Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser enjoyed a string of Broadway musical hits: Where’s Charley?, Guys & Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But, no matter how impressive a resume, most creators of Broadway musicals are going to have at least one show that refuses to work. For Frank Loesser, that troubled piece would come in the form of the 1960 musical Greenwillow. (Loesser would struggle with another show called Pleasures and Palaces that closed on the road).
Greenwillow is based on a novel by B.J. Chute, a fantasy story that Loesser and book writer Lesser Samuels adapted for the musical stage. The piece had a pastoral magic about it, the heir apparent to such musicals as Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon. The mystical town of Greenwillow is the home of the Briggs family, where the eldest son of each generation is born with a “call to wander”. Gideon Briggs is in love with a girl named Dorrie and would like to marry her and settle down. Fearful of his family legacy, Gideon is afraid he cannot overcome the compulsion toward wanderlust. He enlists the aide of the hamlet’s newest minister, Reverend Birdsong, who is determined to help Gideon break the chain and finally stay put.
Loesser composed an enchanting score for Greenwillow, one that sounded very different from his creations for previous musicals. Gone was the bold and brassy showtune, replaced with a more reflective and folky score. Much of the music is truly lovely and, despite the show’s short run of 97 performances, Greenwillow has much to recommend. The standout in the score the hypnotic “Summertime Love” which found some polarity beyond the context of the show. Equally wonderful are “A Day Borrowed from Heaven,” “Never Will I Marry” and “Faraway Boy.” For fun, there is also the rollicking “Could’ve Been a Ring” and the spritely “Clang Dang the Bell.” Really, Greenwillow deserves a listen from front to finish as it is a score that make you wonder why the show just didn’t run.
So, why didn’t it?
Greenwillow was a low-key slice of life, a look at the denizens of a small town. The plot was not very complicated, in fact, there was often such an air of simplicity about the whole production that it didn’t have enough plot to sustain itself. The B.J. Chute novel that the show is based on is more about atmosphere and exploring the colorful inhabitants of the story. There just wasn’t enough oomph or a hook to provide a reason to tell the story through the heightened drama of musical theatre. Perhaps Greenwillow was just too intimate and understated.
Greenwillow opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on March 8, 1960 under the direction of George Roy Hill, with choreography provided by Joe Layton. The musical starred Anthony Perkins, who was in Los Angeles filling the shoes of Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho while rehearsing for Greenwillowin New York City. In fact, the famous shower scene in that film uses a body double for Perkins who Hitchcock gave the day-off to be in NYC to prepare for Greenwillow. Cecil Kellaway, Pert Kelton, Ellen McCown, William Chapman, Marian Mercer, and Tommy Norden were also in the cast.