Filichia’s Features: Welcome Back to New York, Fiorello!

by Peter Filichia on January 18, 2013

in Filichia Features,Fiorello!

What’s the best aspect of this new Encores! production of FIORELLO! that’s coming up at the end of the month?

It will remind those who have forgotten what a fine show this Bock and Harnick musical is.

We shouldn’t need reminding. After all, FIORELLO! is one of only five musicals that can boast of winning not only a Tony Award as Best Musical (in 1959-1960) but also a Pulitzer Prize. And yet, unlike the other double-winners South Pacific, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, A Chorus Line and Rent, it’s the only one of the five that was never filmed.

Another reason for its semi-obscurity may be that it’s thought of as too New York-centric. Some have alleged that no one knows who Fiorello is anymore. One wonders if the show would have been better off being called by the man’s last name instead of his first. No; today people might assume that LaGuardia is a musical version of Airport.

Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) served a dozen years as New York’s mayor, from Jan. 1, 1934 through Dec. 31, 1945. Those weren’t easy years, first with the Depression and then with World War II. Perhaps that’s one reason why co-librettists Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, in writing a musical, centered on the years that led him to the mayoralty.

This does make some demands on the costume department. The fashions of Act One, which takes place in pre-World War I, are staid and markedly different from the ones in Act Two, when the Twenties started to roar.

We meet Fiorello in early 1914 as a young lawyer who’s disgusted with the corruption that the Tammany Hall voting machine has inflicted on New York. He decides to run for Congress, although a Republican (yes, Republican) doesn’t stand a chance against the Democrats.

Oh, really? LaGuardia runs a meet-the-people grass-roots campaign that works. Along the way he helps Thea Almerigotti, who’s arrested for leading a strike, and extricates her from a possible jail stay. He’s also attracted to her, but she won’t fall in love with him until much later – substantially after he’s fallen in love with her.

Marie knows the feeling. She’s Fiorello’s Girl Friday-Saturday-Sunday-Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, but as devoted as she is, she doesn’t have the music that makes him dance. Marie, however, can’t help loving him, because he’s a good guy who spends endless hours in helping the so-called “little people.” So there’s quite a bit of love that threatens to go forever unrequited in FIORELLO!

A politician on the rise and the women who do and do not love him? If it were a fictional story, we’d be interested – so why should Fiorello! be penalized because it’s about people who actually lived?

Perhaps FIORELLO! has been neglected because it isn’t quite a star vehicle. Of all the title characters in musicals, few if any sing less than Fiorello. He’s only part of “Unfair,” in which he helps Thea and her striking co-workers; then he’s the centerpiece of “The Name’s LaGuardia,” which shows him campaigning. After Act One, Scene Five, Fiorello never sings again. So if you’re producing it, you don’t need a killer singer.

Was there so little music for LaGuardia because he was supposed to be played by Eli Wallach? But the role went to Tom Bosley, who came out of nowhere and wound up getting a Tony. Maybe this will also be a star-making part for Danny Rutigliano, who’ll play Fiorello at Encores!

Anyone considering Fiorello! for production should be apprised that there are many male roles, what with Fiorello’s office staff, his constituents and his political cronies. But none of these parts is terribly taxing. Still, at Encores! we’ll be delighted to see such terrific talents as Shuler Hensley, Ray DeMattis and Adam Heller.

Ditto Kate Baldwin as Thea and Erin Dilly as Marie. There are two nice supporting roles for young women. Dora, Thea’s second-in-command in the strike, winds up marrying the policeman who quelled their demonstration. Jenn Gambatese should do well by “I Love a Cop.”

License the rights to perform FIORELLO from MTI.

And then there’s Mitzi Travers, the star of that fictional Broadway musical smash, Yoo-Hoo, Yah-Hoo. (Musicals did have titles like that then: Hitchy-Koo; Jim Jam Jems; Woof, Woof and Biff! Bing! Bang! were all ‘20s attractions.) At Encores! Emily Skinner will play Mitzi, who trumpets the assets of “Gentleman Jimmy,” as in James J. Walker, Fiorello’s opponent. (He later got a musical of his own – Jimmy – but don’t hold your breath for that one to show up at Encores!)

FIORELLO! does include two ingredients that reference LaGuardia’s mayoralty. The overture starts with the sound of a siren which cites LaGuardia’s penchant for chasing fires all over town. The second occurs in the Prologue: Fiorello is shown reading the comics over the radio. This was not as a favor to those who read the comics-deprived New York Times; LaGuardia actually did this in 1945, when those who delivered newspapers went on strike. The papers were still publishing, so LaGuardia, aware that little kids were desperate to know what was happening to their heroes in the funnies, provided them with the adventures of Little Orphan Annie and her comic-strip colleagues.

