THE WAGON IS NOW NOT ONLY PAINTED BUT ALSO FILLED By Peter Filichia
The spanking new and sensational recording of Paint Your Wagon reiterates how prurient we were back in 1951.
Need proof? Just dust off the original cast album and listen to “In Between.”
RCA Victor’s fifth cast album had James Barton, playing San Francisco 49er prospector Ben Rumson, admit to a prospective wife that he wouldn’t necessarily be surprisingly good for her, but he’d be good enough. In song, Ben insists that he would be, to quote Goldilocks (the fairy tale, not the musical), j-u-s-t right.
“Oh, I’m younger than a gink that’s pushing eighty,” Ben declares before admitting “but I’m older than a punk of seventeen. I’m more than a lot are, and less than some. I’m in-between.”
Barton goes on to make seven such comparisons before he flat-out sings “I hope when you go to your room tonight and turn down the blankets I’ll be seen,” before he starts chuckling “Ho-ho,” “Hah-hah-hah, “Ho-ho-ho.”
Now really — were people so demure back then that Barton couldn’t have specifically told the woman and us that he planned to be “in between” those sheets with her?
Apparently so. But now in 2016, Keith Carradine — who assumed Barton’s role in the 2015 staged concert at Encores! – gets to state the unexpurgated “dirty” line in the recording that’s now available to all.
Under those circumstances, no wonder that the original cast album completely omitted a salient first-act song. Lyricist Alan Jay Lerner blandly called it “Trio,” but as it turns out, he purposely chose an obfuscating title so as to not ruin the joke.
Jacob is, to quote one of Chicago’s merry murderesses, “one of those Mormons, you know?” Thus he has two wives with him: Sarah and Elizabeth. You can imagine what each of them is thinking.
That is, you used to have to wonder, what with the song’s being missing-in-action on the original cast album. But here it is in all its frank glory.
Now there is a possibility, of course, that in those old days of so-called long-playing records, 41:55 is best that any vinyl disc could hold. CDs are, of course, more commodious, which is why the newPaint Your Wagon offers us almost twice as much music: 78:34 worth.
And what music! Can you possibly believe from the rousing, rambunctious, testosterone-and-frontier-filled score that its composer was born in Berlin? But Richard C. Norton informs us in his forthcoming biography Frederick Loewe and His Music, “If the initial inspiration forPaint Your Wagon was truly Alan’s, Fritz could rightfully claim more first-hand knowledge of the American Wild West, dating back to his 1925 adventures in southern Montana. Alan had no more visited Gold Rush country than he had strolled the hills of Brigadoon,” adds Norton, slyly referencing the team’s first-ever hit. “As a young man of 24,” Norton continues, “Fritz had experienced the economic hardships, the rugged terrain, the severe winters and desolate vistas of Montana’s Park County.”
Who’d-a-thunk it? But that does explain at least a little how this high-born son of an operetta star could get the flavor of the 19th-century Wild West filtered through a distinctly Broadway sound.
The new recording will at first sound identical to the original cast album, for the first bars of “I’m on My Way” – the rollicking anthem of a stage full of prospectors – are in place. But here they lead to an Overture not recorded in 1951.
First up is “They Call the Wind Maria,” the take-home tune from the show that even inspired the decidedly un-Broadway Kingston Trio to record it.
In the grand tradition of Overtures, the up-tempo song is followed by The Love Theme. Here it’s a surprising one: “I Still See Elisa” is not Ben’s ballad to anyone who’s still alive, but memories he shares with his grown daughter, Jennifer, of his now-deceased wife.
Again the Overture follows convention by returning to a more jaunty song: Ben’s claim that he was born under a “Wand’rin’ Star.” The orchestra then begins a beguine: “I Talk to the Trees,” which also became a modest pop hit in 1951.
It’s also a song that was deftly parodied on The Danny Kaye Show in the mid-1960s. Actually, the sketch involved a show that was once the rage of TV: Your Hit Parade, in which the nation’s Top Seven pop songs were dramatized – meaning that the show’s writers had to dream up a scenario for each song. So in this Danny Kaye parody, a confused woman was seen on a psychiatrist’s couch where she unnervingly sang “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me.”
All right, Lerner’s lyric might be a bit too fanciful, but the melody is gorgeous and Justin Guarini does it full justice on the new recording.
I discovered in the Astrodome in 1980 that another Paint Your Wagon song could be repurposed. For although in the show the chorus of miners rejoice that “There’s a Coach Comin’ In” full of vittles, the Houston organist played the song when a coach from the opposing team did indeed trot to the mound to have a serious talk with his errant pitcher.
The recording’s standout is Alexandra Socha as Jennifer, the young lass who’s grown up with miners who used to treat her as a little girl; now that she’s in her teens, however, they see her much differently. Luckily for Jennifer, there isn’t a Jud Fry among them.
Olga San Juan (who once posed as the model for the Copacabana logo, by the way) sounds staunch and appropriately mannish on the original cast album. However, Socha does her one (nay, three) better in her three solos, expressively exploring, underlining and italicizing every syllable for the best possible interpretation.
Socha’s most funny in “How Can I Wait?” when she reveals her agony that she’s “gonna die” if she can’t see her lover immediately-if-not-sooner. The fun is that we know she’ll be all right – and so will you when listening to her in what I judged the best musical performance delivered by an actress during the entire 2014-2015 season.
If you like dance music, your living room rug may well take a beating once you hear three orchestral selections as well as a stirring Entr’acte. But in the realm of bonus tracks, this Paint Your Wagon may well win for The Most Valuable and Revealing Song of All. Let’s not give away the surprise, but suffice to say that Lerner didn’t waste the idea for this cut that didn’t make the cut; he simply used the concept for a Camelot song. ‘Nuff said.
By the way, here’s hoping that your familiarity with Paint Your Wagon isn’t limited to an episode of The Simpsons where Homer rents the movie version, assuming that any film starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin would be a violent shoot-em-up worthy of only the butchest of men. As Bart proclaims, “Prepare yourself for the bloody mayhem and unholy carnage!”
My, are they disappointed when they hear singing – a song, not so incidentally, that does NOT come from the Lerner and Loewe score. Only 1:14 must pass before Homer ejects it directly into the wastebasket.
You won’t want to do the same with this new and improved recording of Paint Your Wagon.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.