Throwing convention to the winds, a girl from a well-to-do San Francisco Jewish family joins a traveling theater troupe to get herself to the wild west, where she meets and marries, well, common law, Wyatt Earp — what a promising idea for a musical!
And in many ways the promise is fulfilled. There are great production numbers, beautifully performed — see I Married Wyatt Earp and you’ll have a good time. And the idea’s original, too — a Western with no men! Instead, the story, loosely based in real characters and events, is told through a cast of 11 women, the idea being to place the women’s lives center stage, although that doesn’t work quite as well as it might.
The wives (common-law and otherwise) of the three Earp brothers are living together as a tight knit family in the silver boom-town of Tombstone, Arizona when Josie Marcus, the San Francisco outlier, arrives. She creates quite a stir as a singer-dancer, and in giving up another man for Wyatt Earp, “the love of her live.”
Earp’s common-law wife of the time, Mattie, a laudanum addict, tortured now by jealousy, is driven to violence first directed at Josie and then turned inward. In an ironic turnaround of a traditional Western, Mattie, the weakest of the women, is the one who brandishes the long barreled silver revolver. But she dies of a suicidal overdose, leaving Josie with Wyatt and a sense of guilt — though not enough to shake her sparkle.
I Married Wyatt Earp is framed as a play within a play: at the start, we see Josie, now 81 years old, and Allie, widow of Wyatt’s brother Wilbur, age 90, in Josie’s apartment for an evening of settling old scores and — booze at hand — finding some amicable resolution to their conflicts. Allie blames Josie for Mattie’s death, and for creating the myth of Wyatt Earp as the toughest law-man, fastest gun and greatest entrepreneur of the West when the crown should have gone to her husband.
As they reminisce, scenes of their young lives — the loves, the drama, humor, workaday pleasures and pains — rise up vibrantly before our eyes. One of the most powerful aspects is the way the old Josie and Allie move among their young selves, bending over them, observing, and sometimes — it’s absolutely beautiful to see — singing along. Of course they can’t change anything – even if they wanted to. This is marvelously done.
Other great strengths are the musical numbers, and there are lots of them, this is a real musical and a feast of singing — solos, duets, quartets and ensembles. Some of the titles give the flavor: “High Class Attraction,” “They Got Snakes Out Here,” “Pins and Needles,” “Didya Hear?” (gossip!). Some of the rhymes are too obvious, still, often I felt I was watching the next great musical.
There’s a problem with the musical’s book, though. The intent is to focus on the women’s lives but the depiction of their lives is incomplete and confused. It’s implied constantly that they work hard, but at what and why is not clear. At running the bar? We first meet the wives at the Earp-owned bar where Josie has just arrived and performs with the theatrical troupe (in a rousing number!). We do see young Allie carry in a crate of bottles but that’s it: there are no customers, nobody serves a drink, wipes a table or mops a floor … and after that scene the bar pretty much disappears.
Later we find the wives singing about the hard work they do to pay the rent by sewing tents for miners (“Pins and Needles”). Pay the rent? Maybe everyone had to pitch in, but we know their husbands are well employed in law enforcement and own a silver mine: surely they’d be paying the rent, not their wives. Here and elsewhere, touches of pathos are arbitrarily planted trading on the assumption that we all know that women were exploited and had to work hard so we’ll be sympathetic automatically and it doesn’t much matter what they’re shown working hard at doing.
Conveying the lives of women whose lives are inextricably tied to those of men, without men, accounts for some of the problems. So much so that for the episode of the famous Shootout at OK Corral where the Earp brothers wipe out their rivals, the play resorts to the actual presence of males, but as shadowy, silhouetted, forms, all in black, faces hidden by western hats. Still, I think that with the loose ends more carefully tied, and the women’s activities and relationships with the men (even unseen) clarified, the all-female cast could be maintained.
Take the idea of focusing on the lives of the women to its conclusion — and really do it!
Also, we need to have a deeper sense of Josie — a cliche like “he’s the love of my life” is not enough to bring us close to this feisty woman and the unusual choices she makes.
All the roles are sung, danced and played beautifully – this is a well cast show. Mishaela Faucher has the singing, dancing and acting strength to hold the play together as its main character. I was particularly fascinated by the wry wisdom of Carolyn Mignini as the older Josie. Tina Stafford is irresistible — tough and extraordinarily graceful in the “pants role” of leader of the theatrical troupe. Karla Mosley is a great showgirl, with charismatic vitality and beauty.
With some strengthening of the book, this could be the next great musical but here and now it’s an engaging, fun-filled delight.
I Married Wyatt Earp plays at 59 E 59 theater in NYC through June 12.