Fiorello’s music by Jerry Bock is wonderfully quirky in the patter and comedy numbers and deeply melodic in the ballads. As for Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, he wrote The Most Clever Lyric in Broadway History That No One Seems to Notice. It occurs in “Unfair,” in which Fiorello meets these striking women. They are factory stitchers who belong to Waistmakers Union Local #25. They sing in anger, “Must we sew and sew solely to survive so some low so-and-so can thrive?”

Notice that Harnick matched “sew and sew” — referring to the ladies’ work – with “so-and-so” — meaning someone the women don’t like who isn’t even worth naming. Don’t you love lyrics that are identical in sound but have completely different meanings?

Look closer and see that Harnick achieved even more, for he gets in another “so” just before “some low so-and-so can thrive.” Now we have a third meaning for “so”: “in order that.” And don’t miss that other “so” in “solely to survive,” not to mention that good interior rhyme with “low.” I’m impressed; aren’t you?

At the 2003 production of FIORELLO! at the Arlington (Massachusetts) Friends of the Drama, director Frank Roberts added a terrific moment to “Unfair.” A picketer carried a sign that said, “Support Local #25,” so that when Fiorello sang the lyric, “Now a strike isn’t played like tic-tac-toe,” Roberts had him bring a finger to that number sign – the # which just happens to be the grid on which tic-tac-toe is played. Fiorello tapped in rhythm “tic-tac-toe” on three of its “boxes.” Now that’s getting the most out of a number.

Give Roberts credit, too, for not using the traditional dazzling wafer-thin chorine to play Mitzi. Because he had a talented heavy-set woman with a glorious voice, he smartly cast her. And why not? There have been many ample-figured stars, from Sophie Tucker to Ethel Merman and beyond. Why shouldn’t the star of Yoo-Hoo, Yah-Hoo have one, too? Keep that in mind when casting your FIORELLO!

Roberts was also enamored of a song that was dropped out of town: “Where Do I Go from Here.” You can hear its opening notes played by a quiet violin at the start of the reprise of “The Very Next Man.” Better still, hear Liz Callaway’s dynamic rendition that she did in 1994 on a Lost in Boston album.

It had been sung by Marie, who mused, “He doesn’t love me. I know it’s true. The signs are all too clear. But loving him the way I do, where do I go from here?” Because Abbott felt that it slowed the action, Bock and Harnick came up with a charming comedy song: “Marie’s Law,” in which she used legal imagery to tell co-worker Morris how a woman who loves a man should be legally entitled to him. Once the song finished, a blackout ended the scene.

Roberts had an idea. After Marie and Morris finished “Marie’s Law,” the two could share a private laugh at all the funny observations each had just said. Then Morris could give a slight smile, get his coat and hat and leave the office. The now-alone Marie would let the smile on her face dissipate, and give us her real her feelings: “He doesn’t love me. I know it’s true. The signs are all too clear … ” Mid-song, she’d leave the office and finish the song on the street – all the better to set up the next scene where Fiorello courts voters.

So Roberts requested permission to add the number, and got it. Give a listen to Callaway’s exemplary recording and see if you’re interested in interpolating the song into your production of FIORELLO!

Now: will director Gary Griffin include it at Encores!? Giving Dilly another number would be a boon. But Encores! usually does shows the way they were — Sondheim and Lapine’s rewrite of Merrily We Roll Along and Jerry Zaks’ playing with Girl Crazy notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, here’s betting that the show will make one change from the original production. When Marie finally gives up on Fiorello, she sings that she’ll marry “The Very Next Man” who asks her. “And if he likes me,” she originally proclaimed, “who cares how frequently he strikes me? I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling just for the privilege of wearing his ring.”

In Harnick’s defense: when he was writing the show, he was, sad to say, being true to period. The regrettable truth is that back in those days, a man’s hitting his wife for a supposed infraction was a too-common, taken-for-granted occurrence in too many households.

But as so many writers have found, once they want to replace something that doesn’t work, they come up with something better. Harnick now has Marie sing, “When he proposes, I’ll have him send me tons of roses: sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour. Why should I wait around for one little flower?”

That’s especially good because “little flower” in Italian is … yup, “fiorello.” Nevertheless, here’s hoping that at Encores! – and at your upcoming production – that everyone gets big bouquets.

Read all of Filichia Features.

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His upcoming book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available for pre-order at www.amazon.com.

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    { 1 comment… read it below or add one }

    Bernorbob January 22, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Sorry you left out “On the Side of the Angels,” one of my favorite songs in the show! (plus “Little Tin Box.”)

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