As I head to the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, New Jersey, I must confess that I’m apprehensive.
Will I Do! I Do! do in 2012?
After all, the Tom-Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical chronicles a marriage that runs roughly from 1900 to 1950. Now consider how very much marriage has changed since that first part of the 20th century. More to the point, look how much it’s evolved in the 46 years since the musical made its 1966 Broadway debut.
Could the show possibly have anything to say to contemporary audiences? For one thing, won’t Michael and Agnes seem pathetically innocent? Not only is she portrayed as a virgin on their wedding night, but so is he.
Actually, the Bickford audience, instead of mocking Michael and Agnes, are indulgent. The theatergoers seem to be remembering their Very First Times (although some would probably prefer to forget them).
Yes, to describe some elements of the show, one must use the adjective “antique” instead of “nostalgic.” Pregnancy was once euphemistically called a “confinement.” Even the couple’s naming a son after his father seems dated; these days, fathers tend not to make “juniors” out of their sons, but instead give them their own names. Worst of all, a father’s suggesting that he’ll inflict corporal punishment on an errant son was once the way to go.
But I Do! I Do! shows that some aspects of marriage remain universal and relevant. A pregnant mother still realizes that “instead of one, I’m two.” That unexpected and unprecedented pain might really mean that the baby is actually coming. There’s the joy of seeing your baby for the first time – and the blissful ignorance of all the work and expense that will now follow in raising the child.
“Love Isn’t Everything,” Agnes decrees. During the child-raising years, which spouse doesn’t feel taken for granted? Which doesn’t believe that he or she works harder? These feelings lead to inevitable fights (and just-as-inevitable make-up sex).
Not too many years will pass, however, before a husband is complaining to a wife about “YOUR son” as they’re both waiting up all night for the kid to come home. Both say that they can’t wait until the “little monster” and his sister get married and leave home, but many parents, as Michael and Agnes do, learn that they woefully miss their kids once they’re gone. And has there ever been a father who doesn’t feel that “My daughter is marrying an idiot”?
After the first hour of I Do! I Do! genuine drama strikes: Michael suggests that he’s either having an affair or thinking about it. (Jones is purposely vague.) I note another sign of how times have changed: Michael’s been married 15 years. Yes, in those days, the proverbial seven-year itch apparently took more than twice as long to catch.
But now I steel myself for a certain lyric. I fear for actor Scott McGowan, who’s been excellent and has been endearing the audience to him. Will the crowd now hiss and boo when he jauntily sings to Agnes that, “Men of 40 go to town; women go to pot”?
Suddenly, I’m thinking about Sheldon Harnick and Fiorello! In his 1959 musical about New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, we meet Marie, his secretary. She’s been single far too long for her taste, so she says she’ll marry “The Very Next Man” who asks her. “And if he likes me,” she sings, “who cares how frequently he strikes me? I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling just for the privilege of wearing his ring.”
Harnick has told me that in 1986 he was informed that an audience at Yale had loudly booed the line. As a result, he felt compelled to rewrite it. Ever since, Marie has sung, “When he proposes, I’ll have him send me tons of roses: sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour. Why should I wait around for one little flower?” (Not only does that eliminate the unpleasantness, but it also creates a nice pun. The Italian word for “little flower” is fiorello – precisely the one for whom she’s been waiting. And, as it turns out, Fiorello will be the very next man who asks her to marry.)
Granted, saying that “women go to pot” is far more benign than wife-beating. But considering that Jones is still with us (thank the Lord), I’m thinking that he might consider rewriting the line. Frankly, I’d like to see him do it in the next few minutes.
Not to worry. The audience actually rings out with hearty masculine laughter and plenty of high-pitched feminine chuckles. My fears turn out to be unfounded, and suddenly I understand why: people aren’t taking this as Jones’ personal philosophy, but instead as Michael’s silliness. They’re enjoying the opportunity to laugh at – well, in the words that Agnes will soon use, “that pompous, pompous ass.”
Those who know I Do! I Do! solely from the original cast album might be horrified by something else entirely. During act one, there’s no “My Cup Runneth Over,” Michael and Agnes’ musical testament to their love. It’s the closest that any off the score’s songs made it to hit status, and now it’s been dropped?!?!
No, Jones has merely repositioned it in the second act, after the couple wonders, “Where are the Snows (of yesteryear)?” and before they look forward to “When the Kids Get Married.” Actually, “My Cup Runneth Over” makes more sense here, mostly because of the lyric, “In only a moment, we both will be old.” People in their early twenties rarely think about getting old (or even believe that they will), but people in their late forties certainly start to muse on the subject.
And other subjects, too. What a surprise to see Agnes sow some seeds of early feminism. She wonders if she’s wasted her life simply being The Woman behind the Man, while he’s been less sensitive than she would have wished. What’s strong about I Do! I Do! is that both characters remain brave in the face of adversity.
So the names “Agnes” and “Michael” turn out to be a good metaphor for the show. These days, the former is rarely chosen for girls while the latter is still popular for boys. Similarly, half of I Do! I Do! plays as a period piece, and half is still as relevant as the morning’s news. As Michael says about marriage, “This has been going on for millions and millions of years” – and it probably will, even if we only survive by the skin of our teeth.
A few notes if you’re considering producing I Do! I Do!: While both acts are set in the same bedroom, you might consider giving the room a facelift during intermission. After all, people do redecorate at least once when they’ve been in the same house for 50 years.
Neil Simon learned early in his career – from Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple — that if you spruce up the set during intermission, the audience will “oooooh” when the curtain goes up for the second act. Why not give your attendees the same kind of treat with I Do! I Do!?
When you audition, ask each of your would-be Michaels to carry a potential Agnes over a threshold. One really needs that for the couple’s first entrance into their bedroom.
I Do! I Do! offers the chance to use performers who sing well, act well – but don’t move well, let alone dance. The musical only demands that its Michael and Agnes fox-trot for a few bars in the middle of songs. Michael must do a solo dance in his bare feet (now that’s a truly soft shoe!), but as we all know, most people can do almost any dance alone; it’s when a partner is brought in that some run into trouble.
“When the Kids Get Married” has eight measures of music in which Michael is asked to play the saxophone and Agnes the violin. Thus, ask those who audition if they have any ability with these instruments. Granted, these aren’t strong requirements for the roles; no matter how well or poorly your performers do, the audience will forgive and applaud the effort. Still, the applause they receive will commensurately increase with the performers’ level of achievement.
See, too, if your actress is capable of getting on the smallest of children’s tricycles and peddling it across the stage. Here in Morris Township, Christine Marie Heath actually got a hand for it.
Finally, I Do! I Do! provides a nice challenge for actors who must age from their 20s into their 70s. But here’s one last (and admittedly radical) thought about casting.
Many community theaters are multi-generational; parent-actors often lug their little children to the theater rather than hire a babysitter; soon after, the kids are acting, too. Thus, how about an I Do! I Do! with a first act where the grown children of the old pros play Michael and Agnes, followed by an act two with their parents assuming the roles? Each performer would have far less to learn and master, which could result in better performances.
What’s more, all four will have a nice bonding experience. After all, the family that does plays together stays together.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.