Theatre yesterday and today



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Fiorello H. LaGuardia, for whom a New York City airport is named, was also one of two mayors of the city to have a Broadway musical based on their life story. The other was Jimmy, which I reported on a few weeks ago, and told the story of James J. Walker, who resigned his office in disgrace. Besides the two styles of politicians they were, one a crusader for social causes and the other a corrupt glad hander, the two musicals couldn't have been more different as well. Besides one being good and the other being bad, Jimmy ran for ten weeks and Fiorello! for two years, winning the Tony for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Fiorello H. LaGuardia

LaGuardia was a beloved figure in his day (hence the airport), whose name Fiorello translated from Italian means "Little Flower." When he died in 1947, the New York Times pronounced him as "a New Dealer even before the New Deal came into being." Elected three times as Mayor, he was the first Italian-American to hold the office as well as prior to that, being the first elected Italian-American Congressman in New York City. He was actually half-Jewish, as his mother was a Coen from Trieste in Northeastern Italy, and when it was convenient for him politically he would play that up (he spoke just enough in a number of different languages to get by). Famous for taking on unpopular causes, he was a true liberal-Republican, a breed that sadly no longer exists. And though he may have been on "The Side of the Angels," as his co-workers proclaim him in the musical's first song, it was interesting to see how LaGuardia was portrayed in Douglas Carter Beane's 2013 play The Nance. As an unapologetic gay man performing in burlesque in the New York of the early 1930s, Nathan Lane's character of Chauncey Miles, takes LaGuardia to task for closing down what were essentially harmless burlesque shows, whose only crime was that they offended the Mayor on a personal level due to his Episcopalian faith. For all intents and purposes, he is the play's off-stage bad guy.

Now Fiorello is back on stage in the musical that bears his name (exclamation point and everything) right here in New York City, where he was born and bred. With a smashing score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and a not-so-smashing book by the play's original director, George Abbott, and novelist-turned playwright, Jerome Weidman, this production was revived this past summer at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts. It received positive reviews and did enough business to encourage this small-scale transfer to Off-Broadway's 13th Street Theatre, home of the Classic Stage Company, where it opened last week in its first fully staged production in New York in more than fifty years. Although it was done as the first Encores at City Center in 1994, that was with a truncated book and little to no sets or costumes. Then, as a way to celebrate how successful Encores became over the next two decades, they chose to revive it again (yes, a revival of a revival) for their 20th anniversary season in 2014. Yet as beloved as its score is among dedicated theatre folk, it has never been particularly popular with producers. The reason for that is a simple one: no one knows who Fiorello is anymore.

I don't consider myself a critic, though I have strong opinions about what I see. My interest in writing about this Fiorello! is more about its place in the pantheon and what it was like to have my first opportunity to this show that I have known essentially only by its score for so many years. What became manifest in watching this production were the problems with the book, as it fails to make Fiorello himself compelling enough. Though Tom Bosley won a Tony Award when he created it, his physical bearing and demeanor brought the character back to life for people who remembered him vividly, as he'd only been dead for a dozen or so years. That good will is not the case any longer, so it winds up being a heavy load to carry for anyone who gets cast in the role. For a heroic character, there really isn't a enough there there. He's drawn with very broad strokes ("Fiorello is angry! Fiorello is sad!) He also is only in two (and a half) numbers, both of which call for him to do more shouting than singing. This could have been because Bosley wasn't that great a singer, but the reality is that it's emblematic of another situation its creators couldn't solve: in not really knowing how they wanted to portray Fiorello, they made the periphery characters more feisty and fun than the play's lead.

This was common at the time, especially in George Abbott musicals, master director that he was. The sidekicks in the same era's Pajama Game are more interesting than the two leads, as but one example, and there are many more shows with the same paradigm. My question is why would Abbott and Weidman do this when they had a lead character with such genuine heroic virtues? Volunteering for World War I while still a Congressman, he came home a decorated fighter pilot with the rank of Major. While writing this show in the late 1950s, surely LaGuardia's well-known built-in charm and charisma were a given. Why did the authors not embrace it more fully? Or did they assume the audience of the day would find everything LaGuardia did so great that they felt no need to work harder in building a more substantial character? I don't know the answer, but this production inadvertently raised a lot of those questions while I was watching it.

This Berkshire Theatre Group performing Fiorello! is a very young company, and though I squinted from time to time to try and make them somewhat blurry around the edges to age them a little, it wasn't as big a drawback as some might suggest. I enjoy a youthful company taking on projects for which they might not otherwise ever get the chance to do. It's admirable, and I salute everyone involved in this production for their efforts. Some of the actors are particularly good and sing very well. I won't point anyone out specifically, but I will say that the hard task of creating a big sound from a tiny band was done admirably by Evan Zavada, the show's musical director. With just himself on one of two pianos and a violinist, I didn’t miss Irwin Kostal’s original orchestrations half as much as I thought I would.

Do I recommend this Fiorello!? Of course I do. It isn’t every day you hear music like Jerry Bock’s or words like Sheldon Harnick’s. It’s musical theatre at its very best, and to be reminded of that in the course of two-and-a-half hours is, for me, as good as it gets.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.