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Paint Your Wagon, Paint It PC

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Robert Cuccioli as Ben Rumson in Jon Marans’ Paint Your Wagon

2,260 words

The Western dominated American pop culture until the early 1970s, when it suddenly winked out like an aging athlete. TV was infested with Westerns. Jonathan Winters once complained that though he loved Westerns, he didn’t like “fifteen of them in a row.” It sure seemed that way.

High culture tried to incorporate Western themes. Aaron Copland wrote the ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo. Semi-high culture also joined the wagon train. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the musical Oklahoma! in 1943, and not to be outdone, Lerner and Loewe wrote Paint Your Wagon, a musical set during the California gold rush, in 1951.

Paint Your Wagon deals with Ben Rumson and Jennifer, his sixteen-year-old daughter. Ben isn’t a very successful miner until he and Jennifer bury a fellow miner and she discovers gold. Rumson Creek becomes a magnet for miners, which causes problems, since Jennifer is the only girl in town until some prostitutes come to the rescue, but that’s in act two. 

A love interest is Julio, a Mexican outside the camp, and he’s the fifties-style stage Mexican: romantic, tuneful, caring and understanding, and so full of gentle passion. . . unlike gringoes, no? It was as good as Broadway could dare for race-mixing then, reminding me of the 1958 Orson Welles film Touch of Evil, where Welles, a corrupt border town sheriff, teams up with Charlton Heston, a Mexican policeman (married to Janet Leigh), who lectures Welles on following the law, not being corrupt, and serving justice. . . just like they do in Mexico. I always get a laugh out of that. But Julio gets a couple of soft, romantic songs, and is the winsome, solid Latin lover, continuing a tradition that began with Valentino.

Paint Your Wagon has been described as a flop. It wasn’t. It ran for 289 performances on Broadway, closed, then racked up 477 performances in London. This is typical of most musicals, and far better than too many that last a dozen performances and fold up. A better description is that it was a mild success, but not a hit. The song “Mariah” (“They call the wind Mariah. . .”) was heard everywhere in the fifties, almost as much as “Autumn Leaves,” and the musical has a lively score.

I never saw a performance, but my brother, a real musical junkie, had the record, and the score is pretty good with a lot of male choruses. My favorite is “When Will I Wait?” sung by a lovesick, anxious Jennifer desperate for Julio; a rustic love song between “On the Street Where You Live” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from L&L’s My Fair Lady, capturing the franticness of love:

Oh, what can I do, can I think about?
How can my heart keep from jumping out?
How can I sleep? Couldn’t sleep if I tried
Where can I run till I run to his side?
How can I wait till tomorrow comes?

If YouTube can be relied on, the musical gets around the high school and college circuit, and “How Can I Wait?” is a solo piece for many young hopefuls. The show is a twinkling star in the outer musical galaxy; distant, but no less admirable.

Paint Your Wagon was made into a movie in 1969, and that’s how most people know it. The story was basically scrapped to make it a Lee Marvin-Clint Eastwood buddy-buddy movie, with Lee as a drunken Ben and Clint as Pardner.

No daughter this time, but Jean Seberg is Elizabeth, the Mormon wife who gets raffled off. Rumson Creek is now No-Name City. The bawdy, raucous film packs a six-gun of double-entendres, remaking the Western in the image of the swinging sixties.

Many of the songs were dumped in favor of new ones, and the three leads couldn’t carry a note. Seberg noted Lee Marvin’s singing sounded like rusty water in a sewer. Her voice was so bad it had to be dubbed. Eastwood’s rendition of “Elisha” is whined rather than sung. It was typical of late sixties musicals that they cast people who couldn’t sing, although Marvin’s croaking “Wandering Star” was on the charts in 1969 — an example of how pop music had gotten tuneless by then.

Did the rewriting do much good? As Roger Ebert put it: “It doesn’t inspire a review. It doesn’t even inspire a put-down. It just hangs there in my mind — a big heavy lump.”

This was partially due to the eighteen million dollar budget. At this time, musicals were losing their audience, and Hollywood simply threw more money at them — much like the government was doing at Vietnam and poverty — hoping the audience would come back. The budget went to extensive outdoor locations, a set that was to collapse and crash in the last reel, jetting the cast from the wilderness location to Seattle every night, and the actor’s salaries. Paint Your Wagon actually made money, but the profits were gobbled up in production costs. 

I found the movie entertaining in parts, tedious in others, its humor the kick-in-the-groin type that was becoming typical of late sixties Hollywood. In the interests of cinema verite and because he insisted it be written in his contract, Lee Marvin drank real liquor on camera, so if he stumbles and slurs, that’s the real deal you’re seeing. And the film is verrrry lonnnng.

Paint Your Wagon, having been remade for the hippy and jet-set point of view, fell back into the shadows.

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You can buy Greg Johnson’s It’s Okay to Be White here. [3]

Someone felt it was time for a new interpretation, and that someone was Jon Marans, a Jew who said the old show didn’t have enough “diversity.” He wanted to demonstrate that the gold rush wasn’t only about white people — you get the drift.

I went to the Muny Opera in summer 2017 to see this new interpretation with a bit of dread. The Muny is an outdoor theater in Forest Park, and “going to the Muny” is a St. Louis tradition. Built in 1917, it was originally meant for, yes, opera, but that didn’t fly with our native tastes, so it’s been musicals ever since.

As the show began, a man next to me flipped through the cast list and said to his wife “Where’s Pardner?” No, that’s the movie.

