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Replanting the Tree

Will this week's Encores! production redeem the reputation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? logo
All right, you're a producer. You open your new musical, and The New York Times says "it's a darlin' show," adding that it's "one of those happy inspirations that the theater dotes on," a musical that "makes the audience feel thoroughly contented." It refers to the score as "the richest" one the composer ever created and adds that the wordsmith who worked with him "found idiomatic lyrics to express the comedy and the pensiveness of the music." Meanwhile, the Daily News calls the show "splendid," commenting that "the first act is marvelously funny" and that "the second act is a very touching one. There has been nothing on the music-show stage which tugs so strongly since Noël Coward's Bittersweet" -- a show that had, incidentally, debuted in 1929. Another one of the dailies said, "Had a lovely time...wish you were there...unique in what it can do to an audience. Practically all the time, you stifle pleasant, sentimental tears, yet you are constantly laughing. It is a terribly rare combination of heart and craftsmanship and exquisite taste that makes you love being the target of its emotions. I have rarely had more fun laughing, and never had more fun crying."

Wow! Isn't that a show you would have loved to have seen -- and an opening party that you would have killed to attend? What glee the producers, investors, and well-wishers must have felt when hearing those notices read at the party. And yet, a mere 200 days later, on December 8, 1951, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn closed. How could it happen, given that everybody adored Shirley Booth in the main comic role, as well? Atkinson, Times: "To hear Miss Booth sing 'Love Is the Reason' in a sort of comic fugue arrangement is to enjoy musical comedy at its best." Chapman, News: "Shirley Booth is truly something...she had me weeping with laughter." Hawkins, World-Telegram & Sun: "The jewel of the evening." Guernsey, Herald-Tribune: "A grand performance." And let's not forget Watts of the Post: "One of the wonders of the American stage...a superb actress, a magnificent comedienne, and an all-around performer of seemingly endless versatility." The old wisdom has it that every great musical must have a great star performance, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn apparently had it. So why did it close so relatively quickly?

For one thing, Booth wasn't the star of the show -- or, at least, she wasn't supposed to be. It's just that she had the fun character to play: Cissy, a woman who's been married repeatedly but never got over her first love, who was named Harry -- so she's called all of her subsequent husbands "Harry" in his honor. In reminiscing about the first Harry, Booth sang one of the funniest songs in the entire musical theater canon, "He Had Refinement." (Given what lyricist Dorothy Fields did with the expression, "points of interest," all I can say is: Thank God that a woman wrote it!) Booth also had the charming "Love Is the Reason," joined in the delightful romp "Look Who's Dancing," and shared the comic duet "Is That My Prince?" when the first, idealized Harry turned up looking nothing like he once did.

Granted, a strange sub-plot had Cissy and her latest Harry wanting a baby but having no luck conceiving. Cissy suggests adoption but Harry won't hear of it; only his actual child will do. So, decades before Blood Brothers, Cissy starts padding herself and arranges to get an unwanted baby from a neighbor. In a ludicrous scene, she "delivers" it while poor, dumb Harry is out of the room. But what about the part of the show that made those tough-nut critics cry? That's where Katie and Johnny come in. They're young adults at the turn of the 20th century; she's a hard worker, he's rather shiftless. How much, you ask? Well, you've heard of people living from paycheck to paycheck? Here's a guy who pawns his watch each Monday morning to have money for the week and then, after payday on Saturday, retrieves it. "You're mine till Monday," he sings in a joyous, up-tempo song that gets the show off to a good start. Nevertheless, Katie is so smitten with him that she decides she must "Make the Man Love Me" (a gorgeous ballad that has since been sung by many people, including Barbra Streisand and Barbara Cook). Katie doesn't need to try very hard, because Johnny is attracted to her, too. "I'm Like a New Broom," he tells his friends in a jocular production number, promising to straighten out.

Easier said than done. When the quickly engaged Katie and Johnny go to buy their bedroom furniture, he has no money. "Somebody must'a picked your pocket," says one of his friends, most helpfully. So Katie pays, and it doesn't dampen her spirits. "Look Who's Dancin'," she sings in a glorious number that has a peck of nifty dance music. But, a year later, she's washing dishes and baby clothes; she and Johnny now have a daughter named Francie. Money is tight, for Johnny's job as a singing waiter is an on-again, off-again proposition. Eventually, Katie loses faith and tells him that she'll have to leave him, but Johnny delivers a bolt-of-lightning ballad that ends the first act: "I'll Buy You a Star," he claims, and he's so convincing that Katie decides to stay.

Act II begins 12 years later. The pre-adolescent Francie's schoolmates taunt her because her father's "rum-dumb"; she defends him because, to her, he's lovely (as he demonstrates in the tender "Growing Pains") and supportive ("Don't Be Afraid"). Eventually, Johnny becomes so desperate for money that he takes a dangerous job helping to excavate tunnels for the subways, and he's killed on the job -- on the day very day that Francie is to graduate.

A wastrel husband; a devoted, hard-working wife; difficulties with money; a daughter who defends her dad to her peers; a father's death; a graduation ceremony. Does any of this sound familiar? Indeed, six years earlier -- almost to the day -- Carousel had opened. And while the music that Arthur Schwartz wrote for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is extraordinary, as you'll hear this weekend in a CIty Center Encores! presentation, it's not Carousel. Even without that point of reference and comparison, Tree would have had a hard time of it. Don't forget that, relatively speaking, Carousel hasn't had it easy. Of the famous "big five" shows that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, Carousel had the shortest run. Yes, two-plus years was an extremely respectable run back then -- but the next-shortest-running R&H show, The King and I, ran almost a year longer. Note, too, that the 1994 Carousel revival got raves yet lasted only 10 months. Carousel is too bitter a pill for many audience members to swallow, and perhaps Tree was, too. Shirley Booth was great fun but she wasn't on that much, even though she was top-billed; she'd been appearing on Broadway for over 25 years, had just come off her biggest success -- Come Back, Little Sheba -- and was a much bigger name than Johnny Johnson or Marcia Van Dyke, who played Johnny and Katie. Hey, maybe it was Tree's hideous logo that discouraged ticket-buyers: A dull drawing of a turn-of-the-century maiden with the credits written all over her floor-length dress.

Say what you will about the "Golden Age of Musicals," but a lot of the albums from those days -- when so-called "High Fidelity" was state-of-the-art -- make you feel that you're hearing them through a Dixie cup and a string. Though the glory of Schwartz's music and Fields' lyrics still manage to come through on the cast album, everyone on it sounds remote -- except, of course, for the irrepressible Shirley Booth. The score should sound much better at City Center: Jason Danieley will make a fine Johnny, and if Sally Murphy can play Julie Jordan, she sure can play Katie, too. Plus, won't it be fun to see Emily Skinner as Cissy? Would that this Tree will sprout a new recording.


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

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