A May 24 Style preview of Showtime's "Our Town" incorrectly identified the sponsor of a 1977 television version of the play. It was sponsored by the Bell System. (Published 5/30/03)
"Our Town" on Showtime is an apparently faithful recording of "Our Town" as it was revived this season on Broadway -- its chief asset being, as is ridiculously obvious from the get-go, the presence of Paul Newman in the cast. Newman plays the central role of the Stage Manager, who guides us through Thornton Wilder's deeply felt classic about daily life in a New Hampshire village at the turn of the last century.
The play was filmed on a stage -- the stage of the Booth Theatre in New York -- but without an audience. What you get may be good theater, but it is not particularly good television; the theatrical devices have not been translated into cinematic or video devices. And so the film, premiering at 8 tonight, never gets us as close to the play as it could. It doesn't even get us very close to the actors, since a lot of it is shot from a respectful but stuffy distance.
Newman's performance is an event, though -- something to distinguish this production from all the "Our Towns" that have preceded it. And there've been many, since it's hard to think of a hardier perennial in the American repertory; Wilder's masterpiece purports to celebrate the ordinary and mundane, yet it touches on themes profound and universal. I have never made it through any version of "Our Town" dry-eyed. If the first two acts don't start a spritz, the third act, about death, always does.
In keeping with the Wilder original, this version uses little scenery and very few props; the paperboy has a real sack around his neck, but he pantomimes throwing invisible newspapers that he fishes out of it. We hear a rooster and a lawnmower and the 8:45 to Boston but don't see any of them. This technique is naturally more distracting on television, a medium of realism, than it is on the stage, but that just means it might take 10 minutes rather than five to get used to it.
For Newman, the telecast of "Our Town" completes a journey that started on television -- NBC television -- in 1955. That year he played the role of young George Gibbs, and Eva Marie Saint was his beloved sweetheart, Emily Webb, in a musical version of the play that starred Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager. As it opened, the character sang rather than spoke his greeting: "You will like the folks you meet in our town, the folks you meet on any street in our town. . . ." But the best-remembered song from the score, one that borrows its title from Act 2 of the play, is "Love and Marriage," a hit for Sinatra then and decades later the theme song for Fox's caustic sitcom "Married . . . With Children."
Newman seems to have pitched his voice a bit higher than normal, perhaps to sound older, and it hardly seems necessary. It puts a mannerism between him and us that doesn't do either party any good. He even seems to botch the closing line of the play, or maybe this is part of the process of "adaptation," though there appear to be very few changes to a text that by now should be sacrosanct. Anyway, Newman has so much authority that it's hard to imagine anybody playing the part any better.
Under the opening credits, we see actors arranging the few pieces of furniture used on the otherwise bare stage. The play itself opens "just about dawn" on May 7, 1901, and Grover's Corners is coming to life for another triumphantly ordinary day. The play concentrates on two households, which sometimes share the screen: Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, played by Frank Converse and Jayne Atkinson, and Mr. and Mrs. Webb, played by Jeffrey DeMunn and Jane Curtin. The Gibbses' son George, played by Ben Fox, falls in love with and -- in the second act -- marries the Webbs' daughter Emily, played by Maggie Lacey.
Newman tells you about the town -- about its latitude and longitude and how many horses it has (225) and even where it's going. At one point he talks about items to be placed in the cornerstone of a new bank building and suggests that a copy of this play, the one we are watching, be among them, a graceful Pirandellian touch. It makes sense, because Wilder conjures an image of America as it once was that seems completely credible and authentic.
With the exception of Newman, the cast is a bit bland. Curtin stands out, though; she has a face that seems right at home in the period clothes and hairstyle, and she certainly knows a lot about acting on television. DeMunn, however, makes Mr. Webb look wild-eyed and slightly loony. Fox and Lacey are only so-so. And John Braden shows everybody what not to do in the small role of Professor Willard. He hasn't scaled back his approach for the camera and instead aims it at the second balcony. So, at least on TV, he seems over-the-top and hammy.
The best TV version so far was a 1977 George Schaefer production for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. That one had a dream cast: Hal Holbrook, Sada Thompson, Ned Beatty, Barbara Bel Geddes and, as the lovers, Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor. John Houseman played Professor Willard, but because the play ran five minutes overtime and NBC wouldn't give an inch, or a minute, to Schaefer, Houseman's performance landed on the cutting-room floor. It was subsequently restored for cable TV and home video.
For the record, Hollywood did make a movie, in 1940, and it was shown just the other night on Turner Classic Movies.
In that version, a key character no longer dies but simply dreams of dying; but according to TCM host Robert Osborne, Wilder did not object to the change, knowing that theater and movies, and their audiences, are not the same. Sadly, the movie slipped between the cracks and into the public domain, and there now appear to be no decent prints left in existence -- particularly unfortunate since the production design was by the brilliant William Cameron Menzies, who did "Gone With the Wind." Aaron Copland's sensitive score yielded a beautiful concert piece that's still performed, especially around patriotic holidays.
Maybe there'll be a new TV version 10 or 20 years from now. It's unthinkable that the play will ever go away for very long; Grover's Corners is like everybody's second home town, a place that beckons you back, an irresistible force. In a speech that seems emblematic of Wilder's philosophy, the Stage Manager tells the audience, from the vantage point of a hilltop cemetery, "We all know that . . . there is something eternal about every human being." There is something eternal about "Our Town," too.