The number of outright political musicals isn’t overwhelming, but when they come along, they often grab prizes. To wit — and much of it — is Of Thee I Sing, for example, which copped the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And, just last year, Hamilton achieved the same distinction and was, by my count, the first politics-heavy tuner to win the Pulitzer since 1960, when the George Abbott-Jerome Weidman-Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical, Fiorello!, was crowned. (Factoid one: It could be argued that Rent, with its partial AIDS through-line, was political. Factoid two: only nine musicals have landed the Pulitzer Prize since 1918.)
So here is some jubilant news for musical and Pulitzer-lovers alike: Fiorello! — which aside from a 2013 concert revival, courtesy of City Center “Encores!,” hasn’t received a full NYC production since its original run and has also never been filmed — is back. This Off-Broadway production is a genuine boon for those who have never glimpsed the show and for those longing to see it again.
But pretending to be over the moon about this Berkshire Theatre Group production, imported from its recent summer season, isn’t my intention. The reason(s) why will come later. If there’s any over-the-mooning to be done, it’s for the pizzazz-y work of songwriters Harnick and Bock some 57 years ago.
It was in 1959 that I first saw Fiorello! during its pre-Broadway tryout in New Haven. This puts me in the position of noting that “Little Tin Box,” the second-act showstopper, wasn’t in the New Haven opening at the Shubert. The extraordinary ditty is one of those composed-on-the-road wonders. I won’t contend that “Little Tin Box” is the best politics-oriented song ever slotted into a musical comedy, but I will insist it has never been bettered.
While “Little Tin Box” — in which NYC politicos mock corrupt Tammany Hall officials for blatantly living beyond their visible means — may be Fiorello!‘s most delectable musical entry, Harnick and Bock provided a cornucopia of additional ear-catching tunes and ear-tickling lyrics. Harnick is surely the first wordsmith — and the only one, to my knowledge — to rhyme “criminal” with “women’ll.” Bravo!
Still, the team never quite got the hang of breathtaking ballads during their partnership (which ended for still-undisclosed reasons following The Rothschilds). “When Did I Fall in Love?” is the closest they come in Fiorello!; “Dear Friend” from She Loves Me — lately and gloriously revived on Broadway by the Roundabout — is their winner.
On the other hand, they shine with rousers, such as “The Name’s LaGuardia,” during which Fiorello, running for Congress, addresses potential constituents in English, Italian and Yiddish: “Tammany ist nicht kosher,” he charges. The team can also produce a strong mood piece like “Till Tomorrow,” used here to conjure the melancholy of World War I soldiers leaving their ladies.
So what is to celebrate here is Harnick and Bock work, equally for its melodic sophistication as for the clarion singing of the cast of this revival. Every note, every lyric is beautifully produced by the troupe, whether simply singing or also executing Michael Callahan’s frequently charming choreography.
I ought to mention, however, the detriments here. Foremost is the Abbott-Weidman book, which in similar fashion to many such political musicals (Hamilton being the glorious exception), is thin.
Fiorello! follows its spunky protagonist (Austin Scott Lombardi) through his 1910s rise to a certain amount of local power and subsequent army enlistment. Then, in Act II, we skip to his battle against “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker in a run for mayor of NYC. Abbott and Weidman also get around to his first wife, Thea (Rebecca Brudner), and his second wife as well as long-suffering Gal Friday, Marie (Katie Birenboim).
Because the musical comedy formula of the late 1950s called for a secondary romance, the book writers throw in Dora (Chelsea Cree Groen), Marie’s political activist pal, and cop Floyd (Dan Cassin), who eventually turns into a Tammany partisan. There are several pols from the 14th Congressional district, too, led by the gruff-speaking Ben (Rylan Morsbach) — and it’s a good thing, since besides “Little Tin Box,” these fellows nail the saucy “Politics and Poker.”
Yet with all this going on, Abbott and Weidman can’t delve too deeply into any one character’s third dimension. Granted, they don’t do too badly with Fiorello, known as The Little Flower. But as things glide things along, there’s the feeling that Abbott, in doubling as director, knew that he could move the action swiftly enough to disguise any telling lagniappes.
As the director of this revival, Robert Moss — whom the NYC theater community fondly remembers for founding Playwrights Horizons — lacks Abbott’s knack. Here the tuner’s sketchiness is made manifest — as are certain plot developments. Is it entirely credible that ex-cop Floyd and now-wife Dora would host and toast Walker’s shady cronies in their penthouse? Never mind: Harnick and Bock write “Gentleman Jimmy,” a hot Broadway number, for a Great White Way diva named Mitzi Travers (Maureen Glessner) to belt.
And while Lombardi expends a good deal of energy as Fiorello, it’s curious that, unlike so many of his fellow actors trying out Noo Yawk accents, he doesn’t trot out one, playing the title role as an intuitive, straightforward politician. All right, but LaGuardia was immensely both popular and renowned for his street-cred bounce. Accent-absent and earnestness are nice, but Lombardi’s portrayal lacks a necessary comic element, and that goes some way toward explaining why, for this revival, it’s the word “musical” in “musical comedy” and not “comedy” in “musical comedy” that takes precedence.