Remembering Paint Your Wagon
Lerner and Loewe certainly wrote some gorgeous music together for Broadway and Hollywood musicals. From Brigadoon to My Fair Lady, from Gigi to Camelot, the duo crafted lush, elegant music with sweeping melodies and intelligent, character developing lyrics. The duo also wrote the score for another musical that is seldom revived today, on Broadway or otherwise, but that deserves to be remembered for its potent, often haunting score. That musical is Paint Your Wagon.
Paint Your Wagon features a collection of some of Lerner and Loewe’s finest songs, so beautiful and affecting in fact, that a listen to “They Call the Wind Maria”, “I Talk to the Trees”, “I Still See Elisa”, “Wand’rin Star” or “Another Autumn” and you might be wondering why this musical isn’t regularly revived. The simple answer is that Lerner’s book is one of his weakest, an aimless mishmash of characters set against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush in 1853. It is also cold, even off-putting for some, particularly in its depiction of women as property, something to be attained and bargained with. That may have been the realities of the time and place, but that doesn’t mean that today’s audiences would exactly embrace the story without some serious revising.
The musical follows Ben Rumson, a prospector who finds gold in the California wilderness where he and his daughter Jennifer have come in search of fortune. News of his good luck spreads and soon prospectors are arriving from all over, taking the population of the town of Rumson to 400, mostly men. This, of course, makes Jennifer a sought-after prospect in her own right, women being a rare commodity. The man who truly wins her heart is Julio Valveras, a Mexican miner who must live outside of the town due to his ethnicity. Ben is not happy about her affections for this man, and sends Jennifer east on the stage coach for a long trip, hoping this will end her infatuation with what he considers an unsuitable match for his daughter. Jennifer promises Julio she will return and that her heart belongs to him. Julio has additional problems when his claim runs dry, forcing him to move on before he and Jennifer can be reunited. Ultimately, Jennifer returns and Julio follows, the two are reunited, and Ben seems to have moved passed his prejudices and allows them to be together.
Paint Your Wagon was neither a runaway hit nor was it a calamitous flop. The show opened on November 12, 1951 at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre where it remained for 289 performances. This was, of course, in the day when a musical could run on Broadway for a few hundred performances and still make money. The production was directed by Daniel Mann with choreography by Agnes de Mille. The cast included It starred James Barton, Olga San Juan, Tony Bavaar, Gemze de Lappe, James Mitchell, Kay Medford and Marijane Maricle.
Paint Your Wagon also received a rather peculiar film treatment in 1969 starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood which only remotely followed the stage musical. In fact, the film has become a bit of a joke for the number of people who have watched it thinking they were getting a shoot ‘em up western and instead got Marvin and Eastwood giving their best impression of singing.
There are often rumors of a revised version of Paint Your Wagon working its way toward Broadway, but that has yet to happen and there is no concrete evidence that it will. It is unlikely that the show’s book problems can be solved without a major overhaul, but that score keeps begging for someone to figure out a way to make it work for contemporary audiences.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His forthcoming book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America, will hit the shelves in October, 2019. Hemaintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.