By Peter Filichia —
Can you get to The Irish Repertory Theatre by September 9? Any musical theater aficionado should, for there’s a rare revival of a very good 1957 musical: New Girl in Town.
It’s an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna Christie. This is the one in which Boy meets Girl, unaware that she’s no Girl, but a prostitute. Mat, as O’Neill nicknamed Matthew, falls hard before Anna can summon up the nerve to tell him about her past; before she does, Marthy, who’s the girlfriend of Anna’s father Chris, spills the beans. Now – can Mat forgive?
In delivering George Abbott’s adaptation and Bob Merrill’s first Broadway score, Margaret Loesser Robinson excels as Anna, as does Patrick Cummings as Mat and Danielle Ferland as Marthy. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s for good reason: Ferland was the original Little Red Riding Hood in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Her singing “I Know Things Now” was excellent preparation for her to play Marthy, who’s come to know quite a few things in her time (and not all of them nice).
Can’t attend Charlotte Moore’s production because you’re too far away or just can’t make the time? Well, there is an excellent alternative: the original cast album of the 1957 production. You’ll get two Tony-winning Best Actress performances for the price of one, for Gwen Verdon (Anna) and Thelma Ritter (Marthy) were both named Best Actress, thanks to Tony’s first-ever tie. Of the thousands of cast albums that have ever been recorded and produced, New Girl in Town is the only one that can offer you two Tony-winning Best Leading Actresses in the roles that won them the prize.
First comes the overture that starts out in somewhat serious fashion to let us know that this won’t be sheer musical comedy. Lest we worry that the tale will be too solemn, the overture then delivers a free-wheeling, oompah-pah song that was known as a “Bowery waltz” – the type of tune very popular as the 19th century became the 20th. Now we immediately know to what era New Girl in Town will take us.
The love ballad of course comes next, before we get the banjos strummin’ and plunkin’ out a tune to beat the band – one that promises the show will offer some fun, too. That segues to another ballad before the trumpets take over to finish up in a flourish.
Then we’re on the New York waterfront where some ladies of the evening are up early in the morning. They’re interested in meeting the sailors who haven’t seen any women in months. How endearing that the sailors instruct each other in their rousing opening number to “Roll Yer Socks Up” – for in those days, even paying customers wanted to look good for the women they hired.
The ship’s captain, one Chris Christopherson, isn’t looking for love from any of these misses; he’s going to meet Marthy, who has some fascinating news: Chris’ daughter Anna, whom he hasn’t seen in decades – not since she was five – is coming to visit. That’s enough for him to remember Daddy’s Little Girl in “Anna Lilla,” Merrill’s version of the “My Little Girl” sequence from Carousel’s soliloquy.
Chris, a dyed-in-the-wool Swede, has a pronounced accent – and the actor who portrayed him, Cameron Prud’homme, was most comfortable with it. He didn’t get a Tony, but he did get a nomination.
Then we go to the local watering hole, where the barflies sing “Sunshine Girl,” that nifty banjo-tinged tune we heard in the overture. Granted, there’s no real excuse for it in the show; the Irish Rep production drops it here and saves it as a second-act opener. But on an original cast album, where a song’s motivation isn’t as apparent, it’s a welcome toe-tapper.
Chris is afraid that when his daughter meets him she’ll see that he’s a lush. Little does he know that she’s more afraid of what he’ll think of her. Merrill was smart to make Anna oblique in explaining her past in “On the Farm,” where two uncles and a few cousins were all too familiar with her. Anna isn’t at all graphic, but makes enough allusions that we – and Chris – get the message.
Many cast albums got censored in the Eisenhower era, and New Girl was no exception. On stage Anna complained that while growing up she was subject to “vicious sons of bitches.” The cast album instead indicts “lecherous, treacherous cousins.” The irony is, however, that the censored line better serves the show – for Anna seems more demure by using a euphemism. Chris has steadfastly assumed his daughter was an innocent, and he still would in the gingerly way she handles unsavory manners in “On the Farm.” He would, however, have a much harder time buying it if he hears her say “sons of bitches.”
For my money, of the six original cast albums that Verdon recorded, she sounds best on this one. But where’s Thelma Ritter? She had to have some songs to have won that Tony. The first comes in “Flings,” in which she and the working girls remember when love was new and exciting. The nice melody and tempo straddle the line between youth and experience. It’s a winner, as is Ritter’s “You’re My Friend, Aintcha?” – in which Chris and Marthy re-establish their relationship which has suffered since Chris has spent so much time with Anna.
This song has musical theater’s funniest misplaced modifier. Marthy tells Chris that “A guy said you ain’t fit for pigs down Larry’s bar.” What she really means is “A guy in Larry’s bar said you ain’t fit for pigs.” But her convoluted syntax gives the impression that pigs actually frequent Larry’s bar. (Perhaps some do, but not the oink-oink variety to which Marthy is referring.)
Ritter shows up in “Chess and Checkers,” too – a solid march. (You’ll be impressed at how many different styles of music Merrill employs.) But truth to tell, it’s really Verdon’s show. Once she starts believing that Mat is serious in his feelings for her, she realizes “It’s Good to Be Alive,” which the star does in plaintive fashion – establishing that she didn’t come to this conclusion too easily. Still, she’s optimistic, which is why she and Chris enjoy “Ven I Valse,” that aforementioned Bowery waltz, in which she matches his Swedish accent in a show of solidarity.
But later, after Mat learns the truth, Verdon’s resignation is palpable in “If That Was Love,” coming to the conclusion that “love hurts an awful lot.” And considering how wonderfully virile George Wallace (NOT the former politician) sounds in Mat’s songs, one can understand why Anna was devastated to lose him.
He gets to sing “It’s Good to Be Alive” as well, for reprises were big in the ‘50s. There was a conscious effort to reinforce the melody so theatergoers would leave the theater, run to a music store, buy the song on a single or cast album and pick up the sheet music while they were at it. “It’s Good to Be Alive” got every chance, because it was also featured in the overture.
So was Mat’s big number “Look at ‘Er,” which Wallace also conquers. It’s probably the only love song that uses the word “a-scared,” a term that kids are more prone to use. Merrill chose it to establish Mat’s childlike nature. He also had the chance to change the expression’s meaning, for while Mat starts out urging US to look at ‘er, by song’s end, he’s saying how much he likes to look at ‘er.
Indeed, look at ‘er, this New Girl in Town, if you’re in town near The Irish Repertory Theatre. Failing that, hear ‘er on this original cast album.