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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 13, 2005

issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama: ‘Baker’s Wife’ at Paper Mill

How does a musical that almost no one has ever seen become a favorite,

inspire a cult following, and achieve legendary status without ever

opening on Broadway? The answer may be a mystery and a phenomenon but

"The Baker’s Wife" is that musical. Many of us who have heard about

this musical will finally experience it on Sunday, April 17, when it

opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse, under the direction of Gordon

Greenberg and starring Alice Ripley in the title role of Genevieve,

the baker’s wife.

The legend of "The Baker’s Wife" began in 1976 when producer David

Merrick decided that composer Stephen Schwartz and writer Joseph Stein

should write a musical stage adaptation of the 1938 screenplay "La

Femme du Boulanger" by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono. The pre-Broadway

tour that began at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and

continued at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., was a

disaster. Merrick tried everything including replacing the original

leads, Carole Demas and Topol, with Patti Lupone and Paul Sorvino. He

then gave the heave-ho to director Joseph Hardy, bringing in John

Berry to take the helm. He replaced choreographer Dan Siretta with

Robert Tucker and hiring Don Walker to completely re-orchestrate the

score. Nothing seemed to work, and Merrick threw in the towel before

the musical’s announced opening, November 21, 1976, at the Martin Beck

Theater in New York.

Perhaps because there is so little plot – when the baker’s wife runs

off with a cute chauffeur, the baker stops baking, so the hungry

villagers find her and bring her home – Stein’s original adaptation

wasn’t spared either. Esteemed director Trevor Nunn made a stab at

staging it in London in 1989 but with little impact. So what, you may

ask, is/was so wonderful about "The Baker’s Wife" that has encouraged

this largely revised and eagerly awaited production at the Paper Mill

Playhouse?

I’m sure you have already guessed that it is Schwartz’s melodic and

evocative score – now considered a classic of the genre, thanks to a

recording made by Lupone and Sorvino and members of the original cast.

That recording helped validate the score’s excellence, particularly

"Meadowlark," a ravishing aria that Lupone keeps in her repertoire,

and is often used by singers as a showy audition piece.

Director Gordon Greenberg and star Alice Ripley shared their

enthusiasm and their expectations in an interview following a

rehearsal at the 42nd Street studios. When I mention "Meadowlark" as

being one of Lupone’s signature songs, Ripley responds with a big

smile, "I’ll sing it better. From the first time I heard the score

during my college years, it has informed my entire musical theater

experience." This is quite a revelatory statement from Ripley, whose

musical experience also includes being a composer and guitarist.

Her band, Ripley, which features her husband, Shannon Ford, on

percussion, played a gig this past November at New York’s famed

Birdland. The band is currently completing its first full-length album

to be released later this year. "I love acting and performing but

composing is the direct factory outlet for my feelings," she says,

describing her music as "powerful guitar-oriented rock" and "somewhere

between Queen and Blondie."

But it is those times in between Broadway musicals such as "Side Show"

(for which she received a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for Best

Actress in a Musical), "The Dead," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show,"

and "Sunset Boulevard," and as a dramatic actor in the Off-Broadway

play "Five Flights" that she contends that writing for the band has

"kept me from jumping off the Empire State Building. I love it because

nobody has to hire me to do it." But now Ripley has been hired for a

job that is particularly close to her heart.

A question that Ripley says she is often asked is whether she is

related to the Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. "No, but going

way back, I am related to Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway; Hathaway

is my middle name," she says, believe it or not. Ripley, who received

a BFA in musical theater from Kent State in Ohio, says that she is the

only one of 11 children (seven girls, four boys) growing up in her

family in the midwest to make a profession of the theater. She

considers New York her home since arriving 13 years ago and being cast

in her first Broadway show, "The Who’s Tommy."

In addition to Ripley, the cast includes Max Von Essen as Dominic,

Lenny Wolpe as Amiable the baker and Gay Marshall as Denise. The

choreography is by Christopher Gattelli; the settings by Anna Louizos

("Avenue Q").

If there were, indeed, flaws and weaknesses in the show, Greenberg has

been determined to work on them. He has already staged a production of

"The Baker’s Wife" for the Second Stage at the Goodspeed Opera. This

afforded him a golden opportunity to set in motion a vision of the

musical that he shared with Schwartz at their first meeting.

"I wanted the ambiance of the small French village to be treated with

the same integrity as the story line. Schwartz, Stein, and I started

rewriting, breaking the show down character by character, cutting some

characters, amplifying some others. There are new songs, new dialogue,

new scenes, and still we had to cut a lot of songs from a show that

was running over three hours," Greenberg says, adding that the show

now has 18 characters, all specific and integral to the plot and

likening the structure and ambiance to the film "Chocolat."

Acknowledging that the score is and has always been considered one of

the best in the musical theater canon, Greenberg says, "The book is

now streamlined and finely tuned by Stein, who is in his 90s. ("And a

flirt," interjects Ripley). "There is nothing gratuitous about the

musical numbers that are now as real as the play." Greenberg is

Texas-born and New York-raised and his own theatrical experience once

included performing, including being cast at the age of 13 to appear

in the 1982 "The Little Prince and the Aviator," a musical that closed

during its Broadway previews. Acting was evidently not in the cards

for Greenberg, who has since gone on to earn degrees from London’s

Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Stanford University, and New York

University Film School, and to direct many lauded productions at

regional theaters.

The plot includes those juicier elements that make life worth living –

such as jealousy, lust, revenge, and forgiveness. Schwartz, a composer

of many musical theater scores, including "Pippin," "Godspell," "The

Magic Show," and "Children of Eden," may have hit the jackpot with his

latest, "Wicked." But in the new chapter of the Great American

Songbook, I still wouldn’t bet that any of its songs will ever rival

"Meadowlark."

With this production, Greenberg has been placed among the premiere

group of talented young directors who have been selected to bring a

new and fresh artistic approach to shows at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

"I think we have a diamond that has finally been polished," says

Greenberg. Ripley agrees and adds, "It feels like the right time and

the right place to do this show." With that kind of optimism, "The

Baker’s Wife" may be convinced to return to her little French village

again and again.

– Simon Saltzman

The Baker’s Wife, previews Wednesday through Saturday, April 13

through 16; opening night, Sunday, April 17, 7:30 p.m., runs through

Sunday, May 15, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. $31

to $68. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.


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