If you like musicals about historical New York-based politicians and the women they love, then boy are you in luck! No, I’m not talking about Hamilton. (Despite what you may have heard, not everything is about Hamilton!) Nope, I’m talking about Fiorello Henry La Guardia, the 99th Mayor of New York who presided over the city for three terms from 1934-45. That’s right, Fiorello! is coming back the New York theater.
The Berkshire Theater Group will mount an off-Broadway production of the musical in September. While there have been productions worldwide since its 1959 premiere, it has never returned to Broadway. The last time it played New York was in 2013 for less than a week as a concert at City Center Encores!, a series that revisits old musicals, both underrated and forgotten classics. (Fiorello! is solidly the latter category; you can tell the musical is old-fashioned because it has an exclamation in its title without a hint of irony.) The original Broadway run starred Tom Bosley as the mayor, who earned a Tony for the role (and did you know Bosley was Jewish?). Danny Rutigliano starred in the 2013 concert.
Fiorello! tells the story of La Guardia’s political rise, particularly as he took on the notorious Tammany Hall. It follows his tenure as a Congressman, experiences in World War I, and multiple attempts at becoming New York’s mayor until his ultimate success. It highlights these experiences through the lens of his relationships with the two women he married (the first one died tragically young). The musical doesn’t extend to World War II, which is a shame, since La Guardia was arguably what my parents like to refer to as a “premature anti-Fascist.”
But what a difference three short years have made, both in the worlds of theater and politics. We’ve just seen political, groundbreaking musical Hamilton sweep the Tonys and, like Fiorello! in 1960, nab the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Furthermore, the last time this show played New York, we had a different mayor filling La Guardia’s shoes. Even the city has changed dramatically.
It’s also been a great couple of years for veteran lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiorello! is his show), who in addition to garnering a lifetime achievement Tony Award has seen three of his other shows with late composer Jerry Bock play major New York productions (ranging from decent to fantastic): Rothschild & Sons, She Loves Me, and, of course, Fiddler on the Roof.
Obviously, the latter is the best known of Harnick and Bock’s works. But interestingly, Fiorello! was a very early show in Harnick and Bock’s collaborative career. In fact, the musical, which earned them the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was the third of only nine musicals to ever accomplish that feat (another commonality with a hip-hop musical about an American Secretary of the Treasury we will not name again). So this new production of Fiorello! must be great, right?
Well, I’ll leave it to the Berkshire Group to prove it. Harnick’s writing (as well as Bock’s composing) peaked much later in their respective careers, and while the show explores politics and corruption with a sharp eye and tongue, it is in many ways a romantic comedy first and governmental critique second. It may not have the same nuance as other political shows that came after. But who knows? Maybe a fresh 2016 look is just what we need to put this show back on the map, and it’s at least entertaining. Even if it were terrible (unlikely), Harnick is 92 (may he live till 120). Let him continue to have his moment.
In terms of Jewish content, the musical does contain a number where La Guardia campaigns in multiple languages, including Yiddish (historically, while a practicing Christian, his mother was Jewish). On the other hand (as Tevye would say), the musical is also, shall we say, dated, and there are some troubling lines that I really hope this production does without. For example: “And if he likes me/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.”
Oy vey. Well, good luck to this production, and who knows? Maybe we’ll be reminded of what captivated audiences nearly 60 years ago, and the lessons that a tiny Italian/Jewish man still has for us today. The musical runs from September 2 through October 6 at the East 13th Street Theater.