As I've noted often, I'm a huge admirer of the musical, Fiorello! and explained why here that I think it's the "greatest musical you've never heard of." Not necessarily the greatest, and not the most obscure -- but the two together: the best that's little known. I feel comfortable saying that, considering how few people know of it, and yet it won the Tony Award for Best Musical (tying, in fact, that year with The Sound of Music) and won the Pulitzer Prize. And even if some knowing people might have heard of it, a very small percentage of them have ever seen it. It just is rarely performed.
The main reason, I suspect, is that some think it's just a period piece about New York City politics, so no one outside of the city would care -- just like who would care about Danish politics 700 years ago, which is why no audiences ever want to see Hamlet...
In its details, yes, Fiorello! deals with New York politics in the 1930s. But what the story is about is how one man can fight corruption and win. It's about all cities' politics. And it's not just a love story, it's a double love story. Actually, a triple love story. And ohhh that glorious musical score.
The songs are by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who in a few years would go on to write Fiddler on the Roof.
Though it's obscure, the show holds a special place in the hears of Theater Folks. And when the now-famous Encores! series in New York began life performing stripped-down versions of little-performed musicals, the very first show they did was...Fiorello! And when they celebrated their 20th anniversary last year, the show they chose to honor the occasion with was...Fiorello! The first time they'd ever repeated a show.
There's very little video footage of productions of Fiorello! and most especially top-notch productions of the show. So, here's a treat: six minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals of that 20th anniversary revival. It's done superbly, and does honor to the original. Sheldon Harnick told me how pleased he was with the production and performances, particularly Danny Rutigliano in the lead role. (A role created by the then-unknown Tom Bosley who later went on to fame as 'Howard Cunningham' in Happy Days. He won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in Musical, oddly not lead actor, but that's because the Tonys have -- or had -- a strange rule about who was eligible to be Best Actor. The credits had to say "Starring" or have your name above the title. With Fiorello!, it was largely seen as an ensemble piece, so Bosley's name was listed under the title with all of the cast.)
Another nice thing in the video. When the song, "The Very Next Man," is performed, it's with the rewritten lyrics, so people who cringe at one slip in the show can hear the fix for perhaps the first time. When Harnick wrote the words in the late 1950s, it was intended tongue-in-check, how the character of Marie -- Fiorello's long-suffering assistant in unrequited love with him for 15 years -- finally sings an anthem how she's moving on at last. And to make her point, she explains that whoever the next man is, she'll marry him and get past Fiorello. (Note: he comes around and sees the light and proposes to her. In fairness to the fellow, he married someone else, who sadly dies young.) And in being tongue-in-cheek, Harnick wrote one verse that, for that era, was perfectly normal. But as time went on it became truly cringe-worthy, no matter that it's mean as a joke. ("And if he likes me, who cares how frequently he strikes me. / I'll get married with my arm in a sling, just for the privilege of wearing his ring.") And among those who cringed was Sheldon Harnick himself, who rewrote the words, and required that any future productions of Fiorello! must use the new lyrics, and the old lyrics were not approved for any authorized production. That passage now begins, "When he proposes..." well, see for yourself what he came up with, sung by Erin Dilly. I'll just mention that the additional cleverness of his new lyrics is that they make wonderful use as a pun of Fiorello LaGuardia's name. He was known as "The Little Flower," because that's what 'Fiorello' means in Italian.
The montage begins with the great Politics and Poker, where the local Republican leadership, headed by Shuler Henley, can't figure out who to get to run for Congress -- and lose -- to the corrupt Tammany Hall. (That's when the unknown Fiorello offers himself up. Which later in the show leads to the dazed and disbelieving committee singing the hilarious, "The Bum Won.") Kate Baldwin next sings "'Til Tomorrow," as Thea, and you get to see a bit of her waltzing with her mismatched husband, Fiorello, a short, fat man eventually who won the beauty's heart. This gorgeous song is worth noting, too, because it was actually was one of the numbers that Harnick and Bock wrote to audition themselves in hopes of getting the job. Needless-to-say, it worked. (The song precedes LaGuardia and other American doughboys going off to World War I.) And then that leads into Erin Dilly as Marie proclaiming that she'll marry "The Very Next Man." (Side note: If you saw the movie, Julie and Julia, she played the editor who tests Julia Child's recipes and decides that the cookbook must be published -- she gets the great line, "Yum" -- then works with Child to come up with the title.)
Here then, is a whole lot of wonderful -- and rarely seen -- Fiorello!
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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