So there I was, in my front-row seat at the reading of The Night of the Hunter, when intermission arrived. Beth Fowler emerged from her back-row music stand where she'd repaired after opening the show and came up to me. "You," she said, "are the most marvelous audience. You smile at the tender parts, laugh at the funny parts, and get teary-eyed at the emotional parts. Who could ask for a better audience?"

"Beth," I said, "you should see how I scowl at so many shows I see. The reason I'm reacting so positively is because this musical is so wonderful."

I've thought so for a while. Some time ago, composer Claibe Richardson and librettist-lyricist Stephen Cole's The Night of the Hunter had a reading at the Vineyard that was so impressive, I named it the Best Musical of the Summer in my annual Straw-Hat Awards. Do you hate Annie because it's a fairy-tale in which everything works out so effortlessly and splendidly for that little girl? Well, here's the antidote: In The Night of the Hunter, a little girl and a little boy first endure their father being executed for a robbery and later find that their mother was murdered by a man who was not remotely what he said he was. Yet the miracle of the show is that you can come away feeling good, totally convinced that the kids are going to be all right -- and that prospects for this musical are going to be all right, too.

John Bowab thinks so as well. Bowab was associate producer on no less than the original productions of Sweet Charity and Mame in 1966 but then had less luck producing Maggie Flynn in 1968 and The Fig Leaves Are Falling in 1969. So he began working in television, though he did return in 1983 to stage the revival of Mame. When that closed in a month, he was back to TV Land.

He certainly didn't expect to be producing and directing another musical. "But a few years ago," he said, "my old friend Doris Silverton asked me to do a staged reading of Grossinger's, a show on which she once worked with Claibe Richardson and Stephen Cole, who'd taken over for Doris and her collaborator, Rita Laiken. Well, it was a one-night benefit for the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, so I thought I'd do it to help the organization -- and because I thought it was going to be easy. It wasn't. We went through two leading ladies before we could get it done."

Nevertheless, Bowab was impressed with the score that Richardson and Cole had written and asked what else they had. "They told me about The Night of the Hunter, which was a movie I always loved," he said. "They had their concept album on Varèse Sarabande, and I listened and was tremendously impressed."

Weren't we all when the album debuted in 1998? As invaluable producer Bruce Kimmel wrote in his liner notes, "I'd been looking for a new musical to do as a concept album for quite some time. I wanted the musical to be uniquely American (and) firmly rooted in the Broadway tradition...Well, easier said than done." But when orchestrator extraordinaire Larry Moore told him about Claibe Richardson's new show, Kimmel said he was "immediately intrigued because I've always felt that Claibe was one of the great unsung heroes of musical theater." My faithful readers know I feel exactly the same way, as few columns go by without my mentioning his gorgeous score for The Grass Harp. Here I am, doing it again!

Cole admits that he'd heard of neither the novel nor the two films of The Night of the Hunter until Richardson mentioned the property: "I'd called Claibe up out of the blue because I'm such a major fan of his The Grass Harp and Lola. I wanted to do a musical of Time After Time with him. He didn't want to tackle that but instead offered to show me the first movie of The Night of the Hunter. It took me a day or two to see what a brilliant idea it was."

A challenging one, too. It's the story of John Harper, a young Southern boy whose father is serving a long jail sentence for robbery. The father escapes and returns to give John the money but makes the boy swear to hide it and not tell anyone about it. John promises and holds fast -- not easy, given that preacher Harry Powell soon arrives to befriend, then romance, John's mother Willa by saying that he knew her husband. And he did, for they were cellmates. John is smart enough not to trust Harry, but both his mother and young sister Pearl welcome the "reverend" into their lives. Willa will pay dearly for this: When she discovers that Harry was just out for the money, she forgives him because she's become a born-again Christian at his urging. And then Harry cuts her throat.

The concept album
The concept album
Arriving soon upon the scene is Rachel Cooper (played by Beth Fowler at the reading). She takes in stray kids who need help, and she's there to give plenty of love and kindness to John and Pearl. That isn't quite the happy ending -- Harry comes looking for them and, of course, the money -- but justice does triumph before all is said and sung.

The Night of the Hunter has already had some triumphs of its own. Cole won an Edward Kleban Award for his libretto. Fans of the CD have a tough time telling you what their favorite song is. Is it Harry's jaunty "The Lord Will Provide," in which he rationalizes his nefarious behavior? Is it Willa's "Looking Ahead," a soaring melody in which she tries to make the best of a bad situation? Richardson, a native Southerner, sure knew how to write a Baptist hymn when he had to, and "The River Jesus" deserves to enter the religious repertoire. There's also Harry's pseudo-tender "Expect a Miracle" and Rachel's high-flying anthem "One More Harvest." But I feel the score's master-stroke is what Cole wrought in the song for Harry and Willa's wedding night. As she prepares for their first lovemaking, she sings "Lord, make him be good." (This lady has been through a lot!) She goes into their bedroom, where Harry berates her for wanting sex; he tells her that it's only for procreation purposes and, given that she doesn't want any more children, there's no need to do the otherwise filthy act. What's fascinating is that Willa comes to the conclusion that he's right and sings to the precise same melody as before, "Lord, make me be good."

But the best news of all is that there's more music in the show than the CD offers. Whenever The Night of the Hunter gets its first-class production -- and I'm sure rooting for sooner rather than later -- audiences will hear a revised opening sequence, a new Act I finale, a new section for Willa in "Expect a Miracle," and six other new songs that have the power and the glory of the ones we know. I think that Ron Raines, who played Harry in both the album and this reading, said it best during intermission when he told friends that the show speaks to the world today, wherein people are suckered by charismatic leaders such as the preacher, and noted how pertinent it is that an innocent child can be the only truth in our troubled times. "Today is not so unlike the Great Depression in which the show is set," Raines said. "Here's a show that's about the difference between real faith and fundamentalism."

Of course, we have re-entered an era of musical comedy, where our current biggest hits are hardly serious musicals. I asked Bowab about this and he chuckled. "I remember the year we did Sweet Charity and Mame, and everyone was saying to us, 'Oh, you've got the Tony wrapped up -- but which of the two shows will it be?' And what was it? Man of La Mancha, a serious musical in an era where few musicals were aiming that high. Don't get me wrong. I loved Hairspray and The Producers and the other current hits, too. But if a work is good, no matter what genre it is, that's all that matters. And I'm not the only one who feels this way; after these readings, two nice enhancement checks came right in."

Needless to say, there is a sadness here. Claibe Richardson wasn't on hand to see the readings for he died in January. I thought of him during the musical's dream sequence in which John imagined his father's speaking to him. "I'm right with you," he said, "where I always was." Claibe Richardson is right there with Cole and Bowab, I'm sure, looking ahead.

********************

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]