background and analysis by Scott Miller

 

A gent and a robber, all in one,
A girl who made the moon burn like the sun,
A greedy witch,
A man that rich,
A brain that big,
A filthy pig,
A talking head…

So goes the list of characters in The Robber Bridegroom, the off Broadway musical based on the famous 1942 novel by Eudora Welty, based on an American folk tale, which was in turn loosely based on a classic European fairy tale. It’s a strange story to be sure, acid and gentle, wise and lighthearted, woven from the rough homespun of early American history, as dark as any HBO series, full of greed, lust, betrayal, lies, murder, rape, and lots, lots, of misogyny. It’s a tale peopled by a hero who only likes his sex non-consensual, a leading lady who’s a compulsive liar, a murderous (and sex-crazed) stepmother, idiot thieves, and much more. The hero, Jamie Lockhart, has two identities – two faces – one light and one dark, one pure and one "stained," one civilized and one animal. He is both the gentleman Jamie Lockhart and the charming rapist, the Bandit of the Woods. This is a story that uses America’s rich cultural past as a metaphor to expose the two faces of America today, especially the "dark face," the "animal" side that we try so hard to ignore, but without which we would not have conquered most of a continent and become the greatest nation on Earth. The New York Times called the novel "a modern fairy tale, where irony and humor, outright nonsense, deep wisdom and surrealistic extravaganzas become a poetic unity through the power of a pure exquisite style."

In Eudora Welty’s original novel, Clement Musgrove ponders his daughter’s choice in marrying the notorious Bandit of the Woods. Clement says:

If being a bandit were his breadth and scope, I should find him and kill him for sure. But since in addition he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second. For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off. All things are divided in half – night and day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age, and sometimes I wonder if even my own wife has not been the one person all the time, and I loved her beauty so well at the beginning that it is only now that the ugliness has struck through to beset me like a madness. And perhaps after the riding and robbing and burning and assault is over with, this man you love, he will step out of it all like a beastly skin, and surprise you with his gentleness.

It almost sounds like the justifications for the more brutal, immoral side of the current war in Iraq. Jamie is America in so many ways, both idealistic and brutal.

In the novel and in the musical based on it, this is a story entirely about dualities. Both the lovers, Jamie and Rosamund, have two identities. Jamie has "two faces setting up there on the same man’s head." He is "a gent and a robber all in one." He’s the Tony Soprano of 1795, living two seemingly incompatible lives at once. And like Tony Soprano, Eudora Welty tells us that "In his heart, Jamie knew that he was a hero and had always been one, only with the power to look both ways and to see a thing from all sides." There is an advantage to having two faces.

The Robber Bridegroom is filled with opposing pairs, the two Harp Brothers and their song "Two Heads," love and lust, passion and violence, love given and love "stolen," Clement’s beautiful, sweet first wife and his ugly, cruel second wife, the two idiot siblings Goat and Arie, Rosamund’s two babies (and in the novel, she is born one of a pair of twins), even two renditions of several songs in the show, including "Once Upon a Natchez Trace," "Where Oh Where," and "Company’s Comin’." This duality is everywhere. Clement is "the most fortunate planter in the whole history of the Natchez Trace," and yet he quite unfortunately lives with a shrew of a wife and a pathological liar for a daughter. There’s both happiness and unhappiness here. Likewise, Rosamund is spoiled in the extreme and yet she’s bored and lonely. Clement’s second wife Salome (that’s Suh-LOW-mee) gets what she thinks she wants – money – and yet the persistent memory of Clement’s first wife keeps Salome from the happiness she craves.

To go even deeper, the show itself has two "faces," the exterior framing device and the interior story. The show begins with the people of Rodney, Mississippi, in the present, coming together to enact the story of The Robber Bridegroom. This is an annual ritual, much like the reenactments in many European cities of the story of Jesus Christ in centuries-old passion plays. This folk tale is the town’s history, its only communal identity now that the town itself has decayed into disuse and ruin, since the Mississippi changed course and abandoned the once thriving town. So the actors in the show portray ordinary Rodney townsfolk and they portray characters inside the absurd story of Jamie, Rosamund, and the others. In fact, in most productions, the entire cast stays onstage for the whole show, watching, participating, singing back-up. These "townspeople" know the story, they know what happens next (as we see in the song "Goodbye Salome"), they know things the interior characters don’t know, and they know how it all ends. Depending on the physical production, this can function to make the real audience blend into the actor "audience," pulling the real audience into the story more fully than with most shows, asking them to play the role of the townspeople of Rodney, assembled for the annual ritual. The audience becomes both audience and actor, and the actors do the same. The line between reality and fiction blurs, the line between actor and audience, between active and passive participation. And it furthers underlines the central idea that everyone has two "faces."

The show’s two faces manifest themselves in other ways too. Thematically, the show is extremely dark, telling a tale of rape, murder, and other unpleasantries, but it tells it in the language of light comedy. Likewise, the central love story is one that begins with rape and ends with marriage. In fact, the show offers up two incredibly unhealthy marriages, that of Clement and Salome, and also that of Jamie and Rosamund. On top of that, at one point Little Harp declares his intention to marry a girl tied up in a burlap sack that he’s never even seen or talked to. This is not a show that thinks much of marriage, though perhaps that’s not a surprise considering when it was written, at the height of the Sexual Revolution. But it also may make us think twice when we talk about the "sanctity" of marriage or notions of "traditional" marriage. We see through this story – a tale first told in the 1700s, remember – that marriage has never been the pristine institution some in America think it is.

Underneath its rustic absurdism and its seemingly simple folk story, The Robber Bridegroom is about the two sides of America – bastion of freedom and hotbed of violence, Great Civilizer and brutal rapist (of the land and its native peoples), a land of both great charity and rampant crime, abundance and poverty, believers in true love and purveyors of an $11 billion pornography industry. It’s civilization versus primal, animal urges, mind versus flesh, both the "before" and "after" pictures of Eden. And today, we can see that same duality in our current government, which preaches a "culture of life," even as it promotes the death penalty, the ownership of guns, and war. Today, Jamie Lockhart’s two faces may be more relevant than ever, as we find in ourselves in a nation divided in half, a country now firmly divided into red states and blue states.

