'A whole different experience': Alchemy Theatre's new take on 'The Baker's Wife'
The folks at Alchemy Theatre didn’t originally set out to become the defenders of the underdog musical, but that seems to be the mission they’re now on. After finding success with their updated, more intimate production of the underproduced Mack and Mabel last year, they’re now taking on the similarly overlooked 1976 musical The Baker’s Wife.
“Well, coming off of doing Mack and Mabel last season, we took the challenge of searching out another kind of unknown and seldom produced musical,” says director Michael Cooper. “And I had known about The Baker’s Wife for quite a while, mainly due to the music. in the seventies, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz had three kind of hits going in New York City. He had Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show. And so by 1976, the musical theater world was ready for his next show. And that was The Baker’s Wife, produced by David Merrick. He had Topol playing the baker and a slew of cast and crew and director and choreographer. Back then, a pre-Broadway tryout was… a national tour. And during that time, it ran into all kinds of politics, issues with David Merrick and the cast and all of that. And eventually, a young Patty LuPone and Paul Sorvino stepped in and took over the roles. Everybody was anxiously awaiting it because of Stephen Schwarz's music. So it had a lot going for it, but word of mouth about all of the troubles on the road just kind of kept it from making it to Broadway. So it's seldom produced.”
Cooper says that he, like many others, loves the soundtrack of that pre-Broadway tour (featuring the song ‘Meadowlark,’ which stayed in the public consciousness longer than the show itself). The strong score and storyline made it a good fit for Alchemy Theatre, which is starting to carve out a niche by producing smaller, more intimate versions of shows that might’ve suffered from Broadway bloat in their first incarnations. “We're drawn to those smaller, quirky, ensemble-driven shows,” says Alchemy founder Carol Hickey. “I think we have such a unique opportunity with this little intimate space that we have — to tell stories and bring people into the world of the play, so to speak. So with Mack and Mabel we were able to do that. And this, likewise, this show has an incredibly quirky, wonderful ensemble cast that Michael is so brilliant at, at defining those smaller parts and the relationships and really creating the context for which this story can take place. So when you walk into this tiny theater, of course you're overwhelmed with the music – which is so beautiful – but also you really are able to step into this French village and the countryside, and it's just such a rare opportunity we have.”
“I like to call it a quirky story with music that's about love, life, and the importance of French bread, which is a huge part of the story,” Cooper says.
The smaller size of the Alchemy Theatre lets their productions focus more on intimate character moments and less on spectacle, Cooper says. “We like to focus on the reality of the relationships in the piece,” he says. “And especially in Merrick productions, they really didn't focus on that. They focused on the big production numbers and things like that, that people would pay the money to go see in a musical in the seventies. But now it's kind of turned to where we can focus back on what was really happening in that story.”
“And I think that… the appeal of us taking these kind of underdog musical pieces is that we find pieces where the story was neglected,” Hickey adds. “And that is our mission and that is what we excel at, is the storytelling in these shows. So if we're able to [enhance] the experience of this particular piece by focusing on the story and not on production values – which we're able to do in this tiny little intimate space that we have – then sometimes you find there's a whole different experience of that piece.”