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Remembering Claibe Richardson and The Grass Harp

In remembrance of the late Claibe Richardson, Filichia thinks back to the first time he saw The Grass Harp.

So near, yet so far. Claibe Richardson died last week, only a matter of days before his glorious music for The Grass Harp was to be heard in a staged reading as part of the York Theatre Company's Musicals-in-Mufti series this weekend -- "the first time we've ever reprised a Mufti we've done before," says York artistic director James Morgan.

Sometimes I think I love The Grass Harp because I feel I'm .00001% responsible for getting it to Broadway. But, no, I adored it even before I gave the tiny push that set the wheels in motion. Of all things, it was the Breakfast at Tiffany's musical that spurred my introduction to The Grass Harp: When I went to see that now-notorious flop at the Shubert in my native Boston in November 1966 (it was called Holly Golightly then), the program included a piece on Truman Capote which mentioned that two of his works were being musicalized that season. In addition to Holly Golightly there was The Grass Harp, to be mounted at Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.

I mentioned this to my buddy Larry Fineberg, who, though just past 20 years of age (like me), had already invested in Broadway musicals from Anyone Can Whistle to Fiddler on the Roof to the about-to-open Cabaret. Had he heard of Trinity Square? "No," he answered, "but why don't we go, given that you have a car and it's only an hour away." So I ordered tickets for Friday the 13th of January, 1967 -- exactly 36 years ago today.

But in December, the Boston critics went down to Providence to see the show, and all three of them -- Norton in the Record-American, Kelly in the Globe, and Hirsch in the Herald -- unmercifully panned it. Suddenly. that trip to Providence looked like a waste of time and energy; the day before we were to go, Larry called to say that he wouldn't be attending after all but would shuttle off to New York to catch a backer's audition for Hallelujah, Baby! With an Arthur Laurents book, Jule Styne music, and Comden and Green lyrics, it did seem like a show in which Larry would like to invest.

So I called Jim McDonald, also 20 and the only other person I knew who was interested in Broadway musicals. We headed down to Providence, ready to roar in laughter at what had to be a woeful show and a woeful production. Yes, we knew that the show starred Elaine Stritch from Sail Away, Barbara Baxley from She Loves Me, Carol Brice from Regina, and the similarly named Carol Bruce from Do I Hear a Waltz? But somehow, after the reviews, we all expected an amateurish affair. I mean, I was conditioned to productions at Boston's elegant Shubert, Colonial, and Wilbur, and here I was going to see a show presented by a troupe ensconced at the Rhode Island School of Design -- a mere college. Perhaps we'd see scenery fall over or overly powdered wigs fall off. (Remember, I was very young then.)

We arrived at the theater -- a glorified auditorium, really -- and were astonished to see that Grass Harp sheet music had been printed and was on sale in the lobby. Young smart-asses that we were, we even made fun of that fact when we realized that the lyrics of one of the songs --"I Trust the Wrong People" -- scanned perfectly with "On Top of Old Smokey." So there we were, giggling and singing to the venerable tune: "I trust the wrong peee-ple; the circle's complete. The ending so bitt-ter, the start that was sweet."

The young Claibe Richardson
We entered the three-quarters empty theater, sat in our third-row aisle seats, and scorned the songs titles in the program. "Dollyheart's Genuine Gypsy Dropsy Cure," "Floozies," "Spit 'n' Whittle," "A Genteel Sufficiency of Abundance" -- are you kidding me? Then the overture began and it sounded startlingly wonderful. Jim turned to me and softly said, "I'm impressed," to which I immediately replied, "So am I. Who did these orchestrations?" I opened the program and saw for the first time -- certainly not the last -- the name Jonathan Tunick.

The sets did not fall down. In fact, they were astonishingly ornate, especially when the action moved to a treehouse. No one's wig fell off, unless you count my flipping my wig for what I saw and heard. The Grass Harp turned out to be the story of two maiden sisters who still live together along with their nephew Collin and their black maid Catherine (Carol Brice). Verena (Carol Bruce) goes out and earns their daily bread, while Dollyheart (Barbara Baxley) stays home and keeps house, though she also makes a medicine that she sells through the mail. Then Verena falls for an entrepreneur, Dr. Morris Ritz, who wants to market Dollyheart's tonic. But Dollyheart doesn't want to give it to her. When Verena insists, she, Collin, and Catherine decide to leave and live in that aforementioned treehouse. There they meet a passing evangelist (Stritch) and get arrested with her for running a religious con-game.

