Larry Blyden, Alan Alda, and Barbara Harrisin The Apple Tree
Larry Blyden, Alan Alda, and Barbara Harris
in The Apple Tree
Listen closely: Let me fill you in about the rich, ripe 1966 musical The Apple Tree, which will be seen at Encores! later this week. Back in late '65 when the project was officially announced, who knew that it would turn out to be the penultimate show from composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick -- and that they would ultimately pen more of it than they expected to?

Just as the staff of My Fair Lady had a tough time with their next show Camelot, and in the same way that a post-Chorus Line Michael Bennett suffered with Ballroom, Bock and Harnick -- whose previous show was Fiddler on the Roof -- would face the same Can-You-Top-This obstacle with their new show, Come Back! Go Away! I Love You! That's what it was originally called, and there was a reason for the tri-phrase title: The show consisted of three one-act musicals. As producer Stuart Ostrow said, "So many musicals had second-act trouble that I thought if we just did one-act musicals, we'd eliminate that problem." Bock and Harnick got in touch with book writer Jerome Coopersmith, who'd recently had a modest success with Baker Street, partly because B&H had come in to write some new material when the show wasn't working well enough. Bock, Harnick, and Coopersmith announced that they'd musicalize three stories -- Mark Twain's "The Diary of Adam and Eve," Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and Bruce Jay Friedman's "Show-Biz Connections" -- all of which concerned the interaction between man and the devil.

If a jaded theatergoer still wasn't excited by the prospect of this show, he sure was when Mike Nichols was signed to direct. At that point, Nichols had staged three Broadway shows: Barefoot in the Park, Luv, and The Odd Couple. To put this in perspective: Luv had the shortest run of the three at 901 performances, but that was still long enough to make it the 19th longest-running non-musical in Broadway history. Granted, Come Back! would be Nichols' first musical, but Hollywood had already entrusted him with his first movie, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? looked as if it would be a hit. (It was.) So the director would probably conquer the musical stage, too.

Perhaps Nichols made the suggestions that resulted in the show being renamed The Apple Tree and "Young Goodman Brown" and "Show-Biz Connections" being dropped. Frank R. Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" and Jules Feiffer's "Passionella" took their place. (How the latter happened is easy to infer: Nichols had already staged a summer stock version of the story with Stephen Sondheim's song "Truly Content" in it.) Coopersmith didn't remain with the project, and Harnick gave his explanation of this in The Best Plays of 1966-67: "Coopersmith created a libretto that we all found amusing, charming, and theatrically sound, but Jerry and I couldn't find the songs in it." Ostrow suggested that "the librettist and lyricist might be getting in each other's way," and so "Coopersmith graciously stepped aside." That was how Bock and Harnick became the show's book writers, as well.

After the show loaded in at the Shubert in Boston, Nichols threw out something else: Tony Walton's elaborate Garden of Eden set for the first musical. Nichols said it was so busy that one couldn't see the actors on it, so Walton quickly came up with a much simpler design. (I was living in Boston then but only found out about the original set being dumped in the alley next to the Shubert days after it happened. Had I known, I would have rushed there to see what Walton's first idea of Eden had been!)

As I saw when I attended the tryout performance of September 28, 1966, 18 days after the show opened at the Shubert, "The Diary of Adam and Eve" began with something that Harnick mentioned in She Loves Me: The Voice of God. After He finished speaking, Adam got in a great joke that set up the easygoing tone of the script. (You'll enjoy the quip when you hear it this week.) Adam -- played by Alan Alda, who would have received my vote as Best Actor in a Musical that year -- then had a delicious song called "I'm a Happy Man." To this day, I have no idea why it was dropped. (It had already replaced another song for Adam, "Useless," in which he separated the world into useful things and useless ones -- such as flowers.)

Then Barbara Harris, the lady for whom I would have voted (and many others did vote) for Best Actress in a Musical, came on. Her first song was "Here in Eden," a replacement for "Beautiful, Beautiful World." If the latter title sounds familiar to those who know The Apple Tree, there's a reason for that: By the time the show played Boston, it had been inserted later in the show and given to Adam. By the way, it was one of the few songs from the score to get a cover recording, by a then-waning but still popular group called The New Christy Minstrels.

Harris then delivered dialogue that made The Apple Tree arguably one of the first feminist musicals. Woman was constantly shown to be smarter than man, and she also had an appreciation for beauty and culture that he lacked. On the other hand, when Eve took up with the Snake (Larry Blyden) and ate the apple, the authors did have her do what many thought women did at the time: Try to shift the blame to the man. Sure enough, Adam wound up apologizing to her. Once God thrust them into the real world, though, Adam was better at building a hut. When it rained, he made clear he didn't want Eve in it. This so upset his mate that Adam noticed she was "raining," too -- and to stop those tears, he gave in. As soon as Eve was inside the hut, she asked a question that still resonates with anyone who's ever been a husband or a wife.

Adam was intrigued by his new discovery: Humor. "Why did the chicken cross the road?" he asked Eve, and she couldn't understand why was so amused when he delivered the classic punch-line. But what he said after that was a real stroke of comic genius. (Listen for it!) Harnick then had a terrifically funny song, "It's a Fish," in which the last line alone advanced the action nine months. Later, just as Agnes and Michael did in I Do! I Do! -- another musical from the 1966-67 season -- the two grew accustomed to each other's faces. By the end, what had been an amusing show unexpectedly became a moving one.

On the night I attended, Harris was in the midst of a terrible and well-publicized case of the flu, yet she was game in singing notes that were well beyond her in "What Makes Me Love Him?" The A-A-B-A structure of that song made us fear every time an A section came around, for as Harris approached the repeated high note, we knew she wouldn't hit it. I can still remember the Boston audience feeling so bad for her -- and I could see from Harris's face that she felt bad she wasn't giving the audience her best. But in those days, when a star was sick, she went on anyway, figuring that people would rather hear her miss a few notes than see an understudy.

On Wednesday, I'll tell about the rest of The Apple Tree.

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