In 1975, when the show was written, the underlying metaphor described America as the spreader of democracy to the world and also as the imperialist bully who brought war crimes to an innocent people half a world away in East Asia. Just like Jamie Lockhart, America is the gentleman and the robber all in one. This musical was born into a world very different than even a decade earlier, a very cynical post-Watergate world, in which America had finally lost its image as Worldwide Good Guy. Likewise, in 1795 when the story is set, it’s about America as the nascent democracy that would bring hope and idealism to the world and also America as a dangerous, callous wilderness full of death and fear, a shining new country built on the bloodshed of its land’s native peoples. At about the same time our Founding Fathers were creating our Constitution, one of the greatest symbols of freedom in the world, the Natchez Trace and the Mississippi River were becoming fully American, not just in name but in character. But the folks along the Natchez Trace weren't drafting a Constitution. No, they were lying, thieving, killing, and screwing. This wasn't the America of waistcoats, powdered wigs, and British tea. This was the real America – rough, dangerous, uncivilized, lustful, and, not incidentally, real damn funny. This was a world of anarchy, no law, no controls, no social structure, and that anarchy is mirrored in the show’s rowdy style, with actors interrupting scenes, constantly breaking the rules of traditional musical theatre as the tale is told.

Settlers had begun to move into the Natchez Trace, along the Mississippi, as early as the 1770s, an area as dangerous then as any place on the continent, not just from raids by Native Americans trying to reclaim their land, but also from "land pirates," ruthless, murderous thieves that practiced their trade without interference from any law. Some settlers came before the American Revolution was in full force, hoping to extend the British Empire ever further west, and some came slightly later, to escape the bloodshed and other dangers of the Revolution. The area was under Spanish rule officially, but in truth, the Native Americans, the Natchez Tribe, was in control. In 1782, even though the Spanish occupied the territory, the British "gave" it to the Americans. The next year, the Paris Treaty did the same. By 1792, the population of Natchez had swelled from 500 a few years earlier, to more than 4,300. In 1795 (the year the story is set), Spain gave up most of its territory in the area to the Americans. Within a couple years, all the Spaniards would be gone. This was an important moment in American history. Wealth was coming to the territory. Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin in 1794, and this new technology instantly made cotton more valuable. Suddenly, anyone with a cotton field was rich. And with the wealth came more crime. In a sense, this brief period in this particular place acts as a microcosm for American history in general.

The seeming chaos onstage and the seemingly chaotic structure of The Robber Bridegroom illuminates and mirrors the American condition, a country now (and forever more) hopelessly tangled in chaotic political and social debate. What some might call an "ill-made play," a show ignoring many of the conventions of narrative, is in fact the logical outgrowth and reflection of an "ill-made world." It laughs at mainstream notions of clarity and consistency in storytelling. It laughs at mainstream insistence on logical progression of scenes. It laughs at the ridiculous notion of putting people on a stage while everyone in the room pretends they are other people. The Robber Bridegroom lays open and bare all these conventions and proves that none of them are necessary for a satisfying, entertaining, emotionally coherent experience. It returns us to a simpler kind of storytelling – a much more exciting kind – in which the audience helps put the pieces of the puzzle together and then sees themselves in it.

Of course, America faces all the same issues today that it faced in 1795. Instead of the brutal wilderness of the Natchez Trace, today’s Americans must face the more modern darkness of inner city violence, trading the knives of 1795 for the semi-automatic assault weapons of the twenty-first century, trading the land pirates of the Natchez Trace for the gang-bangers of today’s urban core. And of course, the perpetual battle to tame our animal nature continues today, and we have yet to figure out if we should condemn or accommodate that nature. Do we outlaw or legalize pornography, gambling, prostitution, drugs? Should we assume that all our animal urges are bad, that they need civilizing away? Could it be that humans need the release those urges provide? Could it be that our animal sides help us in the world, in negotiations, in times of peril for our children, in the carrying on of the human race? Might these traits be both frightening and useful? And the most unsettling question of all, are humans still evolving morally, philosophically, socially, or are we destined to be part animal forever?

The Robber Bridegroom asks all these questions but leaves it to us to find the answers. Ralph Cook, director of the off off Broadway Theatre Genesis in the 1960s, once wrote, "Personally, I have little hope for the survival of our civilization. But whatever hope we have lies with our artists. For they alone have the ability (if we do not continue to corrupt them) to withstand the onslaught of the mass media and the multitude of false gods. They alone have the ability to show us ourselves."

Once Upon a Natchez Trace

When it was created, The Robber Bridegroom defied almost all conventions and expectations of musical theatre, emerging right in the middle of a major sea change in how musicals were made, coming on the heels of Promenade (1969), 1776 (1969), Oh Calcutta! (1969), Company (1970), The Me Nobody Knows (1970), Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1970), The Dirtiest Show in Town (1971), Follies (1971), Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971), Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971), Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972), Pippin (1972), Rainbow (1972), The Rocky Horror Show (1973), Let My People Come (1974), and others – and just barely before Chicago and A Chorus Line, both in 1975.

It was one of the earliest of the musicals in a performance style that only recently is becoming mainstream, a style described by Bat Boy’s original director and co-author Keythe Farley as "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity," a kind of outrageous but utterly truthful acting. It’s a performance style derived from commedia dell’arte, from the work of the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, from the political agitprop theatre of the 1930s, and from the off off Broadway movement of the 1960s, particularly the work of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. More recently developed by the Actors Gang in Los Angeles (where Farley worked), this style is artificial and presentational, yet insists on deep truthfulness and high emotional stakes. Before The Robber Bridegroom, only the absurdist flop Anyone Can Whistle (1964), the off Broadway Promenade, and The Rocky Horror Show had braved these treacherous stylistic waters. But more recently, this style has emerged as the "next new thing" in musicals like Bat Boy, Urinetown, and Reefer Madness. It’s a difficult style to master, requiring both bigger-than-life, outsized, outrageous performance style and yet also the most sincere, most authentic emotional life.

