At the recent urging of my frequent Broadway Viewing Buddy (a.k.a. “Dad”), I will be discussing a lovely little show that I just had the pleasure of attending. Ursinus College’s very well-received and well-executed production of Wonderful Town closed last Sunday, so you just missed it!
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Book: Joseph A. Fields & Jerome Chodorov
Based On: Ruth McKenney’s The New Yorker-published collection of autobiographical short stories; Fields's & Chodorov's resulting play, My Sister Eileen
Broadway Debut: 1953
Tony Nominations/Wins: 5/5!
Wonderful Town follows two sisters from Columbus, Ohio – sharp, witty Ruth and vivacious, blonde (and not Irish) Eileen – pursuing writing and acting careers, respectively, in New York City. They arrive awestruck and immediately acquire lodgings in a most undesirable basement apartment; featuring a “loveable” landlord, “customers” of the room’s former tenant, Violet, and frequent dynamite blasts from the new subway construction mere feet below them. They battle early onset homesickness and make the best of things. Ruth makes the rounds with her stories while Eileen gets free lunches from a smitten Walgreens manager. They chase their dreams and find love while weaving through the lives of other Christopher Street inhabitants: living-in-sin neighbors Helen and the Wreck; sleazy-but-ultimately-redeemed newspaperman, Chick Clark; Village Vortex nightclub owner, Speedy Valenti (where they each find some amount of success); magazine editor, Bob Baker; some Brazillian Navy cadets with a penchant for the “Conga”; and a slew of Irish cops with a penchant for Eileen.
This musical is a true ode to everything that is the Big Apple. It centers on everything “wonderful” about NYC and what can happen when you venture there to find life and love. It can harden you and make you long for simplicity, but the beat and vibrant energy of the city can also invigorate you and present new things every day. The ambiance and feel of Wonderful Town is upbeat and brightly-colored, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a fluff musical (like 42nd St. or Anything Goes). The songs may not be as recognizable or gritty as others composed by the great Leonard Bernstein. But his score is full of intricate nuances that reflect the overwhelming blur that is NYC. Its unevenness and hectic hustle illustrate a sophistication that surpasses “fluff” musical composition. I’m not trashing Anything Goes, but the wit is more in the lyrics (Cole Porter’s specialty) with an accompanying snappy tune that takes a back seat to the words instead of the other way around. Bernstein’s style of composition is complex and really sets the mood for the piece (much like Sondheim) and Wonderful Town is no exception.
Ursinus College’s recent production was quite a refreshing thing to see: young people taking a period piece and not only understanding such a bygone bit of American History, but also immersing into that time period and making it believable for audiences. I so often see performances where it looks like the actors are just playing dress-up in front of a period backdrop. But these kids had very little backdrop to play off of (I’m guessing they spent most of their budget on the costumes, which were really good for a college production!). They really invested in the time period they were portraying and it actually looked like they belonged there. Looking comfortable in a time, place, and way of life different from yours is not an easy thing for anyone to accomplish, so it’s especially exciting to see such young performers tackle it like champs. In a world where bigger, faster, shinier reigns supreme, it does an old soul like me good to see young people respecting and working to uphold the significance of a time that is not their own. Bravo, you young whippersnappers!