By Peter Filichia
Had all gone well, a revival of Pump Boys and Dinettes would have opened on April 8, 2013.
But two months to the day before the planned opening, the six producers who’d intended to bring the 1981-82 Tony-nominated Best Musical back to Broadway said they were postponing it.
We all know a euphemism when we see one. “Postponed” means “cancelled, because we couldn’t raise the money.”
But wait! New York will get to see Pump Boys and Dinettes after all, if only for this week. The country-flavored hit concludes the Encores! Off-Center summer series that celebrates lesser-known off-Broadway musicals.
In a way, Pump Boys doesn’t fit the definition. Yes, it played 112 off-Broadway performances at the now-defunct Colonnades Theatre. (You’ve probably walked by it on your way to see Blue Man Group at the Astor Place Theatre; it was just a few doors south.)
However, a slew of good reviews propelled it to Broadway. Not one but two Times critics raved: “A small triumph” said Holden; “as refreshing as an ice-cold beer after a bowl of five-alarm chili,” decided Gussow. Would co-authors and co-cast members John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schiimel and Jim Wann have ever seen this coming when they started writing their modest songs in their basements and dens?
Actually, the show’s credits don’t list their actual names as the authors. Instead, the credits read “Book, Music and Lyrics by Pump Boys and Dinettes.” And liberty and justice for all!
When time came to move to Broadway, don’t assume that the producers booked the Booth, Belasco, Brooks Atkinson or the Broadway; they instead chose the 500-seat Princess Theatre. Don’t know the place? It has since been demolished, but back then it was on the south side of that little strip of 48th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue that the Renaissance Times Square Hotel now occupies.
Few who went inside felt as if they were in a genuine Broadway theater. But the seating capacity was sufficient to j-u-s-t qualify as a Main Stem house. So Pump Boys was able to join Dreamgirls, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Nine as the 1981-82 Best Musical nominees.
The other three ran longer, but Pump Boys’ 573 performances were more than the combined total of the fourteen othermusicals that came to Broadway that 1981-82 season. Not bad for a show whose third line is “Got no use for the big town.” The Big Town certainly did have a use for Pump Boys.
Yes, some of that had to do with low overhead. The six writers sang and played their own instruments in a concert style presentation. Pump Boys didn’t need boffo business to stay around, so stay it did.
Now a thirty-one-year absence from New York will come to an end and Pump Boys will make a number of new friends. And if you can’t get to City Center before it closes on Saturday, that’s what original cast albums are for.
Hear what life is like somewhere between Smyra, Georgia and Frog Level, North Carolina on “Highway 57,” as the opening number establishes. It tells us that Jim and L.M. own a gas station where Eddie and Jackson work while Prudie and Rhetta Cupp tend to the diner they own. Given that each establishment is next door to the other, there’s bound to be friendship, flirtation and a bit of foolin’ around.
Every now and then, the pump boys work, albeit at their own pace.
“Takin’ It Slow” warns a customer that a hurried job on a handicapped car may result in an unhealed one.
“Serve Yourself” is sung by L.M. – which are not his actual initials. They stand for “Lotsa Man,” which was rather funny, given that Mark Hardwick, who played him, had a face and physique that would have hardly launched a dozen dinghies. We’re left to infer why he’s called Lotsa Man; your guess is as good as mine.
Lotsa Man has lotsa hostility for a woman who spurned him. Because he works with cars, he automatically thinks in automotive imagery: “You got me started, then you ran me around, got me under your hood then slammed it down.” L.M.’s conclusion? “I may be a retread, but I ain’t no spare.”
Although Pump Boys doesn’t havesongs that advance the action, it does include one musical theater convention: the list song. Prudie and Rhetta Cupp sing of what they offer in their diner in the aptly named “Menu Song”: sweet potato pie, homemade beer and butter beans are confirmed as the specialties of The Double Cupp Diner.