Okay, the story wasn't so hot, but the score was. Richardson's music towered over what I'd been hearing that season, and Kenward Elmslie's lyrics were superb, too. "If There's Love Enough" -- beautiful. "Marry with Me" -- hilarious and bouncy. "Yellow Drum" -- stirring and toe-tap inducing. "The Babylove Miracle Show" -- Stritch was phenomenal in raising money for her spurious cause, and with a song like this, who wouldn't empty his wallet? Hell, even "I Trust the Wrong People" -- Verena's mournful admission when Ritz turned out to be a phony -- was genuinely moving and offered a much better melody than "One Top of Old Smokey." Drector Adrian Hall staged the show in such a way that it was genuinely exciting: At the end, I didn't move, and I noticed that Jim didn't, either. We both wanted to hear every bit of the exit music. "We'll never hear it again," I mourned. And of all erroneous things I've said in my life, that is the one of which I am the most glad to have been wrong.

The next day, Larry called me with the most rapturous sound in his voice. "I heard the best score yesterday," he said, to which I immediately responded: "I'll bet I heard a better one." As much as I admire the Hallelujah, Baby! score, I still like The Grass Harp more.

That June, Larry moved from Boston to New York to become a Broadway producer. He went searching for properties and one day met Claibe Richardson, who mentioned that he wrote The Grass Harp. Larry, remembering my fervor, asked to hear it and was as impressed with the score as I was. He optioned it for Broadway and gave me a demo of Richardson singing the score at the piano that is still one of my most cherished possessions. What's more, it contained two new ballads -- "Chain of Love" and "Reach Out" -- that were resplendently melodic.

The Night of the Hunter was one
of Richardsons later musicals
Larry signed Ellis Rabb to direct, Celeste Holm to play Dollyheart, Ruth Ford to play Verena, Carol Brice to reprise her Catherine, and -- here's a name that will resonate with those of us who lived through the '60s - Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas to portray Babylove. Yes, long before it became vogue to hire a rock performer for a Broadway show, Larry Fineberg was doing it; but he was a young, first-time producer and just couldn't get the $400,000 he needed. When his option lapsed, Richard Barr and Charles Woodward stepped in and brought Rabb, Ford, and Brice along. Barbara Cook -- in her last Broadway role -- became Dollyheart, and Karen Morrow was Babylove. But the show was woefully underfinanced at $161,000. It received lackluster reviews at its opening on November 2, 1971 (again, the book has problems) and shuttered after only seven performances. Needless to say, I was there for one of them and was in heaven hearing a full orchestra once again play the score for what was, I presumed, the last time.

But, lo and behold: In April of 1972 came an album of the show that I played endlessly. Every year since, on my birthday, I begin the day with The Grass Harp. When I met Claibe Richardson six years after the recording, he told me of his zeal in making it happen; he knew that a musical could only have a life after Broadway if there was a recording of it. To keep costs down, he recorded in Europe -- and thereby started a cast album trend that continues to this day.

Richardson never had another musical reach Broadway, though his connection with Rabb on The Grass Harp did result in his compositoin of fetching incidental music for Rabb's Broadway productions of The Royal Family (1975) and The Philadelphia Story (1980). Richardson also provided music for The Curse of an Aching Heart in 1982, but he really wanted to write full scores for musicals. Two of them, Lola (as in Montez, with wonderful lyrics by Elmslie) and The Night of the Hunter (based on the 1955 film, with exceptional lyrics by Stephen Cole) wound up on CD, and I urgently insist that you get all three discs to hear a master melodist at work.

There are few composers whose songs soar as thrillingly as Claibe Richardson's. I wish he could be at the York this weekend to hear the cheers that his music to The Grass Harp will undoubtedly garner.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]