The structure of The Robber Bridegroom seems at times more like a square dance than a musical, with a "caller" calling scene changes, with an ensemble watching the proceedings from around the stage, singing back-up to most of the songs, and playing multiple roles (in a nod to Hair), and with a score that sounds like genuine bluegrass, only subtly mixed with traces of traditional Broadway and a little Stephen Sondheim. Much of the score does the kind of heavy lifting most musical theatre scores could never manage, clearly informed by the concept musicals that had gone before it (Cabaret, Hair, Company, Follies), but also fiercely determined to follow Sondheim and Hal Prince’s primary dictum: Form follows content. In adapting Eudora Welty’s novelized folk tale, composer Robert Waldman and lyricist-bookwriter Alfred Uhry set out to translate Welty’s tale into musical theatre terms, not to write a musical merely "based" on source material. They found musical theatre equivalents for Welty’s folksy storytelling style, as well as musical vocabulary so utterly organic to the characters – whiny, moaning, dissonant strings for the malevolent stepmother Salome; throbbing, rhythmic pulsations and some of the most erotic lyrics on Broadway for the lustful lovers, Jamie and Rosamund. In fact, the song that accompanies the two lovers’ sexual consummation, "Deeper in the Woods," has the story‘s duality built into its music, alternating from minor to major and back again in each verse, musicalizing the tug of war between love and lust, romance and rape.

The show began its life as the very first production of Broadway producer Stuart Ostrow’s non-profit Musical Theatre Lab, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in New York, the institution that would invent the workshop process for musicals, a process most famously appropriated by Michael Bennett to create A Chorus Line. This first production of The Robber Bridegroom starred Raul Julia as Jamie Lockhart. Then producer-director John Houseman’s group The Acting Company took the show to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York, now with Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone in the leads, both of whom were recent graduates of Julliard, of which Houseman had been one of the founders. Houseman then took the show on to the Ravinia Festival in Chicago during the summer of 1975. The Acting Company opened the show in New York (as a one-act) in October for a limited run at the Harkness Theatre (geographically off Broadway but technically on Broadway). Running in rotating repertory with The Three Sisters, Edward II, and The Time of Your Life, Kline and LuPone remained in the leads, with Gerald Freedman (Hair’s original director) at the helm, running for fifteen performances. LuPone was nominated for a Tony Award, as was Alfred Uhry’s book, but up against Chicago and A Chorus Line, neither won. The show went on a very successful national tour for a year with the cast from the Harkness. While on tour, the producers decided it was doing well enough with audiences that they should open it on Broadway. So while the tour was still running, they opened again in New York, but unfortunately, that meant no one who had created these roles would be able to play them on Broadway since they were all still on tour.

The show was retooled for Broadway, with an expanded, re-ordered score, and two new leads, Barry Bostwick and Rhonda Cullet, but still under the direction of Gerald Freedman. This new version opened at the Biltmore Theatre (Hair’s Broadway home) on October 9, 1976. Only one song from the earlier version, "The Real Mike Fink," was dropped, but several were added, including "Once Upon a Natchez Trace," "Two Heads," Rosamund’s Dream," "Where Oh Where," and others. This time, Barry Bostwick was nominated for a Tony, and he won. The show lasted only four months and 145 performances, some say because the rawness, rowdy charm, and earthiness of the original was lost to Broadway slickness. The same thing had happened to The Rocky Horror Show. But still, The Robber Bridegroom remains one of the theatre’s most adult, most sophisticated musicals.

Even though Ostrow was also a commercial producer (The Apple Tree, 1776, Pippin, and other shows), his non-profit Musical Theatre Lab continued to develop new works of the musical theatre, first at St. Clements, then at the Kennedy Center, then in the early 1980s at Harvard University, and currently at the University of Houston, where Ostrow now teaches. Over the years, the innovative program has shepherded and developed musicals including Really Rosie, Arthur Miller’s Up from Paradise, American Passion, Crosstown Bus, Doll, and many others.

The Tremble of Mighty Pines

The Robber Bridegroom is all about sex. America’s infamous Sexual Revolution had burst upon the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and The Rocky Horror Show had taken a biting, satirical look at America’s reaction to it. In contrast, The Robber Bridegroom argued that not much had really changed, holding a satiric mirror up to the continuing sexual oppression of American women, suggesting that we hadn’t really come all that far since 1795. But, as a product of its times, it also presented Rosamund as a sexually aggressive, independent woman in its (perhaps) revisionist look at America’s early frontier. The country had gone through a very strange time in the twentieth century, first with World War I, then with the alcohol, drug, and sexual excesses of the Roaring Twenties, then the Depression, and then World War II.

In the 1950s, the women who had learned during World War II that they could work outside the home, that they could participate actively in society, that they could have interesting, fulfilling lives while their men were away, all had been thrust back into the roles of wife and mother after the war. A newly repressive government, manufacturing new enemies and fears every day (Communists, homosexuals, etc.), tried to forge a renewed sexual repression in America. After decades of social chaos and after profound freedom during the war, the already puritanical American society became even more repressive to try to restore the pre-war social order, desperate to find some kind of calm, some kind of safety and predictability, trying to return to the Victorian moral standards of the previous century, putting women back in the home, back in the kitchen, back in metaphorical chastity belts, and back on repressive pedestals, all of which was, of course, impossible. The genie could not be put back in the lamp. As there had been during other times of social upheaval (like the turn of the century and the Depression), there was a real friction between the demands for conformity and conservatism, versus the instinctive human need to express oneself, made even worse by the taste of freedom women had gotten while their husbands and boyfriends were off fighting the war (and while Eudora Welty was writing The Robber Bridegroom).

