Bright Lights, Big City, Wonderful Town

Leonard Bernstein, composer of "Wonderful Town." (Photo: Paul de Heuck, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

Leonard Bernstein, composer of Wonderful Town (2016); Photo: Paul de Heuck, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

For years, the version of New York City that Leonard Bernstein and Betty Comden and Adolph Green created in Wonderful Town really was the New York that many people around the country believed existed. It was a place where everyone was a lot smarter, a lot tougher, and moved a lot faster than other Americans did. Wonderful Town depicted New Yorkers with a wised-up wit, an unapologetic brashness (with a beating heart underneath), and battle scars from years of surviving life in the city—characters we came to believe were very much like the creators themselves.

These types were already familiar to us from the movies, in Damon Runyon stories, 1930s screwball comedies, and Dead End Kid films. But beginning with On the Town in 1944 and continuing with Wonderful Town in 1953, Bernstein, Comden and Green brought this vision of New York to the stage, and re-ignited the Broadway musical in the process.

It was still possible to glimpse that vision in 1982, when I moved to Manhattan. The city was still a mecca for artists, in much the same way it had been when Wonderful Town was written.

It was still a town of fast-talking deli owners, rude cab drivers, elderly West Side ladies who proudly announced that they were “devotees of the theatah,” cheap all-night restaurants and barely adequate apartments that were eagerly snapped up by young people like me. The Disney makeover of Times Square hadn’t yet reared its head, and the realtors hadn’t taken over. It really was possible to stroll through Greenwich Village and ponder, in the words of Wonderful Town’s opening number, “Christopher Street,” the “poets and peasants on Waverly Place.” I remember wondering, without a shred of irony, about the question posed in that song: “Who knows what future greats live in these twisting alleys?” That was the New York that Bernstein, Comden and Green wanted to believe in, and compelled us to join them.

All of it had begun, of course, with On the Town, their 1944 hit that brought a modern urban jolt to the Broadway musical, and made so many of the operetta-based shows of the past seem fussy and quaint. In the years that followed, Comden and Green went to Hollywood, where they wrote a number of memorable musical films, including Good News and Singin’ in the Rain, while Bernstein was in demand as a symphonic conductor around the world, and composed his one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti (1952). The team very nearly did not succeed in reuniting for Wonderful Town, which was initially put into the hands of others.

The show’s origins date back to the 1930s, when The New Yorker published a series of sketches by Ruth McKenney about the adventures she and her sister Eileen had trying to survive in Manhattan.

These were published in book form in 1938, and read by a pair of young writers, Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who were laboring on Two Girls on Broadway, a Lana Turner “B” picture at MGM. When the studio dropped their option, Chodorov and Fields purchased the stage rights to McKenney’s stories, rented a house at Malibu and set to work.

Ruth McKenney despised the result, but My Sister Eileen, starring Shirley Booth as Ruth, opened December 26, 1940, and ran for 864 performances. Chodorov recalled that after the play was a hit, McKenney never issued any further objections. “That was the one that made all the difference,” he said, “…and from being slaves to the Hollywood mill, we were suddenly desirable winners.”

When Columbia Pictures filmed My Sister Eileen in 1942, starring Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair, it was a hit all over again, earning Russell her first Academy Award nomination, and also became a popular radio series. In the fall of 1952 it was announced that a musical version of the play, bound for Broadway, was being financed for $250,000. Rosalind Russell would reprise her role as Ruth, and Chodorov and Fields provided the book, with George Abbott set to direct. LeRoy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt were hired to write the music and lyrics. Chodorov recalled that Anderson had a disagreement with Horwitt that caused their withdrawal just weeks before the show’s scheduled tryout in New Haven. But in her memoir, Life is a Banquet, Russell states that she told the producer, Robert Fryer, that she didn’t think the score was any good. Quickly, Anderson and Horwitt were out and Bernstein, Comden and Green were brought on board. They were given five weeks to come up with a complete score, and did so in the confines of Bernstein’s Manhattan apartment, engulfed in a fog of cigarette smoke.

Although arguments were presented for updating the action to the 1950s, the composer and lyricists preferred sticking to the original setting of 1935. Heard today, the songs still have a bracing freshness and confidence; they feel as if they must have come out close to perfectly right the first time.

Their lightly satirical tone is never hammered too hard, and Comden and Green scored a bulls-eye in scene after scene, with a shrewd eye on their audience. Wonderful Town was written for smart people who were expected to be in on the joke; Ruth is very much like the characters Russell was already famous for playing onscreen—the quick-witted woman who has paid the price for always being several steps ahead of the men in her life. This dilemma is memorably outlined in the first-act number, “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man.” When Ruth describes arguing the finer points of baseball with one of her boyfriends, or telling another one, who has just bared his soul to her, “I’m afraid you’ve made a grammatical error”—she was probably intended to speak for a lot of women who had learned the hard way that showing your smarts meant reconciling yourself to a life of solitude.

