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Forgotten Broadway classics: Greenwillow January 28, 2008

Posted by Jeff in Musicals, Theater.
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Don’t click the More… tab until you’ve listened to this sound clip:

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The singer (and star of the show) is making his only appearance in a Broadway musical. Who is he?

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Yep, that Anthony Perkins.

On an off-day during rehearsals for the 1960 Frank Loesser musical Greenwillow, a bunch of the cast members decided to go see the new movie that Tony had been working on … the one he seemed rather reluctant to talk about. Something called Psycho

The transition from Norman Bates to Gideon Briggs must have been as much of a shock for Perkins. The musical based on the B. J. Chute novel takes place in the town of Greenwillow, where the eldest son of each generation of the Briggs clan must obey the “call to wander,” while the women they leave behind care for the home and rear their children in the hope that someday their husbands will return.

Gideon’s father Amos (Bruce MacKay), returns for a brief visit from his call, and he and his son extol “the music of home”:

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Gideon is committed to breaking the curse, and he declares as much to Dorrie (Ellen McCown), his beloved:

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Among Greenwillow’s many eccentrics are its two Reverends, the dour pessimist Reverend Lapp (William Chapman) and the sunny optimist Reverend Birdsong (Cecil Kellaway):

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Birdsong’s unconventional view of the Devil:

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Gideon and his two younger brothers, Micah (Ian Tucker) and Jabez (seven-year-old John Megna, who almost stole the show), baptize the family’s new calf:

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As it seems Gideon is lost to the call, Dorrie bemoans their fate:

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Eventually, with Birdsong’s help, Gideon breaks the curse and wins his Dorrie:

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Now, if this plot seems to you as if it’s going to lift off and float away, then you agree with most of the Broadway critics and the audience. At ninety-seven performances, Greenwillow was far and away the biggest flop of Frank Loesser’s Broadway career.

It didn’t help that it opened in the middle of the most extraordinary season in Broadway musical history. During Greenwillow‘s run, theatergoers looking for an original musical had their choice of My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Flower Drum Song, Redhead, Once Upon a Mattress, Gypsy, Take Me Along, The Sound of Music, Fiorello!, Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story!

Which is not to say that Greenwillow isn’t one hell of a score; at its best it’s up there with with The Most Happy Fella and Where’s Charley? if not in the stratospheric heights of Guys and Dolls. It may be too slight for a full Broadway revival but it would be just perfect for an Encores! concert treatment.

Tony Perkins’s understudy in Greenwillow was Grover Dale, who had been a Jet in the original cast of West Side Story and who was Perkins’s lover for over a decade. Dale became a leading choreographer/director on Seesaw, The Magic Show and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

Two years after Greenwillow, John Megna played Dill, the neighbor boy in the movie of To Kill A Mockingbird (the character based on Truman Capote). Gideon and Jabez may have escaped the Briggs family curse, but Perkins and Megna were less fortunate: both died of AIDS-related complications.

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