Over the course of several years, Director David Armstrong, Writer Jon Marans, Music Supervisor and Vocal Arranger Ian Eisendrath and Choreographer Josh Rhodes worked together to develop and re-write a new version of the Lerner and Loewe musical, Paint Your Wagon. I sat down with them recently to talk about the process of recreating a classic.
Why rewrite Paint Your Wagon, a classic and beloved musical, with a new book?
David Armstrong: I directed a summer stock production of the original version of Paint Your Wagon in Sacramento almost 20 years ago. In spite of the problematic book including a story and principal characters that were not very compelling, the audience loved the show, especially the rough and tumble world of the California Gold Rush and, of course, the amazing score filled with one great song after another. It occurred to me then that if someone could create an effective new book for the show it might be possible for Paint Your Wagon to join the ranks of other great musicals of its era.
Ian Eisendrath: The score for Paint Your Wagon is one of the greatest in the musical theater canon. This new book brings these great, classic songs back to the musical theater stage in a modern, relevant context.
Jon Marans: I didn’t really know the score to Paint Your Wagon until David approached me about writing a new book for the show. I was bowled over when I first heard Lerner’s strong, complex lyrics and Loewe’s at times heart-racing, at times haunting melodies. I felt the original book didn’t always do justice to letting these songs shine. The original version was the story of the California Gold Rush but [told] primarily through the eyes of white men—with just one Latino man also in the story. This new version is hopefully closer to the true story. It is about a time in American history when the world converged on California. Where suddenly all of these disparate people were thrown together, forced to work together, or at least interact, in this exciting but dangerous world. [This is a story about] how it changed all of them.
Josh Rhodes: I am intrigued by the whole history of the Gold Rush. It was a fascinating time. There is an allure in the wild ambition and pioneering spirit of the people—mostly men—who packed up their lives, took great risks and left their families and homes in search of fortune and adventure. This is really exciting for me. To tell the story of the people who were driven, somewhat foolishly, by the desire to explore unchartered territory with the goal of “striking it rich.”
Can you describe the process of taking a classic score and reworking it to tell a new story?
JM: From the simple clear idea of how this version would be different from the original, I wrote an outline of Act I. And from then on it was all about collaboration—working with David Armstrong, Ian Eisendrath and Josh Rhodes—to continue to keep our story focused on this new, tougher and hopefully more truthful version of the California Gold Rush. David has a strong sense of dramatic storytelling, and he also has an astounding knowledge of that time period which was so helpful in clarifying this new “make-your-own-rules” California world.
DA: Back when I did the show in Sacramento I had the opportunity to drive through “gold country” and visit Sutter’s Mill where the first gold was discovered, and many of the remaining ghost towns and historic locations. This began for me a continuing interest in the history of the California Gold Rush and over the years I have devoured any new books and documentaries that have come out recounting this amazing period in our nation’s history. We have used this knowledge as well as additional research to inform many details in the new book as well as the set and costume designs.
IE: David, Jon, Josh and I have spent the past several years wrestling with the history of the gold rush, our cast of characters and the story points in order to create a unified piece of theater. We wanted the scenes to feel as if they inevitably lead to and depend on the original music and lyrics by Lerner and Loewe.
JR: This new version has all new choreography. While the original Agnes de Mille choreography is classic and beautiful, it is a series of long ballets. I wanted this new version to feel more relevant and to tell the stories and the ambitions of the characters. The dances are more masculine and raw. We are also fortunate to have a dance arranger, Jason DeBord, who helped shape the story and the dances with music.
Why tell the story of Paint Your Wagon now? How will contemporary audiences relate to this new re-telling of a classic?
DA: Even though it happened 160 years ago, the California Gold Rush had a profound effect on American history and especially of the West. The themes of immigration, multiculturalism, and who gets to sit at the table and achieve the American Dream are all inherent in the real stories of the period and we have incorporated them into our story for the musical.
IE: Paint Your Wagon is about America, the American Dream and humanity at its core. The gold rush was an opportunity for the world to “strike it rich,” start over, make dreams come true and to build something new. The question that this piece asks is how do we work together, as a community, to build and sustain civilization? What are the costs of fear, prejudice and the age old flaw of “looking out for number one”?
Bluegrass is a timeless American genre of music that inspired Lerner and Loewe. It has been great fun to draw upon the sounds and colors of the contemporary “Newgrass” movement ushered in by Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, The Civil Wars and other great contemporary bands as we’ve created arrangements and orchestrations for this new production of Paint Your Wagon.
What should audiences who know and love the original musical know about this new version?
DA: Lerner and Loewe were of course masters of the musical theater, second only to Rodgers and Hammerstein in regards to craftsmanship and quality. Throughout the process we have tried our best to “channel their spirits” and try to divine what they would do if they were working on the show today. Very few people have seen a live stage production of Paint Your Wagon. (The 5th actually produced the show in 1992 starring country singer Roy Clark.) However, many people have seen the popular film version for which Alan Jay Lerner created a very different story than the original Broadway musical. I believe we have honored the intentions of the authors, and that audiences will still experience all of the things they loved about any previous exposure they have had to Paint Your Wagon.The great songs are the heart of it and they are of course a constant in all three incarnations of the show.
JM: One of the other tricky parts to writing a brand new book to a pre-existing show is that you only have a limited number of songs at your disposal to tell your new story. But we were lucky—we had some extra songs available to us. We found a song that wasn’t in the original version but had been added during the national tour. We also were able to use two songs that had been written especially for the movie which were also quite helpful in our storytelling.
IE: Every word, note and choice has been made with great reverence for the original musical. Our goal is to bring what is glorious about the original production of Paint Your Wagon to the contemporary musical theater stage.
JR: I hope the audience feels like they are watching a new musical—one that is stronger and has a more modern sensibility.
By ANYA RUDNICK, Director of Education and Outreach