Wonderful Town is the most brilliantly varied theater score that any of its creators ever came up with.

One of the show’s enduring numbers, the tough-talking editor Bob’s “What a Waste,” is a marvelous tribute to all the talented young people who poured into New York and had their hopes dashed, personified by the young actress who “came to New York, repertoire ready—Chekhovs and Shakespeares and Wildes / Now they watch her flippin’ flapjacks at Child’s.” There are two classic ballads, the flirtatious Eileen’s “A Little Bit in Love” and Bob’s fantasy of the idealized love he thinks he wants, “A Quiet Girl.” (A third romantic number, “It’s Love,” is pleasant enough but falls short of the other two.) There’s “Pass the Football,” the hilarious song for Wreck, the college jock whose athletic prowess means he never has to worry about his grades. And there are two more raucously funny comic numbers for Ruth, “Conga!” in which she tries unsuccessfully to interview members of the Brazilian Navy for a newspaper article, and “Swing!,” in which she nervously attempts to “get hep” and gather a crowd around for the Village Vortex nightclub (a reference to the Village Vanguard, where Comden and Green, occasionally accompanied by Bernstein, had performed in their act, “The Revuers,” back in the early 1940s.)

Wonderful Town received ecstatic notices when it opened at the Winter Garden on February 25, 1953.

In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it “the most uproarious and original musical carnival we have had since Guys and Dolls.” The New York Daily News’s John Chapman wrote of Bernstein, “…there hasn’t been anybody around like him since George Gershwin for jauntiness, tricky and intriguing modulations and graceful swoops into simple and pleasant melody.” In addition to Russell, Wonderful Town provided an early success for Edith (later Edie) Adams, a young Juilliard-trained soprano cast as Eileen. Playing Ruth’s editor love interest was George Gaynes, with his robust bass voice, well-known to audiences at New York City Center and for playing Jupiter in Cole Porter’s 1950 musical Out of This World. Carol Channing took over Russell’s role in the show’s last months, and Wonderful Town finished with a 559-performance run.

Wonderful Town received a special live telecast on CBS in 1958, and it’s interesting to compare the original cast album with the soundtrack of the TV special. In the former, Russell sounds quite cool and relaxed much of the time, but in the latter, she makes much bigger choices all the way around, in a delightfully manic performance that harkens back to her frenzied portrayal of society gossip Sylvia Fowler in George Cukor’s famous 1939 film version of The Women.

Sadly, Wonderful Town was never preserved on the big screen.

In 1954, it was announced that Columbia Pictures was attempting to acquire the movie rights to the show, and negotiations were going on between the studio and the musical’s creators, who were being represented by the crafty agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar. The screen version was planned as a co-starring vehicle for Judy Holliday and Marge and Gower Champion, but in the end, Columbia balked at paying the high price demanded by Lazar. Instead, the studio commissioned Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write an original score to the same story.

Released as My Sister Eileen, starring Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon and a young Bob Fosse, the movie was actually rather funny and sharply observed in its own right. But, with the exception of one terrific number staged in a band shell, “Give Me a Band and My Baby,” the score was pallid stuff next to the musical sparks generated by Wonderful Town. In her autobiography, Betty Garrett said that calling the movie My Sister Eileen “made audiences think it was just a remake of the earlier movie with a different cast. But I did not discover the biggest problem of all until we went on the road to do publicity. In town after town we found the distributors did not want us to mention that it was a musical!…It was the first inkling I had that Hollywood’s Golden of Age of Musicals was coming to an end.” (That same year, Comden and Green had their own inkling: It’s Always Fair Weather, a clever original movie musical the duo had written with Andre Previn for MGM, opened—not at a tony theater like Radio City Music Hall, but at 11 drive-ins around the country.)

Wonderful Town marked the final theater collaboration of Bernstein, Comden and Green.

Despite being staged several times at New York City Center in the 1950s and ‘60s, it has had only a single Broadway revival—a 497-performance winner in 2003 that starred Donna Murphy, succeeded by Brooke Shields. During its run, Jerome Chodorov died, knowing that he was once again represented in a Broadway hit.

It’s hard to find much lasting evidence now of the New York that Wonderful Town represents. Today, the hedge-fund geniuses, not poets and peasants, occupy Waverly Place. But if old New York was never quite the place that Bernstein, Comden and Green painted it as being, we believed in their version of it for a long time, and seeing the show today, it’s nice to rekindle the memory.

Brian Kellow is the author of five books, including biographies of Sue Mengers, Pauline Kael and Ethel Merman.


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