Those with a knowledge of urban slang might now be smiling if not smirking. Street lingo says that a “double cup” is a cup of codeine syrup usually mixed with Sprite that is meant to get the drinker twice as high. If the characters in Pump Boys are aware of it, they’re hiding it very well.
“Best Man” has Prudie mooning over “the best man I never had.” By virtue of some deft wordplay, she sings “I know you care, but so slow you care.” Prudie establishes that it’s one of the four men in the room, but doesn’t elaborate. Well, a woman should have a little mystery about her, shouldn’t she? And shouldn’t a show as well?
Sound as if there’s a lack of drama? Some begins to take shape after Jim invokes “Fisherman’s Prayer,” which starts with the plea, “Give me the strength to get up at dawn.” Alas, that long day made him forget his date with Rhetta. “Be Good or Be Gone,” she snarls before complaining that “I can’t get used t’yer bein’ a rooster. I wasn’t born on a farm.” Jim tries to make amends by giving that time-honored if not-so-expensive gift of a single rose. To be fair, it is made of silk, but the best Rhetta can say is “I’ll think about forgiving you.”
Maybe Jim was preoccupied in thought about his grandmother. In “Mamaw,” an atypically tender song, Jim sings of much he misses the woman “who let me drive her car when I was eleven and a half.”
Are matters becoming too sentimental? There’ll be a change of pace before long. While musicals often mention a character’s putting on his dancing shoes, here it’s “Drinking Shoes” that get Jackson’s attention. “Don’t let the beer go flat, don’t miss your turn at bat,” he advises all his barmates.
Virtually all musicals end the first act with some dramatic moment as the curtain comes down: Rose switches her attention to Louise in “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” Sid fires his girlfriend Babe in The Pajama Game. In Bullets over Broadway, David is surprised and upset to see his girlfriend Ellen suddenly show up right when he’s ready to take off with Helen Sinclair. But in Pump Boys, Prudie and Rhetta simply sing “We’re gonna take fifteen and be back on the scene for Pump Boys and Dinettes – Part Two.”
The album, however, takes merely a six-second break before unleashing the semi-title song “Pump Boys.” Here the men admit that they sell a little more than just gas at their station to improve their station in life.
All the extra dough helps Jim to buy items from his favorite cashier. From the song “Mona,” we know who has the music that makes him dance. “You’re a gum-popping, be-bopping, heart-stopping dimestore dream,” he sings, which explains why he “bought thirty cans of discount shaving cream.”
Well, at least Jim gets many chances to see Mona, while L.M. only had one chance on “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine.” From the way he describes the evening, we get the impression that she was nowhere near to becoming his.
The women are more interested in money, as they prove in “Tips.”
“Thank you for the scarves you bought me on your trips,” they sing sarcastically. “I flipped for the tickets to see Gladys and the Pips. But there’s one thing I like better.” (Actually, wouldn’t a scarf and concert tickets be more generous than a 15%-18% tip at a diner?)
An amazing moment of revelation comes during “Sisters,” in which the ladies who have been relatively carefree all night long admit that they’ve never been that close. So maybe there’s a little subtext at work when Rhetta sings that she needs a “Vacation”; perhaps she means from Prudie. See if she takes it.
Of the six actor-writers, the men haven’t subsequently done all that much in musical theater, but the original Prudie (Debra Monk) and Rhetta (Cass Morgan) certainly have. Monk has four Tony nominations and one win for her 1992-93 Best Featured Actress stint in Redwood Curtain. Morgan has done Broadway musicals with a Disney pedigree (Beauty and the Beast; Mary Poppins) and ones without (Memphis; The Capeman; Ring of Fire, and, most recently, The Bridges of Madison County).
There’s one inadvertent giggle that Pump Boys is sure to get this weekend that isn’t on the cast album: the mention that the price of gasoline at the pump is $1.30 a gallon. You’d only get similarly depressed if I told you how much tickets were to the Broadway production, let alone the off-Broadway one. The price of the album, however, hasn’t increased at all.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at www.amazon.com.