The home front during the war had shown women that they could have profound independence. They no longer had to get married to survive in the world. They no longer had to have sex with a man they didn’t find attractive in exchange for him bringing home a nice, regular salary to pay for food and clothes and shelter (as Salome has done and as Rosamund is expected to do in The Robber Bridegroom). They found, in short, that they didn’t need men, and as a corollary, they could play with men. Their financial independence brought with it sexual independence. There ceased to be a punishment for sexual promiscuity. An affair no longer meant the loss of security. None of this was being talked about yet, but it was happening. By the 1960s, social dancing had changed again, morphing from the ballroom dancing of the 50s in which a woman needed a man, to the Twist in the 60s in which a woman could dance with herself if she wanted, where independence was the norm, where men were optional. But there was also a backlash against the Sexual Revolution, and like Brad Majors in Rocky Horror, half of America now returned frantically to the sexual repression of the 1950s. Like Rocky Horror, The Robber Bridegroom puts on stage both the positive and negative fallout of the Sexual Revolution.

Also, by the early 1970s, the hardcore pornography industry was exploding in America, cranking out more porno films than ever before, including several that attracted curious, mainstream audiences, including Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones. The surprise hit Deep Throat was made for $25,000 and grossed more than $10 million, just from theatre exhibition, not counting later profits from videotapes. This wasn’t a complete surprise since mainstream films like Midnight Cowboy, Carnal Knowledge, Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice, and Last Tango in Paris were becoming far more sexually explicit. Porno films were interesting because they were a kind of post-modern cinematic form; the actor and character could no longer be separated because when the character was having sex, so was the actor, and everybody knew it. Porn became not only a threat to "polite society," but in a strange way, an entirely knew art form. Sex was no longer taboo, and that scared a lot of people.

In addition to this, Hair had found great mainstream success on stage with its brief, dimly lit nude scene, as did the less artful and far more naked Oh! Calcutta! Also, the much riskier off Broadway and off off Broadway shows were using nudity extensively. Village Voice critic Michael Feingold said the controversial play Futz, directed by Tom O’Horgan, had "opened an erotic door, bringing theatre a step back toward its beginnings in the worship of Dionysus. To see it happen in 1967 was like seeing the sexual impulse itself appear onstage for the first time." Nudity and explicit sexuality had arrived in mainstream American theatre, and the resulting commercial successes made it possible for The Robber Bridegroom to present a fully nude woman on stage in 1975 in a fairly erotic context.

Waldman and Uhry took full advantage of the new sexual freedom of the New York stage. Like Rocky Horror, they put the Sexual Revolution on their stage. In the opening number, the actors tell us the character Salome "lusted after every pair of pants on the Natchez Trace," and her perpetual horniness was a running joke in the show, particularly directed at the horrified and unwilling Jamie Lockhart. Rosamund told audiences, "I’m tight in my skin and hot in my clothes," right before she met Jamie for the first time. Her fantasy was unmistakably sexual:

So I’ll dream him up – yes, he’s there,

Handsome dog, sexy hair,

Stealing up, gaining ground,

Coming close, not a sound.

I hear his breath,

I sense his hands.

And then when Jamie and Rosamund meet later to consummate their relationship in the woods, the sexual imagery gets even more explicit in the sexually titled "Deeper in the Woods":

Comes a boy,

He walks so steady.

Comes a girl,

She feels so ready

For a stroll deeper in the woods.

. . .

Ah, the music of swollen streams,

And the rushing of waterfalls;

How the mystery calls them deeper in the woods.

Up the hills and down the hollows,

How he strides and how she follows

As they stray deeper in the woods.

. . .

Ah, the whisper of open caves

And the tremble of mighty pines

With the pulsing, heaving, hypnotic music underneath, this was more genuinely erotic than anything a Broadway musical could have presented a decade earlier.

In the song "Poor Tied Up Darlin’," Little Harp and Goat sing a whole song about a girl who’s been kidnapped and tied up, bartering over the price for selling her. It’s funny but it’s also deeply disturbing. They hold the second-to-last note so long that the real lyric ("heart-ache") may be for just a moment mistaken for "hard-on." Again, funny, and repulsive. This is storytelling that both employs and also presents for scrutiny the old-fashioned, literary notion of rape as romantic, a notion still kept alive today by "romance novels." Helen Hazen writes in her book Endless Rapture: Rape, Romance, and the Female Imagination:

With few exceptions, women writers build their stories on a predictable list of generic complaints. They are: bad men treat women badly; good men treat women badly; men do not understand that all women are creatures of fine intelligence, character, and sensitivity; life in any society debases women and fails to support their physical and emotional needs and desires; and men impose themselves on women's bodies and inflict abuse and pain. One or a combination of these grievances is the tension and the reason for every romance novel and for most of the novels from the finer women writers.

And Hazen is talking here about romantic fantasies by women and for women. What does that say about our society that brutality is a sexual fantasy? And since Rosamund keeps returning to Jamie, keeps offering herself up for him to rape her, do we still call it rape? He knocks her out to have sex with her – what is that and how on earth do we think and talk about it?

If there was any doubt that Waldman and Uhry were taking aim at the persistent misogyny in American culture, they lay it out bare in Jamie’s lyric for "Love Stolen," in which he spells out his philosophy of love:

I like love stolen from the cookie jar.

I like love stolen on the fly, oh yeah…

I just love snitchin’ what ain’t meant for me.

Oh, the more forbid, the sweeter tastes the pie.

Not only does Jamie find no joy in consensual sex, but he also sees women only as objects to be consumed, as food. Jamie speaks for the American men in the 70s who longed for the "good old days," when men were entirely in control of the courtship process, when men made all the choices. The new sexual independence of American women in the 60s and 70s, which Rosamund represents, disturbed many men. Jamie goes on to sing:

A lot of girls are willin’ to be had.

The more I see, the more it makes me mad.

You grab ‘em good – it doesn’t faze ‘em none.

Well, it may be cool

By the modern rule,

But they’re killin’ all the fun.

