The Original Broadway Cast of Plain and Fancy
A gentle musical romance set in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, Plain and Fancy began life in 1953 when Marion Weaver brought a play she had written, based on her novel, Betsy, to producer Richard Kollmar. It concerned the Mennonite sect of Pennsylvania known as the Amish or the Pennsylvania Dutch, and although Kollmar would eventually reject the play, its subject matter interested him enough to commission other writers to create an original musical set in the same territory. Weaver would ultimately receive compensation and a title-page acknowledgment in the Playbill of the musical that would begin with a working title of Pennsylvania Dutch and ultimately be dubbed Plain and Fancy. Kollmar had played major roles on Broadway in such musicals as Too Many Girls and Knickerbocker Holiday. He had co-produced the Rodgers and Hart hit by Jupiter in 1942, then, with James W. Gardiner, had produced Are You With It?, a musical that managed a run of 266 performances in 1945. To produce the new show, Kollmar and Gardiner were joined by Yvette Schumer.
The producers hired Joseph Stein and Will Glickman to write their first musical book, the team having already contributed sketchers to such Broadway revues as Inside U.S.A., Lend an Ear, and Alive and Kicking. For Stein, Plain and Fancy would mark the beginning of one of the most productive and successful careers of any musical theatre librettist. Stein and Glickman would go on to collaborate on the books for Mr. Wonderful in 1956 and The Body Beautiful in 1958. Without Glickman, Stein would later write the books for Juno, Take Me Along (with Robert Russell), Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba, So Long, 174th Street, The Baker’s Wife, King of Hearts, Carmelina (with Alan Jay Lerner) and Rags.
Plain and Fancy also introduced composer Albert Hague to Broadway. He would go on to write the music for the Tony Award-winning musical Redhead in 1959, then several failures (Café Crown, The Fig Leaves are Falling, Miss Moffat), later gaining prominence playing the music teacher on the tv series Fame. The lyricist of Are You With It?, Arnold B. Horwitt, was chosen for Plain and Fancy; Horwitt’s earlier work had been primarily for revues, contribution sketches and/or lyrics to Call Me Mister, Inside U.S.A., and Make Mine Manhattan among others. He had also written the lyrics to Leroy Anderson’s music, for Wonderful Town, but their score had been rejected in favor of one by Leonard Berstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green shortly before rehearsal began. Morton De Costa was hired to direct his first musical, and Helen Tamiris became the show’s choreographer. In the field of musical comedy, Da Costa would go on to direct The Music Man and co-author and direct Saratoga and Maggie Flynn, while Tamiris already had to her credit such successes as Up in Central Park, the 1946 revival of Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Inside U.S.A., and Fanny.
With six leading roles of almost equal size, the producers wisely decided not to unbalance the show by casting major stars.
The Broadway production, directed by Morton DaCosta and choreographed by Helen Tamiris, opened on January 27, 1955, at the Mark Hellinger Theater. It was produced by Richard Kollmar. It transferred to the Winter Garden Theatre on February 28, 1955, where it remained until November 7, 1955 before returning to the Mark Hellinger on November 9, 1955, closing on March 3, 1956 after a total of 461 performances. The cast included Richard Derr as Dan, Shirl Conway as Ruth, Will Able as Jacob, Gloria Marlowe as Katie, Douglas Fletcher Rodgers as Ezra, Barbara Cook as Hilda, and David Daniels as Peter. Bea Arthur understudied Conway and Carol Lawrence was among the chorus members.
Barbara Cook (Ruth Winters) had make her Broadway debut with a leading role in the 1951 musical Falhooley, then played Ado Annie in Oklahoma! on tour and at City Center in 1953 and Carrie in Carousel at City Center the following year. Shirl Conway’s (only major musical credit prior to Plain and Fancy was replacing Yvonne Adair in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on Broadway and continuing opposite to Carol Channing when the show went on tour. Making his musical debut was leading man Richard Derr (Peter Reber), whose grandmother was actually a Mennonite from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although she was not part of the company when it went into rehearsal, Beatrice Arthur (Ruth Winters) joined the show during its run as understudy to Conway. Plain and Fancy cost $250,000 to mount; most of the money was raised in New York, Texas and Louisiana, with little forthcoming in Pennsylvania. Late in rehearsals, an Amish couple, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Zook, were invited to attend a run-through and offer advice on the show’s authenticity. Because the Amish were forbidden to enter a theatre, the run-through was held in a warehouse.
