This is the penultimate episode in our Second Elisberg Industries International Film Festival presentation of Fiorello!, with a score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock. One more to go after this -- though there will probably be some well-deserved encores. And for a very special reason, which I alluded to yesterday, this may be my favorite episode. I'll explain in a moment, but first the story.
Though Fiorello LaGuardia lost in his race for mayor against the crooked Tammany Hall Machine, it turns out that a crack in the organization was in the near horizon. And a court case brought many of their illegal dealings, graft and payoffs to light. The newspapers reported all the strained explanations from the Tammany officials and regulars, down to some trying to insist that they had simply save their money and kept it safe in a "little tin box." That brought about one of the showstopping numbers in the musical, "Little Tin Box," performed by Howard DaSilva, as Ben Marino, the head of the local Republican Party who'd been pummeled for years by his rivals of Tammany Hall.
As I mentioned way back at the beginning, DaSilva is admired but little-known because he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Years and therefore was in few films and TV broadcasts. He did have an acclaimed theatrical career, though, notably starring in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! as Jud Fry, and also years later in the original Broadway production of 1776 (whimsically for a man who had been blacklisted) as Ben Franklin -- a role he did get to re-create in the film version, though he's not on the Broadway cast album, having suffered a heart attack before the recording was made. He did open the show and later returned to it. (Not a bad achievement, by the way -- starring in two Broadway musicals that each won both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, 1776 and Fiorello!)
That brings about why this episode is so special.
Last week, while searching for something else entirely, I made a completely unexpected discovery -- footage of Howard DaSilva recreating his "Little Tin Box" number in full costume, set and cast!!! It came in 1980, 20 years after Fiorello! opened, as part of an HBO special, Standing Room Only: Showstoppers.
I've seen a lot of performances of "Little Tin Box" over the years -- as I said, it's a showstopping number for it's wit, charm, cleverness and pointed theme. And most of them are generally very good and done very similar. This is an uncommon interpretation among them all, unique. In most version, the character of Ben and his cronies are all being deeply sarcastic, and ridiculing the deep trouble that Tammany Hall is in. It's done as a big, broad piece of derision. Howard DaSilva takes another tack completely -- rather than looking at the troubles of Tammany Hall from the perspective of the plot, making fun of those in troubles, he takes it on from opposite end, from the personal point-of-view. He sings it as a man simply filled with utter joy that his whole life has just changed, and the criminals and thugs who have been blocking him and his party for years are at last going to jail. And he's just as pleased and quietly-giddy about it as a man can be.
Here then is that performance, the original Ben Marino -- Howard DaSilva -- singing, "Little Tin Box."
(You can ignore the introduction written for host Tony Randall, since it has the story completely wrong, described in a way that would instead be less convoluted for the audience and therefore seem to make sense, even if backwards. The real story, as noted, is that DaSilva and his pals are the good guys, ridiculing the criminals in court.)
And just as a bonus, here below is how they did the number in the 2012 NYU production. I figured that since I've been showing so much of that version of the show here, it's only fair to Jake Kinney (as Ben) and the cast to give them their time in the spotlight. It's also a nice way to compare performances. This here is pretty close to how most versions of the song are done -- perfectly valid, though all different from how it was done by Howard DaSilva in the original.
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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