(This is also a great example of the virtuosic rhyming throughout the show.) But the show doesn’t let American men off the hook. Jamie has to change his ways before he can finally have Rosamund. It isn’t until she leaves him, that he discovers, quite to his amazement, that he’s never said her name before (she has been only an object, not a person), and he actually likes thinking of her as a person! What an epiphany! But before we excuse Jamie’s ridiculous sexism, we have to remember that it is, after all, misogyny that almost kills Rosamund and does finally kill Salome. That is not the case in the novel, which has less of a political agenda.

I Never Would Stand Here and Lie In Your Face!

The Mississippi River, upon which this story takes place, is a central character in this story. Archaeologist Tad Britt says, "The Mississippi River was their World Wide Web then… the only means of conveyance of goods, information, culture. Therefore, forts were located on the river to control access of that information." In addition to other themes, The Robber Bridegroom is also about the nature of storytelling. The show begins with a framing device, setting up a show-within-a-show and the explicit ritual of storytelling. The opening number is entirely about storytelling. The repeated line, "Would I lie to you?" goes straight to the heart of storytelling – all storytelling is lying, isn’t it? And of course, lying figures prominently in the story, as nearly everyone but Clement lies to someone at some point, and Rosamund lies all the time. Surely, Rosamund is the only leading lady in musical theatre history who is a pathological liar. As the novel says, "She did not mean to tell anything but the truth, but when she opened her mouth in answer to a question, the lies would simply fall out like diamonds and pearls."

Telling a story – like writing history – is never just recounting events; it also involves selecting and shaping events, choosing what to include and leave out, what to emphasize and what to ignore, what to downplay and what to exaggerate to make a point. A story can be truthful without being true; it can convey the nature and meaning of an event even if it gets the facts wrong. The entire act of telling a story is editorializing. All the proof that’s necessary is watching an hour or two of the Fox News Channel. The Robber Bridegroom trades in what we usually call "tall tales," yet what it says about that time and place (and about our own time and place) is still very truthful.

The characters – and the "townspeople" playing them – all insist on being the Biggest, the Bestest, the Most. Jamie Lockhart "could eat half a watermelon, spit out the seeds, and recite the Twenty-Third Psalm, all at the same time." Rosamund was so beautiful she "made the moon hot." Salome was so ugly, "one glance…caused every bullfrog in Yazoo City to drop dead of heart failure." Clement was "the most fortunate man in the whole Mississippi territory." Goat "had a brain the size of a scuppernong [grape] seed." Little Harp was "the most gruesome robber in the whole history of the Natchez Trace." And of course, Big Harp was "a talkin’ head." Like classic myths, folk tales trade in grand exaggerations in order to make a point or explain acts of nature. Stories like these require a Herculean suspension of disbelief. In this tale, we’re to believe when Jamie puts berry stains on his face, no one recognizes him – just like Clark Kent wearing his glasses. And we’re to believe that Jamie doesn’t recognize Rosamund in the dinner scene merely because she messes up her hair and has soot stains on her face. (Notice the reverse parallel between Jamie and Rosamund’s disguises.) Not only does this require our cooperation in suspending disbelief, but it also serves as a source of humor that we do ultimately cooperate.

Still, despite all the wackiness and grotesquery, most of the standard elements of narrative form are here. The story starts with things in balance, the balance is upset and only in the end is balance restored. The device of mistaken identities goes back to Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors and even further. That this is a comedy that ends with a marriage follows the conventions of Shakespeare and other classic comedy.

Each major character has an agenda that comes into conflict with the other characters’ agendas. In fact, in the song "Riches," the four main characters’ agendas are all defined at once. We see quite clearly what each one seeks – Clement wants marriage for Rosamund; Rosamund wants to avoid marriage with Jamie in order to be with the Bandit; Salome wants sex with Jamie; and Jamie wants money. One moment near the end of the song is a perfect example of funny, economic, clear storytelling:

Salome: We wuz talkin’ about bedspreads.

Jamie: We wuz talkin’ about riches.

Clement: No, we wuz talkin’ about marriage!

This is a story with multiple points of view, most notably the various points of view of the main characters, each with competing agendas, but also the point of view of the "townspeople" telling us the story and also of those "townspeople" as "audience" for the tale, that of each character in the interior story, that of the real audience, and that of Americans seeing a piece of our history.

And the pervasive theme of duality in the story makes the notion of point of view even more complicated. Jamie has so many very different relationships, with Clement, with Salome, with Little Harp, and most importantly, with Rosamund both as Jamie and as the Bandit. The same is true of Rosamund and her two identities. Little Harp mistakes both Arie and Salome for Rosamund, before actually finally meeting Rosamund. Salome is a shrew to Clement and Rosamund, all sweet and flirty with Jamie and later with Little Harp, and horribly abusive to Goat. No one is consistent, except Clement, Goat, and the Raven. Even Arie spends part of the show masquerading as Rosamund, even though she doesn’t know it. Everyone wears masks; everyone has "two faces" or sometimes more.

A Gent and a Robber, All in One

The Robber Bridegroom is one of a number of musicals that form an interesting sub-genre, the anti-hero musical. For instance, in The Music Man, Harold Hill swindles a town full of decent, hard-working folks, and exploits the affections of an emotionally vulnerable young woman, and we love him for it. In Chicago, both central characters are murderers, but we are utterly seduced by them. In Pal Joey, Joey is a slimy, self-serving, adulterous little twerp, but we find him charming and funny. In My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins is an arrogant, self-involved woman-hater, but we laugh right along with his abuses. Likewise, in The Robber Bridegroom, Jamie Lockhart is a thief and he only enjoys sex if it’s not consensual (as described in his song "Love Stolen"), but he’s the hero of a musical comedy. As the novel tells us, Jamie’s motto is "Take first and ask afterward."

