Filichia Features: All About The Baker's Wife (and a Question to Ask at Auditions)

Filichia Features: All About The Baker's Wife (and a Question to Ask at Auditions)

By Peter Filichia on January 10, 2019

At a recent party, I sauntered by people who were raving about a guest's ability to make delicious bread. But considering that one of the people listening was Lenny Wolpe, I had to butt in.

"Y'know," I said pointing to the actor, "Mr. Wolpe once played a character who made great bread."

Indeed Wolpe had, back in 2005 at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. There he portrayed Aimable, the baker in The Baker's Wife.

Do you know this show with a score by Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz and a book by Joseph (Fiddler on the Roof) Stein?

It almost had a book by someone even better known: Neil Simon. He and Schwartz met in 1974 to see if they could find a property to musicalize. Simon suggested Marcel Pagnol's 1938 French film La Femme du Boulanger.

Schwartz heard the plot, saw the picture and loved the story of the May-December marriage between portly baker Aimable and his new luscious bride Aurelie. Complications arise when Aurelie sees Antonin, a stud-muffin she prefers to her husband's bread. Antonin takes to her, too, and the two take off.

This so depresses Aimable that he stops baking. The townfolk then become a search committee that hopes to lure back Aurelie -- not out of the goodness of their hearts, but out of the hunger in their stomachs.

Simon became busy with other projects. Schwartz, still enamored of the film, enlisted Stein, who was happy to work with this still-in-his-20s wunderkind who then had three smash-hits running on Broadway.

However, Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show all had rock scores; The Baker's Wife takes place in southern France in the '30s.

Schwartz wound up astonishing anyone who doubted him. His concertina-Gallic-infused score was atmospherically perfect.

The original production wasn't. Producer David Merrick didn't merely fire the leading man, lady, director and choreographer; he also demanded that his musical director go into the orchestra pit and bring him the sheet music for a song he didn't like so that it couldn't be performed.

A just-starting-out Patti LuPone - the second to play the title character -- told me of the early morning confabs and arguments to resolve legal issues. She found them especially galling after matinee days, when she and everyone else who'd labored through two shows would have appreciated the extra sleep.

The show never made it to Broadway. The world first discovered it through a couple of excellent recordings, which led to many productions - including Paper Mill's.

"And wasn't the cast wonderful?" asked Wolpe's wife.

Susan Saunders.

"With one exception," I said. "The cat."

Yes, the cat. Aimable has a pet who also runs away and returns at the same time his wife does. (She'd decided that her lover is hot but - here's a smart perception that Schwartz created for a lovely waltz - "Where Is the Warmth?")

In front of his wife, Aimable admonishes the cat and lets her know she just can't run off and be expected to be forgiven upon return; if she tries it again, he won't take her back. We all know that he's really talking about -- and to -- her.

So the cat is an important character. Yet at Paper Mill, no genuine feline was hired. A stuffed animal was used instead - one, as I wrote in my review, "looked as if it cost $1.50." Wolpe looked mighty silly clutching a cotton-and-fleece thing and pouring his heart out to it.

The Wolpes quickly agreed. "But we had no choice," said the actor, "because I'm allergic to cats -- and Alice Ripley (who played the baker's wife) is really allergic to cats."

I had assumed that Paper Mill used a stuffed animal to save money, food and litter-box duty. But the choice turned out to be a purely pragmatic one. This is the type of detail that reviewers don't know, and in our ignorance, we criticize for the wrong reason.

This situation also brings up another issue. When you're doing Annie or Annie Warbucks, you'll need a dog. You may want to have farm animals for Brigadoon, a genuine groundhog for Groundhog Day or a goat in Once on This Island as the recent revival did. If so, ask all your callbacks if they're allergic to the animals that you plan to use.

Their answers may well impact your final casting decisions - and save you from getting a lousy review from a critic who just doesn't know what really went on.

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