The Baker's Wife is a musical by Stephen Schwartz and Joseph Stein based on the film La Femme du Boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono. While firmly establishing a dedicated cult following, the musical has yet to achieve a Broadway production. Major regional productions — including productions at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey — ensure that this often-overlooked piece of American musical theater will continue to find receptive audiences.
The musical theater rights of the 1932 film were originally optioned in 1952 by producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). Composer Frank Loesser and librettist Abe Burrows (also Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) were attached as authors. The production to star Bert Lahr, however, never materialized. Nearly a decade later, the project was still clinging to life, Zero Mostel named to take the lead.
By 1976 the rights had devolved to producer David Merrick. The production by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) and Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba) toured the United States for six months in 1976, undergoing major retoolings along the way. The baker Amiable, Topol, was replaced by Paul Sorvino, and his wife Genevieve was played by two actresses before the producer eventually decided upon future luminary Patti LuPone. The production never reached the Martin Beck Theater, the authors having pulled out of the production in the try-out process.
After having heard the song "Meadowlark" countless times in auditions, director Trevor Nunn persuaded the authors to mount a London production in 1990. This production, too, was ill-fated: though reviews were strong and audience reaction positive, the production was steadily losing money. Bowing to financial reality, the show closed prematurely, but was honored with a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Musical of the Year alongside Miss Saigon.
The creative team reunited for the recent production at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, and again for the 2005 Papermill Playhouse production in Milburn, NJ. The Papermill included the reworking of the relationship between the characters of Genevieve and Dominique as well as new lyrics for "Proud Lady".
It's early autumn in this small Provencal town, still surprisingly provincial in the mid-1930s; we see several tables occupied at the cafe. Denise, the wife of the proprietor, tends to her chores while singing Chanson: first in French, then English. She sees the same faces every day, but sometimes, things can happen that change you, making life different and new.
Focus is shifted to the customers at the tables. Bits of conversation are heard: complaints from a gardener who's neighbor's tree is shading his spinach, an argument between the local priest and the school teacher who has been teaching that Joan of Arc "thought" she heard voices, the owner of a well quarrelling with the neighbor who's dog had breached that well seven years previously. Those bickering tell each other that their lives would be that much better If It Wasn't for You. Through it all is the anticipation of the arrival of the baker: the village has been without bread since the last baker died and tensions have run higher than normal.
The Marquis enters with his three "nieces" and welcomes the new baker, Aimable Castagnet. Accurately named, he is a jolly, middle-aged fellow. With him is Genevieve, young and beautiful, whom the Marquis mistakes for his daughter. The error quickly addressed, it is not met without comment from the townspeople. With Pompom, the cat, the couple makes for their new home, with the customers exchanging comments about the baker robbing the cradle in their wake.
In their new bakery, Aimable is clearly pleased with his new shop. To Genevieve, he sings Merci, Madame, as enchanted with her as he is with his new surroundings. He is excited about the prospects of a prosperous life with a family. The villagers, too, are pleased with the return of Bread to the small town.
The customers argue about their place in line in the small shop, eager to sample the wares of the new baker. Others, still, gossip about the Marquis and his nieces, and Antoine, one of the villagers, asks Aimable how an old man like him was able to snare the beautiful Genevieve. "God was good to me," he replies, and Genevieve reminds the villagers that not only did her husband choose her, she chose him, too, and she couldn't be happier. She smiles at the customers, but rushes inside in tears. She sings of the Gifts of Love she's received from men in her past: her affair with Paul, a married man, and her love for Amiable. Closing the door on her past, she resolves to be a good wife to the baker.
While picking up the Marquis' pastry order, his driver, Dominique, eyes Genevieve, mistaking her for the baker's daughter. She corrects him, but he insists on addressing her as mademoiselle. Genevieve insists, "Madame!", but he continues flirting with her, flustering her. Amiable returns after trying to find Pompom and reports that the cat has run off.
Some time later in the village square, Dominique again advances upon Genevieve. She rebuffs him, reminding him that she is happily married, but he resolves that he will be with his Proud Lady.
The villagers gather again outside the cafe, engaged in their typical squabbles. The baker and his wife arrive and sit at a table near Antoine who continues to tease them about the difference in their ages. He implies that while the baker may be able to create the perfect croissant, his ability to create a child might have passed. Dominique comes to the couple's defense, hitting Antoine. Irritated by his interference, Genevieve exits in a huff, leaving the men to tell each other to Look For the Woman when they start fighting. "It's when the hen walks into the barnyard that the roosters start pecking at each other."
That evening we see three couples — including the baker and his wife — getting ready for bed. Dominique and his guitar-toting friend Philippe plot their evening in the town square, and as the three couples end their reprise of Chanson, Dominique and Philippe start their Serenade. The baker believes the "treasure" of which they sing refers to his baked goods, while Genevieve knows Dominique is singing to her. Amiable, ever the good man, sends Genevieve to give him some unsold baguettes, as he is dressed for bed. Genevieve castigates Dominique, but he is undeterred. Though she protests, she is unable to resist Dominique, and they decide to meet an hour later and run off.
