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Inner City – 1971

Inner City Reborn By Peter Filichia 

I hope upon hope that you’re in New York City on Thursday, August 17th.

If you’re not, I would urge you as strongly as Mark Bruckner commands Daisy Gamble in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: “Take a train, steal a car, hop a freight, grab a star” – and get here.

Catch a flame, catch a breeze, on your hands, on your knees – but head to Feinstein’s/54 Below at 7 p.m. to see an abridged version – but still the first New York appearance in forty-five years – of the rock revue known as Inner City.

There’s also a show at 9:30 p.m., too, but I’m suggesting you catch the earlier one because you’ll probably want to see it a second time.

This may seem to be hyperbole for a musical that only managed to stay on Broadway for all of ninety-seven performances. But take it from someone who saw all the hits of the 1971-72 season: Inner City was second to none of them.

I will admit that when I caught it, I had an advantage in knowing the source material: Eve Merriam’s The Inner City Mother Goose, a 1969 picture book that featured her updated and often controversial New York-centric slants on famous nursery rhymes.

Remember the one that goes “Hushabye, don’t you cry; go to sleep, little baby; when you wake you’ll have cake?” Here instead, a young black single woman sings “Hushabye, baby on the top floor; project elevator won’t work anymore. It comes up to ten and then starts to stall; we’ll have to walk down, baby, carriage and all.”

Merriam was the show’s lyricist (but not librettist, for there was no book per se). She could have left “Hushabye Baby” at that, but she created an additional lyric that’s not in her original collection. It took its inspiration from the “My Mother Said” jump-rope rhyme, but instead, this young miss informs us that she’s not yet a mother; she’s expecting and she promises the baby-to-be in her womb that the child will have a better life than she’s had.

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, when writing Into the Woods, dropped the famous semi-rhyme that The Giant so unceremoniously said to Jack of Beanstalk fame: “Fee-fi-fo-fum: I smell the blood of an Englishman.” Merriam used it differently: “Fee-fi-fo-fum: I smell the blood of violence to come” – which made for a perfect rhyme and a nobody-can-deny statement.

How about the one that asks, “Mary, Mary – quite contrary – how does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row?” Merriam saw a different scenario: “Mary, Mary, urban Mary, how does your sidewalk grow? With garbage cans overflowing with chewing gum wads and cigarette butts and popsicle sticks and potato chip bags” – all leading to “And dog shit piled high.”

‘Tis true, ‘tis true. New York City had seen a garbage strike fewer than two years before Inner City took up residence at the Barrymore Theatre. Only seven months before the show’s first preview, undercover police officer Frank Serpico had testified that the city’s police force was involved in massive corruption. Thirty-nine days before Inner City’s opening, New Yorkers saw the premiere of Where’s Poppa, a film that offered a comic interpretation of the muggings that were routinely happening in Central Park. Such acts of violence weren’t laughing matters to those who’d endured them.

No, it wasn’t the best of times but it was arguably the worst of times for New York City. The subway interiors were caked with graffiti, which never makes passengers feel safe. As for prostitutes, you’ve often heard that they frequented 42nd Street. Indeed they did, but many times in the ‘70s I was approached on 8th Avenue and as far north as 50th Street – and on both sides of the avenue.

So with most boroughs in trouble, no wonder that Merriam rewrote the classic children’s bedtime prayer to say “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the double lock will keep; may no brick through my window break and no one rob me till I wake.”

And yet, and yet … by the end of the show, the five women in the cast came to the conclusion “I’m a city woman!” followed by the musical’s four men adding “I’m a city man!” Their conclusion? “On this rock I’ll take my stand!”

I hope they’re all still here and all glad that they stayed. How nice to be able to report that – for the most part Inner City is now quaintly dated. Whatever the problems of the subway (and there are many), at least graffiti isn’t one of them. Garbage is being collected, crime is way down, and police corruption, at least ostensibly, is too.

New York City has been known as the nation’s first melting pot; Inner City is a melting pot of melodies. It was advertised as a rock musical, but that description only goes so far. An ad placed when the show was in trouble stressed its new sound, but there are plenty of sounds that have their roots in R&B and even old world Broadway.

The music was composed by Helen Miller, a pop songwriter who would only return to Broadway through a bubble-gum hit song that was inserted into Baby, It’s You in 2011. But Miller died in 2006, so she didn’t even get to hear it at the Broadhurst.

And if you can’t hear Inner City at Feinstein’s/54 Below, there always is that original cast album which shows just how versatile and melody-filled Miller was.

Listen to “Deep in the Night,” one of the reasons why Linda Hopkins won the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony (over Bernadette Peters and Adrienne Barbeau, yet). Listen to the lyrics, too, and you’ll soon be imagining how panicked Merriam must have been a few months earlier as she was sitting in front of Follies or when she heard a cover version of one of its most famous songs. (‘Nuff said.)

One might be surprised that such a quick commercial flop could get an album. After all, up until that time, only thirty-eight book musicals that had run a shorter number of performances had been recorded (at least since 1943, when cast albums began in earnest).

But RCA Victor, then one of the leading cast album purveyors, obviously believed in Inner City, for it even became one of its above-the-title producers. You might suspect that that had something to do with Tom O’Horgan’s directing the show; his Hair led to an RCA Victor original cast album that reached Number One and made the label enough money to fill at least eighteen eighteen-wheeler trucks.

I, however, suspect it was Miller’s wondrous music and Merriam’s incisive lyrics that enticed the company to pony up.

Someone who would become famous by the end of the decade was an Inner City associate producer: Harvey Milk, the future politician, gay activist and martyr who’d met O’Horgan through a lover in the late ‘60s.

Would that Milk – as well as Merriam, Miller and O’Horgan, all now gone – could have been around to see the renaissance of New York City as well as visit at Feinstein’s/54 Below to see their Inner City.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.