Beginning December 11, 1954, Plain and Fancy played tryout engagements in New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia. The reviews were generally positive and the show was an immediate success on the road. It arrived on January 27, 1955, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York, facing competition on Broadway from such musicals as The Pajama Game, Fanny, CanCan and The Boy Friend. The local reviews were highly favorable, with the exception of Brooks Atkinson’s in the New York Times, which was mixed. Atkinson felt the show’s second half did not live up to the promise of its first, but singled out "a remarkably pleasant score" among the show’s several attractions. Otherwise, it was almost nothing but praise. Robert Coleman in the Daily Mirror called it "a completely captivating musical hit . . . one of the most original musicals to hit the Main Stream in many a semester. It has everything – the best of everything." In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr lavished praise on Cook, Conway and Raoul Pene DuBois’s sets and costumes, describing the show as "sweet, attractive, and normal as blueberry pie."
As was the cast in those days, the show was recorded soon after the Broadway opening by Capitol records, which also released singles of Dean Martin singing the show’s big hit song, "Young And Foolish", Gordon McRae singing, "Follow Your Heart", and Bob Manning doing "This Is All Very New To Me." Plain and Fancy had been booked into the Hellinger on an interim basis, and, forced to make way for the flop musical Ankles Aweigh, Plain and Fancy transferred to the Winter Garden on February 28, 1955, just after that theatre had been vacated by Mary Martin in Peter Pan. One of the more "moving" musicals of its day, Plain and Fancy was forced to vacate the Winter Garden when another flop, Carol Channing in The Vamp, was booked. So Plain and Fancy returned to its original Broadway home, the Hellinger, on November 7, 1955.
A national company of the show opened August 29, 1955, in Los Angeles. Husband and wife, Craig Stevens and Alexis Smith, had the roles created on Broadway by Derr and Conway, and Cook left the Broadway production for four weeks to open the tour. The Broadway version returned its investment in October, 1955, and closed on March 3, 1956, after 461 performances, this time making way at the Hellinger for a successful show, My Fair Lady, which opened there March 15. The final Broadway company of Plain and Fancy became a second touring company beginning March 6, 1956, in Philadelphia, with principals David Daniels, Nancy Andrews, Stefan Schnabel, and lead dancer Daniel Nagrin remaining from the original cast. Conway and Derr were not in the show when it closed on Broadway because they had withdrawn to head a London company of Plain and Fancy which opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where such hit American musicals as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific had been housed. The London run, beginning January 25, 1956, continued for 315 performances. In March of the same year, Plain and Fancy opened in a Spanish language production at the Teatro Astral in Buenos Aires.
In February, 1955, the producers and authors of Plain and Fancy had been sued by the authors of a play called Wonderful Good, produced in Pennsylvania in 1952, which had been transformed into a musical called By Hex, seen in the same state in 1953. The authors of the play and musical maintained that Plain and Fancy had been copied from their shows; producer Kollmar stated that he had seen By Hex and that he considered it "a fine example of what we were trying not to do." With Plain and Fancy gone from New York, By Hex was brought in to off-Broadway’s Tempo Playhouse on June 18, 1956; it lasted 40 performances. Plain and Fancy received two small-scale New York revivals at Equity Library Theatre, the first in 1964 and the second in 1980. No film or television version of the show was ever made, although Columbia Pictures considered it for a movie vehicle for Judy Holliday.
If it doesn't rank with Broadway’s finest achievements, Plain and Fancy was a solid and satisfying show, and, after more than 35 years, its book and score holdup well. Some observers have compared the show to Brigadoon, another musical about New Yorkers confronting a strange culture and quaint villagers. But the Pennsylvania of Plain and Fancy was real, while Brigadoon was a fantasy land. The libretto's’s clash-of–cultures encounters are amusing, with the Conway character provided with a steady stream of funny wisecracks. And Stein and Glickman also gave the show its share of memorably theatrical moments; it opened with a Ford Thunderbilt on stage. Act One concluded with the shunning of the romantic lead Peter Reber, and the second act began with an on-stage barn raising. More outstanding than the book, however, is the show’s utterly charming score. In addition to "Young And Foolish," there are the lovely ballads "Follow Your Heart" and "It Wonders Me," the rousing "Plenty Of Pennsylvania," and the good comic material in "It's A Helluva Way To Run A Love Affair," and "City Mouse, Country Mouse." Surprisingly, there was no title song, although the words of the title could have fit the music set to the title of "Young And Foolish." But that was about the only thing missing in the score, to be savored again or newly discovered now that it’s back on CD.