This show began withI’m On My Way,” the rousing beginning of miners streaming to Rumson’s Creek, but now we see a pair of Chinese immigrants, a Southerner and his slave William, as well as a rather talky Wesley, a blustering black lawyer doing the Morgan Freeman part.

Instead of Ben Rumson and Jennifer, now we have Cayla, a wife with. . . yes, an abusive husband. Rumson is now a young trapper, and he meets Armando, a Mexican. They team up. The song “Mariah,” sung at this point, has been pushed to act two, and instead we get “Wandering Star,” the original show’s closing piece. 

Rumson sings in a twang (“Ahhh wuz booorrn. . . under a waaandurin’ sta-uh”), and the cast keeps going for the Nashville sound instead of the crisp, solid singing of the 1951 show. In the original show, prejudice is acknowledged. Julio has to live outside of town, and Ben has reservations about his daughter marrying a Mexican. Here, Armando, a Mexican who teams up with Rumson, has a sob story. “I come from Los Angeles. My family was driven out. Just like what all white men do.”

The Chinese get a scene every three minutes. In a bar, there are lots of jokes about immigrants.

William complains to his master. “We gots to be together. After all, we got the same father.” One man says: “I got an English mother and father, so I guess I’m a native American.” Wesley shoots back: “So you got Indian blood somewheres, don’t you?”

Heavy-handed dialogue like this, scene after scene, weighed down the show. I sensed that there was some kind of critical race theory committee that did the script. Wesley always has to sass back and one-up everyone.

As for Cayla, her abusive husband slaps her on stage. The audience gasps. She slaps him. The audience cheers. She falls for Rumson, so we have a twist on adultery, but the mean husband is soon expelled. Did we mention he’s also a Mormon? A gun-toting, hard-drinking (?), racist, sexist Mormon. 

The scene in the original show where the Mormon sells one of his two wives is still kept, but now Wesley leads the bidding and offers to buy her for six hundred dollars. A black man buying a white woman in 1853? But Rumson outbids him, and Wesley agrees to marry Rumson and Cayla. How can he do that?

As Wesley swaggers and brags, “I happen to be the third most successful colored lawyer in America.” You are, are you?

William gets his freedom, but only when Wesley holds his master at gunpoint. Like a critic said, blacks these days don’t want Uncle Tom’s Cabin; they want Spartacus.

I halfway wondered if the actor playing Wesley was Jon Marans’ lover, since he gets so much dialogue and always butts his way into every scene. It really looks like an act of love. Over and over, the diversity scenes and characters slowed the show and all the whites were simply irrelevant. 

The Rumson and Cayla romance blossoms, and so do new songs added to the show. One, “What Do Other Folks Do?” is a blatant rip-off of “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” from Camelot. Almost the same tune, lyrics, and both even whistle and dance. 

“How Can I Wait?,” the song I waited for, fizzled. Instead of Olga San Juan’s beautiful, energetic singing in the original cast, Cayla belts it out, again, in cun-tree style. Also, the blacks and Chinese get their own verses about waiting for equality and an end to prejudice. It takes a nice, romantic song of expectation and drags it out into a paean to “diversity,” making a show-stopper into a show dragger. 

As is apparent, the script is remorselessly anti-white and American. Rumson is still the male lead, but the rest of the show is a case of Chinese/Blacks/Mexicans/Women united against white men.

Really, in the script, every fifth line was about prejudice. 

Also, in the interests of authenticity, this Gold Rush story is set in 1853, and they didn’t have repeating rifles then. Nor would a man be wearing a Civil War Kepi. 

But the overwhelming interest I have is how the show is re-written into a piece of agitprop, and I’m impressed — if that’s the right word — with how overwhelmingly bad it is.

The relentless political dialogue recalls The Laramie Project, another agitprop piece that plays in high schools everywhere with its supposed story about homophobic murder. A Jewish theater guy I know is crazy about the piece, and literally equates it to Shakespeare. He just won’t shut up about it, and loves having his high schoolers perform it. 

Recently, the theater community took a real hit from Covid, and now is only barely coming out of it. St. Louis Shakespeare usually has a summer production in Forest Park, but canceled it last year. They had one this year, very rigidly controlled and monitored, and it was King Lear. . . with an all-black cast. 

As one man I know involved in theater here told me with a helpless shrug: “Well, whites can’t act on stage anymore.”

The artistic community has simply accepted it. You’d think all the white actors would have second thoughts about seeing themselves displaced, but no, they go along, like all those actors in TV commercials consent to being stupid white fathers, idiotic housewives, and brain-dead teenagers. . . all shown up and trumped by wiser, more caring blacks. But actors are always easy pickings for domination. Besides, if you’re a white actor, you have to placate the Jews, who have the real power in casting and producing.

The new, “diverse” Paint Your Wagon hasn’t exactly set the theatrical world on fire. The few places it has been performed have had tepid reviews. I spoke to people at the Muny that night, and they wanted to like it, and were a little stunned at my criticisms. But they’re fans who sunk fifty bucks into a show, and were easy to please, not wanting to be told they blew their money on a turkey. In act two, when the prostitutes finally arrive, they’re in a wagon. . . drawn by Clydesdales! This being St. Louis and Budweiser Valhalla, that got applause.

The revision of the original show would have gotten bad marks from one of my directors, who forcefully argued that actors must raise the script, that they must surmount it. 

I’m reminded of The Maltese Falcon. First, it was filmed as Dangerous Female in 1931, failed, then was remade as Satan Met A Lady in 1936, and failed again. John Huston finally got his hands on it. He simply went back to the original story and filmed it, and the rest is history. 

I’d rather see the old Paint Your Wagon done, contemporary sensibilities be damned. And they should be.

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