Jamie is mad when Rosamund finally reveals her true identity to him and reveals that she has discovered his alter-ego as well, and he’s mad for two reasons. First, she’s ruined the romance, as far as he’s concerned. As he’s already told us in "Love Stolen," he doesn’t want to be the pursued; he wants to be the pursuer. Now Rosamund holds the upper hand, and it has killed any desire he had for her. Second, she tricked him using his own trick, an alter-ego. Dual identity is his thing. He tells us in "Steal with Style" that he can "outfox all them others by a mile." As far as he’s concerned, no one’s as talented or as clever as he is, but Rosamund’s success in fooling him makes him doubt his prowess in this department. Can he be the best if he’s been outfoxed? And by a woman?

Jamie already told us in "Steal with Style" that:

With my dark face on,

I am the Bandit of the Woods.

When I’m him, it’s easier

To snatch the stolen goods.

But with Jamie Lockhart,

The stealing ain’t the same.

It’s a finagling, angling game.

In other words, he can’t have fun, he can’t be happily amoral, he can’t just take what he wants when he’s playing the part of the conventional, moral Jamie Lockhart. In that guise, he’s trapped by mainstream values. To get what he wants as Jamie Lockhart, he has to play the game, figure out the angles, manipulate, charm and seduce – just like the rest of us. But as the Bandit of the Woods, he can toss those considerations aside. He can just take what he wants. It’s much simpler. As the Bandit, there’s no pretense of respectability to preserve, no need to be sneaky or charming. Once Rosamund has identified him as Jamie Lockhart, the adventure, the forbidden allure of their romance no longer works. Rather than two rebels living outside society’s rules, suddenly now they’re two normal people who are engaged to be married and live a respectable life. To Jamie’s mind, that ruins everything. As the novel says, "If Jamie was a thief after Rosamund’s love, she was his first assistant in the deed, and rejoiced equally in his good success." When Jamie steals Rosamund’s clothes (in the novel), she "had imagined such a thing happening and knew what to say." But that wasn’t what Jamie wanted.

Oddly enough, Eudora Welty tells us that "it is a fact that in his heart, Jamie carried nothing less than a dream of true love – something of gossamer and roses, though on this topic he never held conversation with himself, or let the information pass to a soul." But how can this be reconciled with Jamie’s statement to Goat that Rosamund "is a noted liar that is known as far as the Bayou Pierre. And I only keep her because I stole her in the first place and have a soft sentiment about it."?

Of course, in the end he discovers that respectability isn’t all that different from banditry. Finally, he marries Rosamund, they have twins, Clementine and Jamie Jr. (echoing her own birth), and Jamie becomes a wealthy merchant. Welty writes, "The outward transfer from bandit to merchant had been almost too easy to count it a change at all, and he was enjoying all the same success he had ever had."

But despite Jamie’s "dark face," his character has surprising, perhaps even comic, parallels to the Christ story. He’s set up in the very first moments of the show as the teacher and storyteller, the keeper of the "parable" of The Robber Bridegroom. Just like Jesus, Jamie tells us this story in order to teach us something, to bring us understanding. In the second scene of the show, Jamie (along with Clement, by the way) is "killed" and "resurrected" in the inn, and it could be argued that, metaphorically, Jamie brings Clement back from the dead by saving him from Little Harp. The over-sexed Rosamund parallels Mary Magdalene (who was not a prostitute in the original texts of the Bible, by the way, but was into what they called "free love" in the 70s). And of course, even though he has "died" in the inn at Rodney, Jamie goes on to "appear" to Little Harp. And without looking too hard, other Biblical parallels are clear, positioning Rosamund as Eve to Salome’s serpent, or Salome as Pharisee to Jamie’s Christ, or even Little Harp as Satan trying to wreak havoc in the world, but always being defeated by Jamie as Christ.

Of course, this doesn’t really give The Robber Bridegroom deep Christian meaning, since all these story elements appeared in other religious traditions long before Christ. After all, virgin births were claimed in Roman and Greek texts, and in older Eastern religions, about many of their gods. Alexander the Great was said to be divine because he was born of a virgin. The same was said of Caesar Augustus. The Bible says Jesus walked on water, but so did Poseidon before him. Jesus turned water into wine, but so did Dionysus before him. The point is that there are many religious traditions that predate Christianity that tell the exact same stories we know today as Christian. The Robber Bridegroom doesn’t necessarily reference the Bible and Christ, but instead it trades in some of the oldest storytelling elements of mankind, elements that reveal millennia-old truths about human nature and the world in which we live.

A Girl Who Made the Moon Burn Like the Sun

Rosamund is one of the most unlikely heroines ever in a musical, horny, bored, self-involved, an inveterate liar, a spoiled brat, a foolhardy risk-taker, and a lover of "bad boys." It’s hardly the recipe for musical comedy romance, but The Robber Bridegroom is hardly a typical musical comedy. Rosamund is the kind of girl we might expect in the rough-hewn world of America’s earliest settlers. Hope Harcourt or Marion the Librarian would be dead before they got out of bed in 1795 Mississippi.

In 2005, St. Louis’ Riverfront Times called the character of Rosamund "an eighteenth century Paris Hilton who has this thing about shedding her clothes," and that’s not far off. Rosamund is a spoiled rich girl, a randy little virgin who’s dying to change that status. And of course, her virginity is a big part of Jamie’s attraction to her, that peculiar male need for conquering uncharted territory, of cutting a new path through the sexual woods. Jamie acknowledges her virginity as he’s stealing her clothes with the line, "There’s always a first time," literally referring to the idea of a robber stealing ladies’ clothes, but clearly implying another meaning. But Rosamund’s almost desperate aggressiveness in encouraging his advances is a problem for him, so he leaves her untouched at their first meeting. She’s being a big tease, so to teach her a lesson, he plays the same game.

