(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/4; Photo: Patti LuPone, left, as the title character and Chaim Topol as her husband in the pre-Broadway tour of the musical “The Baker’s Wife.”Credit…Martha Swope, via New York Public Library; via Pam Green.)
With a marquee creative team, this romantic musical should have been a sure bet. One great song survived the out-of-town turmoil.
The producer David Merrick was no slouch at offstage drama. With a new musical in rough shape on the road, he devised an audacious caper to fix it.
The place was the Shubert Theater in Boston, the year 1976, the show “The Baker’s Wife” — with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, a book by Joseph Stein and a cringe-making trail of reviews that seemed only to be getting worse.
At the start of the five-city, six-month Broadway-bound tour, in May, the Los Angeles Times had kindly deemed the show “not an embarrassment.” By September, The Boston Globe declared acidly that it didn’t “have a prayer.”
To Merrick, the song “Meadowlark” — sung by the title character, played by a not yet famous, 27-year-old Patti LuPone — was part of the problem. It was more than seven minutes long, and he wanted it out. So after a Wednesday matinee, he ordered the conductor, Robert Billig, to pull all of the sheet music for the song and bring it to the stage.
“I did as I was asked,” Billig recalled by email this week, “and Mr. Merrick put the music in his attaché case and departed for New York.”
The notoriously combative producer left the others to figure out how to make the evening performance work around the hole he had just smashed in it.
“This could all just be myth,” LuPone said by phone the other day, hushing her voice for effect, “but let’s hope it’s true: He was heard in a bar the night before saying, ‘I’ll get that song out of the show if I have to poison the birdseed.’”
“Meadowlark,” which went on to become a cabaret standard, a popular audition number and one of LuPone’s signature solo songs, didn’t stay cut. Billig got on the phone to Schwartz, Schwartz called his agent, threats were made. The orchestra got its music back the next day.
“By that point in the proceedings,” Schwartz said recently by video call, “this is why we couldn’t fix it.” Meaning the show, that is. “Because everything had sort of descended into chaos. Nobody was making really rational decisions.”