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Consumed With Hate: Paint Your Wagon

🎨 I See a Red Door and I Want to Paint it Black...

The Crime: Paint Your Wagon (stage show)
The Guilty Party: Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, and their respective estates
Overview: A re-adaptation of the 1951 musical that bears very little resemblance to the film

Why I Hate It...

The word "anticipointment" was coined for the Star Wars prequels, but it's not the first thing I think of when I hear that word.

I'm a big fan of the soundtrack to the 1968 movie. It was one of those albums we listened to on long car trips, so I associate it with family vacations. I also enjoy the film, but at 3 hours, it's definitely a "sometimes" food. And ever since I started doing theater in the early 90s (sweet Jeebus--when did I get this old?), I've been interested in seeing the stage show. But the opportunity never came up. The show ran on Broadway for about a year in 1951 and to the best of my knowledge there's never been a revival. But then it showed up in the 2019 season at The Muny, and I asked for tickets for my birthday. And it sort of became a big to-do. My entire family came in from out of town to see this show with us.

And then it just wasn't good. Like, shockingly not good. And of course I felt bad for being the root cause of this outing (and for what it's worth I still truly appreciate the birthday present--it was very thoughtful). And then I felt compelled to do some research.

Because this show was not good in a rather confounding way. On the one hand, it bore little-to-no resemblance to the film. Songs and characters were missing, others were added, and the ones that remained were unrecognizable from their filmic counterparts. Many of the changes felt decidedly modern, like Ben Rumsen giving an impassioned speech at the end about not judging people by the color of their skin. But others felt like they had to have been part of the original show. For instance, Rumsen's partner--"Pardner" in the movie but "Armand" in the show we saw--being recast as Mexican made complete sense given the bits of flamenco guitar in his song I Talk to the Trees. I just couldn't make heads or tails of it. So, I went to the Googles!

And the story is rather fascinating. It starts with the 1951 Broadway run. It... was not a success, closing after fewer than 300 shows. It ran slightly longer in the London West End, but overall it was considered a slump for Lerner and Loewe between their much more successful productions My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. Then, for absolutely no goddamn reason, it was made into a movie in 1968, 17 years after closing on Broadway. The film version was a complete re-write of the story. It featured new music including an early performance by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and made some interesting casting choices, including Clint Eastwood--who is notably not Mexican--as a character originally named Julio and Lee Marvin--who cannot sing--as the lead actor in a musical.

The production was an utter fiasco, between Marvin's constant on-set drunkenness and a shooting location that was 60 miles away from civilization. The shoot went so badly that Clint Eastwood started directing just to ensure that he'd never have to go through anything like that again. The film doubled its already considerable budget and was therefore a box office failure despite being the sixth-highest grossing movie of that year. And yet... it became something not entirely unlike a cult classic. It is, in fact, quite beloved. It's your boomer dad's favorite musical. And if you watch the movie, despite the behind-the-scenes shit show, it works. It's rather entertaining. As such, there has been demand for stage productions. But there's a snag there. The estate of Alan Jay Lerner, who died in 1986, refuses to let anyone put it on.

I don't know why this is, but I have my guesses based on what happened next. What happened is that in 2004 a revival of sorts ran in Los Angeles with a brand new book written by David Rambo. And the book is... let's say it's a very clumsy attempt at anti-racism. It's heavy-handed and ham-fisted in ways that feel awkward even for me--me, an ardent, BLM, cancel-culture leftist. Ergo, my conclusion is that the reason you can't do the 1951 version is that it's probably racist as f**k and the Lerner family are embarrassed by it. And like... there are things I admire the 2004 re-write for trying. Rambo populates the world of the show with European immigrants, Chinese laborers, freed and escaped slaves, and Mexicans who were displaced after Mexican-American War. All told, that's much more accurate representation of the American West than the lily-white revisionism pioneered (ahem) by the Johns Ford and Wayne. But there's a difference between having a diverse perspective and driving your social points home with a sledgehammer, and this show was unrelentingly preachy about racism and sexism and the evils of alcohol.

But, honestly, even that isn't the worst sin. The problem with Paint Your Wagon the stage show is that it has no audience except what it has gleaned from Paint Your Wagon the film, which it has almost nothing in common with. Thus, any version of the stage show is going to be a disappointment in that regard. All it can ever be is a grand failure of expectations.

For the month of May we're looking at plays! Next week, a pro-shot Broadway production of a real thing that exists and I swear I'm not making this up: Diana: The Musical...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.