N.Y.C.: A THREE-HOUR TOUR By Peter Filichia
“New York, New York, a helluva town,” according to lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Broadway first heard this proclamation seventy-five years ago this week when their ON THE TOWN opened with Leonard Bernstein’s music to boot.
When ON THE TOWN was filmed, “a helluva town” was deemed too profane by the censors. So the lyric was sanitized to “a wonderful town.” Could it be that Comden and/or Green heard the replacement lyric and said “Hey! What a great name for a New York musical!”
(Leonard Bernstein probably didn’t. Once he heard that most of his music would be replaced by Roger Edens’, he boycotted the picture.)
So when the ON THE TOWN veterans came in late to replace the pair of songwriters who’d been found wanting for the musical version of MY SISTER EILEEN — which at that point had been called A LIKELY STORY — maybe Comden or Green suggested the new title.
WONDERFUL TOWN started with a guide taking tourists on a walk of the town with a talk of the town: “On your left, Washington Square — right in the heart of Greenwich Village. On your right, Waverly Place — bit of Paree in Greenwich Village.” The tourists also note “Interesting people on Christopher Street!”
Right they are!
Many who don’t live in what is at least a contender as The Greatest City in the World do visit in the last week of December. It’s the busiest week of the year for Broadway theatergoing. (Why do you think prices are jacked up then?)
If you’re around next week, why not take a tour of those New York places you’ve heard about in Broadway stories and songs? As you go “Uptown/Downtown” (to quote a dropped FOLLIES song), you’ll be as wide-eyed as Annie when Oliver (not-yet-Daddy) Warbucks showed her “N.Y.C.”
Start down at “Wall Street,” the opening number of DAMES AT SEA. How ironic: a musical that takes place during the Depression-filled thirties starts with a song that celebrates where all the trouble began.
Good song, though. If you want an entire musical about Wall Street,” there’s the excellent HOW NOW, DOW JONES, which in 1967 doubted that the Dow would ever hit 1,000.
“Home address: 307 West 4th,” Flora (a/k/a “The Red Menace”) Medzaros states when filling out a job application. When Fred Ebb wrote this for his first Broadway musical, he was honoring his then-new collaborator John Kander, who in fact at that time was living at that very address.
Go the IFC Center on Sixth Avenue between West Third and Fourth Streets. You might see HAIR’s Crissy there, if she still makes periodic trips to the theater formerly known as the Waverly in hopes that Frank Mills will show up again.
Wherever you are on 14th Street, you can imagine the parade that Dolly attended and in which Horace partook passed by. Deliver yourself to Beekman Place even though Mame, Patrick, Agnes and Ito no longer live there. See if the wizard at Park and 73rd is still in the business of enhancing breasts and buttocks as he did for A CHORUS LINE’s Val.
I’m not including 449 West 49th – the site of Sarah Brown’s Save-a-Soul Mission for the sin-free-center so central to GUYS AND DOLLS is no longer there. The building is now a mere collection of storage units. Guess collections from sinners weren’t enough to meet the exorbitant New York City rent.
And then there’s Broadway. Give your regards to it (as the titular character of GEORGE M! does) and whistle or hum the “Lullaby of Broadway” when you’re on – where else? – 42ND STREET. While the title song of that show certainly remains a winner, you’ll be pleased to see that the place is neither naughty nor bawdy as Al Dubin once accurately pictured it.
No, New York is now far safer than it once was. So you probably won’t find, as those ON YOUR TOES characters did, a Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.
Walk one long block south to where Irene insists that the world must be bigger than Ninth Avenue. It’s a nifty song specifically written for IRENE’S 1973 musical revisal. Actually, Ninth Avenue is a great place to visit today, for it has many, many great restaurants not far from most Broadway theaters. (Cara Mia, between West Forty-Seventh and West Forty-Eighth, is my favorite.)
You’ll search in vain for Avenue Q; Avenue D is as far east as Manhattan cares to go.
“Riverside Drive” is celebrated by no less than Jimmy Walker in the 1969 musical JIMMY. The song will entice you to take a spin there, too.
Jimmy also appreciated the rest of the city too. While running for mayor of New York, he referred to its boroughs as “Five lovely ladies: The Bronx, Manhattan, Richmond, Brooklyn and Queens.”
If Jimmy’s notation of Richmond confuses, understand that it’s been another name for Staten Island, which Lorenz Hart once rhymed with “Manhattan” in the song titled by that name. A free ferry ride will get you to the island; en route you’ll pass by the statue that Irving Berlin immortalized in MISS LIBERTY.
If you’re a people-person, you’ll be happy in Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough. Don’t count, though, on its residents to sing “Welcome to Brooklyn” when you arrive. If it’s to be heard, you’ll have to hum it while walking around – that is, if you know this Ahrens-and-Flaherty song from their second Broadway musical — the one in which Benjy Stone (ne Steinberg) celebrated 1954 as “My Favorite Year.”
(For the record — literally and figuratively — my favorite song in MY FAVORITE YEAR is “My Favorite Year.”)
No, “you can’t have New York City without Queens” as WHEN PIGS FLY reminds us in “A Patriotic Finale.” It’s the utterly brilliant Act One closer that should become The Nation’s Gay National Anthem.
Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s JAMAICA is a great score, but it deals with the Caribbean island and not the Queens station where people incessantly change trains. Listen to it when you get home.
Six miles away is Rego Park. It may not be the place to go if we believe Emily Kirsten. In BAJOUR, she maintains that “Living Simply” there would simply be too simple for her.
Whether or not it is worth visiting, “Living Simply” certainly is worth hearing. How well Nancy Dussault maneuvers the counter-melody and how deftly she delivers Walter Marks’ terrific lyric to the homebody who’s courting her: “While I’m darning your socks, I’ll be damning your hide.”
By the way, Leroy Anderson — the original composer of that MY SISTER EILEEN musical – eventually took his talent to another part of Queens: Astoria, where some of his 1958 musical GOLDILOCKS takes place.
The show has nothing to do with a young girl and three bears (although one such carnivore is seen in the logo). Instead, it tells of the early days of movie-making in this section of Queens before someone noticed that filming would be easier and more cost-effective in sunny Hollywood.
We often think of the acerbic Elaine Stritch as tough as a military tank. (That she once starred in a play called THE TIME OF THE BARRACUDAS tells you something.) And yet, GOLDILOCKS offers Stritch in a rare tender mode. She makes you completely believe her sincerity in a soft eleven o’clock number (that’s an equally rare animal, too) called “I Never Know When (to Say When).” Her character’s heart is broken, but she knows and admits that she was a co-conspirator in the breaking.
In short, whether you run to the Bronx or Washington Square, you will, like Sweet Charity, find yourself there. But if you can’t make it to New York next week or, God forbid, ever, you can vicariously enjoy the city by listening to these songs on these cast albums.
Make sure to include IT’S A BIRD … IT’S A PLANE IT’S SUPERMAN. True, the city in which it takes place is technically Metropolis. But really … don’t we all know Metropolis is just another way of saying New York?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.