Monday, February 25, 2013

This Day in Theater History (‘Wonderful Town’ Opens After Not-So-Wonderful Creation)

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 My 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 committed suicide.

*Ruth died in 1972 at age 60, with 10 books to her credit but none as successful as My Sister Eileen

(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 opening.

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 badly damaged.

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