Getting Pumped for Pump Boys
By Peter Filichia —
What a delightful surprise! Pump Boys and Dinettes is returning to Broadway next spring – 31 years after the original production’s debut.
Doesn’t that number of years suggest that the opening night party should be held at Baskin-Robbins?
Don’t laugh. Such a modest venue would be in keeping with the 1982 musical. It’s a six-character, one-set show that’s mighty content to be meek.
You can even tell that from the original program. Many shows thank this one and that one for help along with way, but no other show has ever sported the credit found in the Pump Boys program: “Special thanks to Word Baker for fixing the occasional flat.”
(We assume that the creators meant “flat note.” But considering that four of the characters work at a gas station, perhaps they were praising Baker for his ability to remove punctured tires from wheels and patching them. Even if Baker didn’t know a tire from a Tyrolean hat, he had to be invaluable to the company in another way: he was the director of the original record-setting production of The Fantasticks, so he had to know a little something about small musicals.)
Pump Boys takes place at a sleepy North Carolina diner that nestles across the street from that gas station (at a time when a gallon cost $1.30). Two waitresses – sisters Rhetta and Prudie Cupp — work at the former where they provide “a menu to fill a man up.”
Four men – Jackson, Jim, Eddie and L.M. – serve at the latter venue. All six revel in “Taking It Slow,” one of the nineteen country-flavored songs. Says Jim, “We’ve had Uncle Bob’s Winnebago on blocks for three months now — and it took us six months to get it up there.”
The men sing about catching “Catfish” and then putting on their “Drinking Shoes.” In “Menu Song,” the Cupps proudly proclaim their diner’s specialties of the house. The only true drama occurs when Rhetta becomes incensed with a suitor. “Be Good or Be Gone,” she insists. Later she sings that she needs a “Vacation” but that’s the extent of her job dissatisfaction.
(You might know “Vacation” – because it became an airline commercial in the ‘80s. It’s the one that begins “I need a vacation like nobody’s business.”)
The number of musicals in which characters are interested in stardom is legion: Applause, Billion Dollar Baby, Chaplin, Dames at Sea, Enter Laughing, Funny Girl – and that’s just the first six letters of the alphabet. But in Pump Boys, the character known as L.M. (for “Lotsa Man”) is satisfied with simply seeing an entertainment legend from afar. Hence, he fantasizes about “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine.”
Unlike many characters in Working, here’s a six-pack that doesn’t mind putting in eight hours each day. Soon after the women sing about getting “Tips,” L.M. tells of his fervent desire to get a “Farmer Tan” from working outdoors.
No, they aren’t go-getters. Modest ambitions usually mean modest achievements; Pump Boys’ six writers (who also performed in the original production) were probably surprised and honored by their single Tony nomination. They of course never expected to best either of frontrunners Nine or Dreamgirls — and indeed didn’t. But soon Pump Boys will have enjoyed just as many Broadway revivals as those two big hits have had: one.
The show’s credits don’t say “Book, Music and Lyrics by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann.” Instead, the credits read “Book, Music and Lyrics by Pump Boys and Dinettes.” No one can ever accuse the six co-authors of not being into their roles.
Too bad Hardwick won’t be able to see the revival; he died in 1995. While the other three men are still around and occasionally work in theater, the two women who played the Dinettes have become more famous.
Cass Morgan (Rhetta) has been on Broadway in musicals that have a Disney pedigree (Beauty and the Beast; Mary Poppins) and those that certainly don’t (Memphis; The Capeman; Ring of Fire). Debra Monk (Prudie) has, among her four Tony nominations, a win for Redwood Curtain in 1992-1993. Broadway will soon see her again as Big Mama in the 2013 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.