Rosamund really is the central character in the show, the one character who makes the biggest journey, who has the biggest transformation. Most of the characters in the show – Clement, the Harps, Goat and his family – end the show the same as they began it. Even Jamie’s changes are minimal. But Rosamund does some serious growing up. She learns (to an extent) the consequences of her games and her lies, and by the end of the story she has grown up. She is finally a woman and now, with twins, she has to take responsibility for her life. Significantly, she is a full-blown pathological liar when we meet her, lying about everything to everyone. Only after she falls in love and finds that love returned does she quit lying. In fact, she almost never lies in Act II. The only exception is in the last scene when she reunites with Clement. She lists all her newfound riches, and when Clement challenges the list, it turns out only one item was a lie. She may be cured of her lying, but in the presence of her daddy, she becomes a little girl again just for the moment, and one small lie sneaks out. But she has completed the circle of life now; she was born one of twins (with the boy named after its father), and now she has borne twins (again, with the boy named after its father).

She also learns (to an extent – after all, this is a sex farce) that sex is not something to play with. Her over-heated sex drive nearly gets her killed. It’s only by coincidence that it’s Salome that Little Harp finds in Jamie’s house rather than Rosamund, and that it’s Salome that gets thrown into the ravine. Of course, Rosamund may never know how close she came to death. And it’s only because of Goat’s idiocy that he delivers Arie, rather than Rosamund, to Little Harp, and that Goat doesn’t succeed in killing Rosamund per Salome’s instructions.

Mean as a Snake

The novel gives us more background on Clement and Salome than the show can take time for, and it gives us a better glimpse into how Salome got so mean, and it provides a bit of sympathy for Salome. Clement tells Jamie a story when they first meet in the inn. Clement’s first wife Amalie and their twins, Rosamund and Clement Jr. came from Virginia. They decided to Go West, and did so in the company of their friends Kentucky Thomas and his wife Salome. As Clement puts it:

The reason I ever came is forgotten now. I know I am not a seeker after anything, and ambition in this world never stirred my heart once. Yet it seemed as if I was caught up by what came over the others, and they were the same. There was a great tug at the whole world, to go down over the edge, and one and all we were changed into pioneers, and our hearts and our own lonely wills may have had nothing to do with it.

But they were attacked on their way by Indians. Clement Jr. was killed by being dropped into a pot of burning oil, and the sight of it killed Amalie. The Indians also killed Kentucky Thomas, but Salome was so ugly they were scared of her, so Salome, Clement, and Rosamund survived. But the ordeal of it all sheds great light on their relationships as they are in the story. There is great hurt, great regret, great sorrow in their past, and that is all that brought them together, not love and not joy. Clement says of Salome, "There was no longer anything but ambition left in her destroyed heart." Clement also describes in the novel how the horrors of the Indian attack scarred Salome forever after:

She would stand inflexible and tireless, casting long black shadows from the candle she would be always carrying about the halls at night. She was never certain that we lived unmolested, and examined the rooms without satisfaction. Often she carried a rifle in the house, and she still does. You would see her eyes turn toward any open door, as true as a wheel. I brought her many gifts, more and more, that she would take out of their wrappings without a word and lay away in a closet.

Really, the show does create some strange sympathy for Salome in her first character song, "The Pricklepear Bloom," alternately called "Prickle Pear and Lilybud." How can we not feel at least a twinge of sympathy for a women universally loathed primarily for being ugly. The song’s central metaphor is so telling – the blooms of the prickle pear cactus are beautiful, but who ever thinks of a cactus as beautiful? And the point of the song, that everything comes down to physical beauty for women. It’s not fair, and Salome is perfectly justified for complaining about it. Rosamund is a spoiled, boorish, bitch, but she’s pretty, so she gets everything she wants. Salome is strong and smart, and is treated like shit. No wonder she’s mean. Her delight when she thinks Clement had bought the fancy dress for her (it turns out to be for Rosamund) is, again, so childlike and so honest, that we can’t help but feel for her. And in "Goodbye Salome," her delight at the prospect of making love to a handsome man is so heartfelt, so honest, that it’s hard not to feel sorry for her in that scene as well. All she wants is to be desired, nothing more really. Like Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, Salome is a woman full of emotion, and when that emotion is denied or, even worse, ignored, is it any wonder that it turns dark and mean?

Interestingly, when Salome finally finds Rosamund at Jamie’s house, things change between the two women. In the novel, Welty writes, "There has to be a first time for everything, and at that moment the stepmother gave Rosamund a look of true friendship, as if Rosamund too had got her man by unholy means." Is this a satirical hint that Rosamund is finally a woman now, and that being a woman in a time and place when women are not respected requires scheming and manipulation? Just as Jamie has to play all the angles and concoct elaborate schemes when he’s in his "respectable" persona, women have to do the same thing every day, the story seems to be telling us. It’s an interesting comment from Welty in 1942, a more complex comment from Uhry and Waldman in 1975, and an even more complex comment seeing the show today.

The Bluegrass of Home

The score for The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most unusual ever written for the stage. It’s one of the few musical theatre scores that doesn’t use percussion of piano. The sound is entirely bluegrass. Coming out of the experimental theatre movement of the 1960s as this show did, the score includes several examples of choral speaking, call and response, and other musical forms outside the usual Broadway song structure. In fact, to lend this bluegrass score extra authenticity, all the incidental music, the music that accompanies the choral speaking, is actual folk songs, including "Shoot the Owl," "Colored Aristocracy," "The Westphalia Waltz," "Hell Among the Yearlings," "Bonaparte’s Retreat," "Soldier’s Joy," "Cluck Old Hen," Flop-Eared Mule," Mississippi Soyer," Kitchen Girl," "Leather Britches," and "The Richmond Cotillion."

The actual songs in the score are all original but are written in such authentic bluegrass style that it’s tough to tell them from the real thing. Like real folk songs, the new songs are always irregular, dropping beats here and there, using half-measures, shifting emphasis when it’s least expected, etc., yet still employing the language of Broadway, with vamps to cover dialogue, reprises to make dramatic connections through the music, and lyrics that did far more work than authentic folk lyrics ever did. A theatre lyric has to convey so much information in such a short amount of time that it requires extremely exact and economical language – unlike a folk song – and the Robber Bridegroom score works in both worlds. In fact, composer Robert Waldman asked the original Acting Company cast to sing everything very nasal, to imitate the real sound of bluegrass; but no theatre audience was going to accept that kind of singing, so a compromise was struck, creating a hybrid sound, a little bluegrass, a little Broadway.

