My choice for today’s “Forgotten Musicals Friday” is a musical that, for no obvious reason, captured my imagination: The Yearling. It has no commercial recording and even though Barbra Streisand was a champion of the score in the early years of her career, one doesn’t really read much about the show in general. Nonetheless, The Yearling is a musical that pops into my head every now and then, so I thought it was time to dedicate a column to it.
Based on The Yearling by Marjorie Kennan Rawlings, the show had a book and lyrics by Herbert Martin and music by Michael Leonard. Martin shared credit for the book with show’s producer, Lore Noto. The original Broadway production of The Yearling opened on 10 December 1965, with the show’s closing for it’s 3-performance run already having been announced. It was directed by Lloyd Richards, with choreography by Ralph Beaumont. Some think that perhaps with a better director, the show itself will have been better; others tell tales of how the show ran out of money and couldn’t afford to run long enough to catch on with audiences. Both stories seem like reasonably valid options.
At the heart of The Yearling is a a twelve-year old boy named Jody, who lives with his struggling family. His parents, Penny and Ora, face their hardships as best they can, even though at the top of the show things are looking particularly difficult for them with a a bear having killed their sow. Jody longs for a pet deer and circumstances eventually line up so that he is able to raise a motherless fawn. A year later, when the fawn eats the family’s new crops, Jody is fold to kill the yearling, an order that brings about the climax of the show.
When asked, people who saw the show will tell you they liked the score, which I’ve heard described as both lovely, pleasant and even well-crafted. Some complain that the score doesn’t reflect its rural 1870s setting well, but many musicals evoking milieu by filtering songs in popular contemporary forms through arrangements and orchestrations. Maybe, if The Yearling were ever staged in a high profile production again, that might be a fixable problem. A score that features a song that Stephen Sondheim listed as a song he wishes he had written can’t be all bad. If you’re keen to have a listen to that little gem from this score, scroll down to the YouTube playlist at the end of this post, where you can hear it performed in versions by Streisand and, in an even jazzier version, by Greta Matassa. Neither arrangement really reflects the setting of the show, but as neither is being presented in the context of the show itself, I suppose we can’t be too concerned by that here.
My favourite song from the score is one that has become something of a standard, “Why Did I Choose You?”. Although some might try and direct you to Barbara Cook’s performance of the song in concert, for me it doesn’t get better than Streisand singing the song in her first television special. (Both, as well as several other versions of the song are featured in the YouTube playlist below.)
Although there have been rumours flying around the Internet for some time about a full recording of the show being made, the only easy way to hear these songs is in versions recorded by artists who were moved enough by the material to interpret them on their own recordings. Every now and then, a song also turns up on a compilation album like Unsung Musicals II (which includes “Everything in the World I Love”). While there is a live recording done by the producers for a private LP pressing as well as a recording of several songs from the show done for a radio show, these aren’t readily available for ordinary folk like me to hear.
Getting back to the show, those same people who praise the score will also tell you that the book was flawed, even dull, and that, perhaps, the material was not suitable for (what they think should be a good premise for) a musical. I’m more likely to give credence to that former point than to the latter; the musical is such a versatile medium, even more so these days than in the past. Maybe in a post-War Horse world, there’s merit in seeing if the show can be done without a live deer, as in the original production. It might be the key to telling the story in an evocative, contemporary manner that makes the piece compelling in a way that perhaps it wasn’t in 1965.
Keen to share any thoughts or memories about The Yearling? Head to the comment box below. I’d love to hear them!