When “Paint Your Wagon” comes to The Muny July 27-Aug. 2, the narrative may be somewhat unrecognizable thanks to Jon Marans, who was honored with the task of rewriting the book. Although the California Gold Rush theme and many of the songs remain the same, new characters sing them throughout an almost fully rewritten storyline.
“The original book deals mostly with white men heading out to the Gold Rush in 1848. There is also one Latino man and the issue of prejudice is dealt with – but only slightly. I couldn’t see how to rework that original book with just editing, so I was given the opportunity to start from scratch,” Marans explains.
“What’s really fascinating is that the entire world converged on California during the Gold Rush. Suddenly all these ethnicities were working near each other for the first time. There were clashes, but also because of the close proximity, friendships developed as well.
Before Marans figured out the bigger picture of the new narrative, he listened to the score and was “blown away.”
“This score written by Lerner and Loewe — who also wrote ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Camelot — is astounding” he says. “The ‘Paint Your Wagon’ songs are just as dramatic and melodic and memorable as the songs from their other shows. Unfortunately, since “Paint Your Wagon” has rarely been performed, some of the songs never became as popular. However, my guess is there will be at least four or five songs the audience will start to hear and say ‘Oh wait, I know that song!”
While Marans used most of the songs from the original production, a few have been cut and replaced with two songs from the 1969 film, “Gold Fever” and “Here It is.” He also found an additional song used in the national tour back in 1950s. Apparently, Burl Ives – who played the lead – wanted a final song to sing so they wrote a “glorious anthemic song called “Take The Wheels off the Wagon”.
Marans still needed a duet for his main love couple. Emily Altman, the head of the Frederick Loewe Foundation played him a cut song from the show called “That’s What Other Folks Do”. It was perfect and is now a pivotal song in the storytelling.
Marans also rewrote the book for a Seattle production back in 2016.
“In the Seattle version, there seemed to be too many storylines,” he continues. “I needed to hone in more on the core narratives. The wonderful thing about the Seattle production, however, is that it freed me up to let my imagination go further and dig even deeper into those principle characters.”
Having never worked at The Muny before, Marans was astounded and thrilled to hear that the normal cast of 25 would be 40 at The Muny. And audience members can expect a live animal sighting. “There’s a famous song ‘There’s a Coach Coming,’ and we’re getting two horses for it!” he says.
As to his favorite moment of the show: “There’s something very satisfying as a book-writer when you can build a scene, and suddenly the song feels as if it not only works but that you heightened the moment and made the song work even better,” he says. In the original show, a song called “How Can I Wait,” was originally sung by a young girl waiting for a boy to arrive the next day. But now many people sing it. Quite a few of the characters in the show are hoping to turn their lives around – have a better future. And so one by one they sing ’How Can I wait til tomorrow comes’. It’s been beautifully arranged by Ian Eisendrath. One character starts to sing, then another character, the voices building on each other until it’s a gorgeous wall of sound — of people hoping for something better.”
Ultimately Marans explains the show is about a diverse group of people trying to work together, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but always hopeful that things will continue to get better for all.