The show’s opening number, "Once Upon a Natchez Trace" is remarkable in the amount of information it conveys. It introduces seven major characters and each character’s most important character traits, all in one song, all while being funny and tuneful, and establishing the mood, tone, and pacing for the evening. It’s one of those opening numbers that is a textbook example of how to open a musical, following in the footsteps of Company, Cabaret, Hair, and other great shows. The second song, "Two Heads," (not added until Broadway) introduces our villains, with one of the great first lines in musical theatre. We’ve just met Little Harp and his big brother Big Harp, a severed but still talking head. The music starts and the first thing they sing is "Two heads are better than one." It’s a great joke, it sets them up as comic characters, not even vaguely dangerous, and patently absurd. Where else can you see a severed head singing?

Then Jamie sings "Steal with Style," and tells us everything we need to know about him – why he does what he does and how he feels about that – only leaving out one detail, that he prefers non-consensual sex. That bit of info is to be saved for the end of Act I. Right on its heels, we meet Rosamund and learn her various neuroses, in the show’s first ballad, a big of self-indulgent fantasizing that tells us explicitly why she’s not yet coupled, "Rosamund’s Dream." Her standards are too high because she thinks too highly of herself. Within a few minutes, we’ll get the other half of her personality in "Nothin’ Up." But in between those songs, we meet Salome and learn why she’s so mean, in "Pricklepear Bloom."

Rosamund’s "Nothin’ Up" is another joke-song like "Two Heads." As she wanders through the woods complaining that her life is so boring, Goat is in hot pursuit trying to kill her. But she doesn’t notice him because she’s so wrapped up in her own bitching, and he’s so inept, he never lays a finger on her. The odd detail about this song is that Rosamund knows she’s singing; that’s not true of most songs in most musicals. In most musicals, singing is the chosen language of this storytelling style and characters aren’t aware they’re singing. Tevye doesn’t know he’s singing "If I Were a Rich Man" in Fiddler on the Roof. He’s just thinking; but we hear his thinking as a song. But here, Rosamund knows she’s singing; or more precisely, she knows later that she was singing. When she tells Clement and Salome what happened on the woods, she includes the detail that she "was singin’ this little song…" It’s a weird relationship this show has with its songs. Even when characters are fully in the interior story, sometimes they know they’re singing.

The next song in the show is the very sexual, very beautiful ballad "Deeper in the Woods," at the end of which Rosamund and Jamie finally have sex. As discussed earlier in this chapter, the lyric is so sexualized, so overt, that it becomes comic. Interestingly, the only ballads in the score are Rosamund’s self-involved "Rosamund’s Dream," the over-sexed "Deeper in the Woods," and the beautiful lullaby "Sleepy Man," during which Rosamund sings of her love for Jamie while she betrays him by removing his berry stains.

"Marriage is Riches" follows and all hell breaks loose. All during the course of the song, Clement tries to convince Jamie he should marry Rosamund, Salome tries to seduce Jamie and steal him away, Jamie’s casing the joint, cataloging the various treasures around the house, and Rosamund’s trying to act like a lunatic so Jamie won’t want to marry her. The hilarity builds and builds until chaos takes over the song at its end. Like much of the score, this is an action-song. So many musicals stop their action for a song, often a song in which a character tells us again what he/she already told us in spoken dialogue. The truly skillful theatre songs are those in which the situation is different at the end of the song from what it was at the beginning, and that is true of much of the Robber Bridegroom score. This is not a decorative score; this is a working score.

Act I ends with Jamie’s manifesto on love, "Love Stolen," the most misogynistic, sexist, sexual – and here’s the kicker – and charming number in the show. Jamie is essentially a scumbag when it comes to love, but like Harold Hill, we don’t seem to mind. He tells us what a jerk he is with a disarming smile and jaunty tune, and we accept it all.

In Act II, "Poor Tied Up Darlin" is another song that ought to be offensive. Goat and Little Harp are talking about trading a woman for store teeth, chicken shit, butter beans, a wooden leg, corn whiskey, and other assorted items. These are the price for a woman! In any other context, it would send an audience storming up the aisles, but in this world, with these characters, somehow it all becomes not just palatable, but somehow charming and funny.

Then comes "Goodbye Salome," the rowdy send-off (to her death) of poor Salome. The remarkable thing about this song is that the chorus already knows how the story ends – that’s pretty unusual for a musical. The entire lyric is ironic, literally saying one thing – that Salome is going off to have sex with Jamie – but really saying another – that she’s going to be thrown into the ravine and killed. Only Salome doesn’t get the double meaning. Only Salome isn’t in on the joke. Once again, she’s on the outside, not just in society, not just in the story, but in the score. Again, this is a song in which a lot happens. Take the song out of the score, and there’s a piece of the story missing. Only the best musicals can accomplish that.

After a quiet moment for the beautiful lullaby "Sleepy Man," we move on to the next big plot song, "Where Oh Where," in which Jamie, then Clement, then the entire company go looking for Rosamund. The song very skillfully telescopes what could have taken way too much time in spoken dialogue into a compact, tuneful, action-driven song. Finally, the lovers are reunited, and the company reprises "Once Upon a Natchez Trace." The first time we heard this song, the various tall tales seemed almost nonsensical, even a bit confusing, but now that we’ve spent time with all these characters, a reprise of the song shows us how well that song really did describe each of the main characters. Now we have background on each of the tales and these wacky descriptive phrases (quoted at the beginning of the chapter) all make sense now. More than that, structurally, this returns us home. We’re back where we started now, musically speaking. Everything is tied up in a neat little bow, and we’re reminded how economical and brilliant this odd little comedy has been, how carefully constructed, one of those shows that doesn’t waste a note or a word anywhere. It’s a lean, intelligent script and a hard-working score, and who could ask for more than that?

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Copyright 2005. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book on musical theatre. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.