Feb. 25, 1953—Most Broadway playgoers who saw the
sunny musical comedy Wonderful Town, which premiered on
this date at the Winter Garden Theatre, had no idea that in actuality, the
lives of its two main characters—young, single sisters out to conquer New York—had
been blighted by tragedy, nor that the production they were watching had been
marked by more than the usual amount of ego-tripping, backstabbing, betrayal and hysteria
present in any collaborative creative production.
But don’t take my word for it—just listen to
director George Abbott, a veteran of
six decades of theater wars, who noted: “There was more hysterical debate, more
acrimony, more tension and more screaming connected with this play than with
any other show I was ever involved with."
The setting of the musical, New York in the Depression,
does not sound like much fun, but Ruth McKenney spun her adventures in the big city into comic gold in the form of
Sister Eileen, a collection of sketches from The New Yorker, in 1938. At that point, success beckoned for both Ruth
and the title character. Two years after the book’s appearance, Eileen had left
the East Coast for Hollywood as an executive assistant to Walt Disney, and Ruth
was awaiting an event that would boost her sales even further: a Broadway
comedy based on the last two chapters of her book, involving life in the
Greenwich Village apartment she shared with her madcap beautiful sister.
Not much seemed to go right for Ruth afterwards:
*Four days before the opening, Eileen’s husband, novelist
Nathanael West (Day of the Locusts),
a terrible driver, ran a stop sign. The resulting collision killed both him and Eileen. The
comedy premiered as scheduled on Broadway, but Ruth understandably was in no
mood to attend.
*Ruth and her husband, Richard Bransten (professional name: George Minton), both Communists,
were driven out of the party--though they still had to endure the blacklisting of the McCarthy Era.
*On Ruth’s 44th birthday in 1955, Richard
*Ruth died in 1972 at age 60, with 10 books to her
credit but none as successful as My Sister
(For a fine description of the life of Ruth, see Scott Johnson's Powerline blog post here.)
The 1940 comedy, by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields (brother of famed lyricist Dorothy Fields), became a big hit, then
was adapted into a film two years later starring Rosalind Russell. In 1950,
Chodorov and Fields approached Abbott about adapting the work into a musical,
with Russell again in the role of the sharp-witted older sister of a bombshell.
Despite initial misgivings, Abbott’s initial resistance was worn down, much to
his later regret.
The two men called on to create the score, composer Leroy
Anderson and lyricist Arnold Horwitt, worked slowly, and
what they had in hand didn’t please Russell or Abbott. With the start of
rehearsals looming, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—a team known for working fast, and under tough taskmasters, at
that (they had survived Gene Kelly in Singin’
in the Rain)—were called in. Comden and Green overcame the rather
half-hearted resistance of their friend, Leonard Bernstein, to handle the music while they worked on the lyrics.
True to form, Comden and Green, with help from
Bernstein, whipped several numbers together in only a month. Chodorov and Fields were furious: What had happened
to their warm, rather sentimental material? (The sharply satiric songs that
were Comden and Green’s stock in trade may have also reminded them a bit too
much of the most highly praised bits from the 1940 show, widely rumored to have
been concocted by director-playwright George S. Kaufman.) It didn’t help that Jerome
Robbins, the man that Abbott called on to fix lingering problems with the show,
ended up informing on Chodorov as a Communist.
Matters came to a head in the show’s out-of-town New
Haven performances prior to its Broadway opening. Ingenue Edie Adams,
suspecting that she would be scapegoated for the production’s failures, told
the production team that it was impossible to deal with contradictory notes
about her performance from so many different people. Chodorov
and Fields darkly warned that without moving the show back to their original
concept, it faced disaster. Russell, not trained as a singer, stressed out by
the rising tension all around her, lost her voice right after the New Haven
In the end, when the show got to the Winter Garden
Theatre, the frothy atmosphere onstage—typified by the funny song “Ohio” and
the infectious “Conga”—won over critics and audiences. The tensions between the
show’s old and new creative teams were never really smoothed over, but
Wonderful Town won five Tonys (including Best Musical and, for
Russell, Best Actress in a Musical), on its way to 559 performances.
A half-century after its premiere, a revival of Wonderful Town was staged. Like the original
critics and audiences, I, too, was bowled over by the show’s spirit of fun and
wit—testimony to the work of Comden and Green. Yet even in this case, for a
show with such a problematic history, there couldn’t help but be some troubles.
Donna Murphy, taking over Russell’s lead role, proved a dazzling all-purpose
talent—not just acting (Russell’s forte), but also singing and dancing up a
storm. But she had to take so many absences during the show’s nearly
500-performance run that, it is said, her chances for another Tony Award were