Shirley Jones

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston, The Music Man, 1962

It is an undeniable fact that Shirley Jones is one of the greatest leading ladies in the history of the American movie musical. She set the standard for three of the best-known female leads of all-time. Her film performances have been carefully studied and served as inspiration to high school musical leads for five decades. Soundtracks of her films have outsold the original cast recordings in every instance.

This is not to denigrate the original theatrical performers in any way; it is simply a fact that the Hollywood versions are well-preserved, whereas little visual record exists of the Broadway version. There is no question that Joan Roberts created and set the benchmark for the part of Laurey in Oklahoma!, however it is Jones’ performance that an overwhelming majority associates with the part. Broadway afficianados should not begrudge this distinction, rather accept the fact that film performance is a different art form than stage, and Ms. Jones was simply better suited to the film role.

Entering the business in the early 1950s, Jones was talented, blonde, and extremely pretty. But it was her amazing soprano that impressed Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who made her the front runner for the female lead in the film adaptation of Oklahoma!.   With Oklahoma! as her motion picture debut in 1955, Jones was immediately established as a star. More success followed in 1956 with the film version of Carousel, in which Jones gave a dazzling performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Although her next film has not stood the test of time in the same manner, April Love was extremely successful in 1957.

Despite having three enormous hit musicals in the mid 1950s, Jones was not a star in the same stratosphere as Doris Day, nor a vocalist with the chart success of a Patti Page. She was not idolized as a beauty in the sense of a Marilyn Monroe. The fact that has endured is that Shirley Jones was an excellent actress, who played the part of a musical leading lady perfectly. Jones became Laurey, or Marion, or whatever part she played — and made the viewer focus on the character. The fact that she was an attractive, curvaceous blonde was unimportant. While Marilyn Monroe could never escape that, no matter how well she acted, Jones was able to make her performance speak for itself. She wasn’t desirable because she was Shirley Jones…she was desirable because she was Laurey.

Shirley Jones was blessed with a clear, strong singing voice. Her acting talent will not be remembered along the lines of a Bette Davis or a Meryl Streep, but as noted above, she made her roles believable. In 1960 Jones won an Oscar for best supporting actress, ironically for a “bad girl” role she played in Elmer Gantry opposite Burt Lancaster. She played her roles so well that most baby-boomers identify her either as “Marion” or most often, “Shirley Partridge.”

The one area on stage that Jones claimed to have no talent for was dancing. She said as much prior to production of The Music Man, and was told by legendary choreographer Onna White not to be concerned, that she would learn during the shoot. Jones does an admirable job of dancing in the film, and credits White for it.

Despite her vocal talent and exposure in hit films, Jones never really had a hit record until she was cast opposite her stepson, David Cassidy, in The Partridge Family, a television phenomenon in the early 1970s. Although most of the songs featured teen heartthrob David as lead vocalist, Shirley nevertheless had a solid part in “I Think I Love You,” which topped the Billboard charts in 1970.

The mania surrounding Cassidy and The Partridge Family stole the spotlight from Jones’ true talent for many years. To this day she is arguably familiar to more Americans as “Mrs. Partridge” than as the star of three of the greatest film musicals of all time. Nobody would begrudge Jones her right to resent that fact, however she genuinely seems to take it in stride and of course has every right to be proud of her work on the musical sitcom. She seems to have a quality that many stars — and especially today’s “divas” — lack completely: the ability to not take herself too seriously.

In the years since The Partridge Family she has played a number of roles in film and the small screen, some good, some forgettable. She’s played a quasi-cougar on The Drew Carey Show, and a nymphomaniac grandmother on the silver screen. Jones continues to work as an actress, enjoying odd roles and occasionally poking fun at her image. Having said that, of course, we’d prefer more opportunities to hear her sing.

How then, do we summarize Jones’ role in the legacy of the Great American Songbook?

Her recordings, including those with one-time husband Jack Jones, were excellent performances but underwhelming sellers.  Aside from the quirky “I Think I Love You,” which does of course have its place (however minor) in the history of American pop, Shirley Jones’ chart successes were minimal. Her legacy is that of the silver screen, preserving three important musicals in a way that Broadway could not. Her performances were not the original, but they are the best record we have, and a darn fine record at that. They serve as the standard for the songs, and the standard for the performances. They enable countless high school productions and community theaters to review and find inspiration. Each time a vocalist performs “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or “Goodnight My Someone,” Shirley Jones has influenced that performance.

Don’t underestimate the importance of Shirley Jones in the continuing popularity of Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Music Man, and her contribution as a performer. As you read this, somewhere there is a teenage girl with stars in her eyes, vying for the role of Laurey, or Julie, or Marion, and she is reviewing Shirley Jones’ performance over and over in her mind. And the Great American Songbook will live on and on.