existence, but picked it up in 1990.
The overture was actually recorded when 110 went before the microphones on November 3, 1963. But when the original long-playing record was released the following month, it wasn’t part of the package.
Rumor had it that no one had noticed during the recording session that a trumpeter had played a wildly wrong note. Given that everyone had gone home – and that plugging in a different note was much more difficult in those comparatively audio-primitive days – producers Andy Wiswell and George Marek decided to drop the overture from the album.
It might have been a space consideration, too. Long-playing records just weren’t that long, not in comparison to what compact discs could offer. So when 110 in the Shade made its CD debut in June, 1990, the overture was suddenly included.
But it does seem that the rumor had been true. Listen to the overture, and see if 58 seconds in you don’t hear a shrill musical clam.
Everything’s pretty choice after that. While many musicals start with “a big numba,” 110 couldn’t, because everyone’s too crazy with the heat to start singin’ and dancin’ up a storm. (In fact, isn’t this a problem with the aforementioned Cole Porter song? If it’s “Too Darn Hot,” why is everyone cuttin’ up frenetically?)
The men then get excited because “Lizzie’s Comin’ Home” – not only because they’ve missed her (and her cooking), but also because they’re hoping that her vacation in Sweet River would have resulted in her meeting a man. Alas, it didn’t.
Nash’s scripts both for the play and the musical establish that Lizzie is “plain.” Ah, but she has a good deal of inner beauty, which is why Jones and Schmidt allowed her to show it via a glorious soprano. Inga Swenson provided it for Lizzie, when she implored “Love, Don’t Turn Away.” There have been times in all our lives when we’ve felt like Lizzie: alone, without a romance remotely on the horizon. How can there be a happy ending for her?
Later Swenson used her soprano when musing on “Simple Little Things” before she had Lizzie come into her own in “Is It Really Me?” But she also proved that she could get down and dirty when she confronted Starbuck in “You’re Not Foolin’ Me” or when she decided to act “Raunchy” in order to land a man. But that was all bravado, as was proved at the Act One curtain when she squarely faced what she believed would be her future in “Old Maid.” Alas, we can’t see Lizzie silhouetted against a red hot sky as she dragged her shawl upstage, but Swenson’s agony can almost make us visualize it.
Jones and Schmidt did well by Starbuck, too. First, he’d get “Rain Song,” in which he promised the townspeople that he’d bring relief from temperatures that had hit over 43 degrees Celsius. Watch Burt Lancaster as Starbuck in the film, and you’ll be impressed at how close the songwriters stayed to his speech. Seldom if ever has a verse been taken virtually verbatim from the source material’s dialogue. After Schmidt had skillfully set Nash’s words, he then segued into setting Jones’ lyrics for the refrain. The result was such a bolt of lightning piece of material that you’d expect the rain to start falling right then and there.
Add to it that Robert Horton, who had become a TV star thanks to 187 episodes of the top-rated western series Wagon Train, did it splendidly. Then, in “Melisande,” the song in which he teaches Lizzie to be all that she can be, he’s so effective that you might find yourself echoing words that he says: “Great God A’mighty!”
Some may feel that that the plot has dated badly in these post-feminist times. But let’s remember that not that long ago Why Do I Think I Am Nothing without a Man? sold over two million copies and was translated into almost three dozen languages.
One can also argue that the musical is not simply about getting a man, but getting the right man. As Julie tells Magnolia in Show Boat, “Love’s a funny thing. There’s no sense to it. That’s why you got to be so careful when it comes creeping up on you.” Lizzie gets ample opportunity to make the wrong choice. See if she makes the right one in the stirring finale, “Wonderful Music.” That title alone is a most apt description of the sixteen cuts that have come before – aside from, of course, one wild wrong note.