Matt here, pinch- and self-blogging for joon this week because Thanksgiving. Before we get started, check out this article in The Observer about meta-crosswords:
This puzzle’s fifth theme entry has the correct writers — but it’s the wrong play! Which Rodgers & Hammerstein play, which may or may not fit in those nine squares, should go at 57-Across instead of the one that’s there?
Curious! Let’s see what our our five (starred, so unambiguous) theme entries were:
18-A [Willa Cather novel set in Nebraska*] = O PIONEERS! If you entered MY ANTONIA don’t feel bad, since that fits the clue in 9 letters as well. Interesting, but didn’t have anything to do with the meta.
29-A [Travel book that made Bruce Chatwin famous*] = IN PATAGONIA
36-A [Noel Coward play with characters named Bunty Mainwaring and Pauncefort Quentin*] = THE VORTEX.
47-A [1933 James Hilton novel which became a Frank Capra film of the same name*] = LOST HORIZON
And the “wrong play” at 57-A: [Rodgers & Hammerstein musical with the song “It Might as Well Be Spring”*] = STATE FAIR.
What’s going on here? You may have noticed the 1,2,3,4,5 progression of the first-word lengths in the theme entries. That alone is not enough to hang a meta on, but it might have unlocked the real idea for you! Turns out that each of the four first theme entries displays a curious property: its clue number is also the enumeration of its answer.
So the clue number for O PIONEERS is 18, and O is 1 letter long and PIONEERS is 8. Similarly IN is 2 letters long and PATAGONIA 9, and its clue number is 29; THE VORTEX is (3,6) and 36-Across; and LOST HORIZON is (4,7) and located at 47-Across.
So we need a Rodgers & Hammerstein play that’s enumerated (5,7), which would be SOUTH PACIFIC, found by 205 solvers as I type this with 50 minutes left before deadline.
*** The odd placement of O PIONEERS (normally you’d expect it at the front of the third row, not at the back) was necessary because you can’t get a number higher than 17 into the third square of the first column in a 15×15. I didn’t want an 8-letter theme entry and O PIONEERS was a great (1,8) so I scooched it across the third row. Robert Graves’ I, CLAUDIUS was another good (1,8) but my wife is a Cather fan, plus my novelist cousin named one of her daughters Willa after her, so easy call.
*** It took quite a while to come up with a suitable meta answer. I needed an author with a large oeuvre to hinder guessers, plus they needed one book of (5,7) enumeration and then another totaling 9 letters. The 5,7 in particular was tough to find, surprisingly, but I thought I had finally found an answer when I hit upon James Michener. His big first book was South Pacific, on which the musical was based, and Caribbean would’ve made a nice 9 for 57-Across.
But oops — Michener’s book was Tales of the South Pacific. Grrr! Completely crestfallen, but then I said, wait a sec, Rodgers and Hammerstein — SOUTH PACIFIC + STATE FAIR! Hello.
That’s all from me. How’d you do? And Happy Thanksgiving!