Amiable calls down to Genevieve, and she replies that she'll be up in a minute. As he drops off to sleep, she contemplates her situation singing the legend of the Meadowlark. The bird decides to stay with the old king who adored her and perishes. Instead, she embarks for an unknown future with her "beautiful young man".
The neighbors are awakened to a fire in the bakery's oven where the baker finds charred loaves. Usually Genevieve is the early riser of the household, and he begins to search for her, believing that she has gone in search for Pompom. A crowd begins to gather and the gossip begins, Buzz A-Buzz: they know Aimable's search will yield neither cat nor wife.
The Marquis arrives and takes the baker aside, telling him that Genevieve had run off with his chauffeur in the Marquis' Peugeot. Philippe arrives and confirms the story, but Aimable chooses to believe that Genevieve had gone off to visit her mother. As the gossip continues, the Marquis threatens going to the police to report his stolen car, and the two lovers would be arrested. The gossipers decide that the situation is the "best thing to happen in this town in all my life!"
The second act opens as the first, with Denise reprising her Chanson. The villagers reprise If It Wasn't for You, while keeping an eye on the baker: they are relieved to see him begin a new batch of dough. The teacher and the priest argue again: the priest accusing the villagers of contaminating Genevieve with their immoral conduct, the teacher championing free will. The Marquis determines that it was the course of fate, that we are all captive to the joys of the flesh.
Aimable crosses to the cafe to inform the customers that the bread will be ready in a moment. The typically-sober baker orders a cognac, and another, and sings to the cafe that Genevieve will be home on an Any-Day-Now Day: she has just gone to visit her mother. In an attempt to sober him up, they follow him into the bakery only to find it in a sad state. Amiable collapses amongst the spilled flour, dough hanging from the ceiling, and burnt loaves of bread.
The villagers come to the decision that the town is cursed and they blame the baker's wife for the burden. In the closed bakery, they try to cheer up Aimable and get him baking again by telling him that he's the Luckiest Man in the World: he's been spared the boredom and arguments of married life.
The Marquis enters, telling Aimable that he needs some Feminine Companionship and offers to loan his nieces. The villagers ask the Marquis if the girls are really his nieces, to which he responds, "What is a niece but the daughter of a brother, and as I consider all men my brothers...." The girls surround the baker, flirting, fondling him. The priest enters, shocked at the scene, begins feuding with the Marquis. The villagers join in the fray, and the baker throws them all out.
At a town meeting in the church, Aimable admits that he knows that Genevieve has run off. He offers the Marquis his life savings to deter him from hunting down the couple. He leaves the church, and the villagers vow to find his wife.
Alone in the bakery, Aimable decides If I Have to Live Alone, that he will do so with dignity.
The villagers are again at the cafe, and Antoine enters claiming that he has found the young couple at a hotel in a nearby town. They agree to form a search party, and the Marquis, the priest, and the teacher go after the outcasts to persuade the baker's wife to return home. Left behind, the women of the town comment bitterly on Romance.
The lights come up on a small hotel room. Genevieve and Dominique are together, but all is not well. She admits her passion for the young man, but wonders Where Is the Warmth?. She gathers her things and leaves him asleep.
At a bus stop, the villagers encounter Genevieve on her way to Marseilles. They beg for her to return, but she tells them that she can never go home again. They eventually convince her to return: "all sins are forgivable".
The villagers are asked to remain in their houses as to not embarrass Genevieve when she arrives. Escorted by the priest and the Marquis, Genevieve walks through the empty street to the bakery and cautiously approaches her door.
She finds Aimable and attempts to tell him the truth, but he chooses to believe that she has returned from visiting her mother and offers her dinner. Pompom arrives at the window, and Aimable bitterly harangues the cat for running after "some tom that looked good in the moonlight." He unleashes all of his pent-up anger toward Genevieve on the small cat, and offers it a saucer of milk. He has faithfully refilled the milk each day, and, when Aimable charges that the cat will run off yet again, Genevieve assures him that "she will not leave." Reconciled, the two begin to prepare the bread for the next day.
Denise begins the new day at the cafe, reprising her Chanson, joined by the town in harmony.
The simple story of a baker's wife leaving her husband for a younger man takes on a new life in Stein's adaptation. As in Fiddler, the small French town is, itself, a character. While they initially mock Aimable for having such a young wife, they take it upon themselves to bring back Genevieve — perhaps not for the most altruistic of reasons — they affect the final reconciliation, nonetheless, and in the process become better people. This theme of community is one echoed in several of Stephen Schwartz's projects, making this a most equitable collaboration.
This song list reflects the recording of the 1990 London production.