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The Pulitzer-winning musical finally returns to New York
How many of us actually know Fiorello!?
Sure, diehard musical theatre fans are aware of the show, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and has a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They might recall the plot – about the early political and romantic life of Fiorello LaGuardia, who eventually became the beloved mayor of New York City from 1934-1945 – and they might know some of the songs. Beyond that, though, even the biggest theatre geeks may be in the dark.
That's because Fiorello! is so rarely produced, for reasons that are hard to discern. Bock and Harnick classics like She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof are revived all the time, so why do we ignore this buoyant tale of an optimistic striver who conquers the world with his charm and decency? Why do we keep timeless songs like "When Did I fall In Love?" and (this author's favorite) "Little Tin Box" off the stage?
Bob Moss has been asking those questions, too. "I asked Sheldon [Harnick] why he thinks it's never done," he says. "His guess is that people outside of New York think it's going to be New York-centric and therefore won't be of interest. But that is not true."
In fact, Moss has discovered that Fiorello! can absolutely speak to modern audiences. This summer he directed a revival for Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the production was so well received that it has transferred Off Broadway to the East 13th Street Theatre (home of Classic Stage Company.)
Despite his decades in the business – among other things, he founded Playwrights Horizons – even Moss didn't know the show before he got to work on this project. Now, however, he's embraced its rich emotion and sly intelligence.
He's especially taken with the female characters, including Fiorello's wife Thea, his associate Marie, and his political ally Dora. Though all the women's songs are about the men they love, their actions are about power, politics, and the future. In between courtship scenes with a dopey police office, for instance, Dora not only pickets a garment factory, but also gathers information that saves Fiorello's life.
"The women are powerful," Moss says, and he's added moments to underscore their influence. In the original production, when the men left for World War I, a filmstrip relayed what they faced overseas. Now the women explain what's happening, emphasizing their engagement with the combat. There are also several wordless interludes where ladies from various backgrounds hustle through their days or picket for fair wages. "There's a line running through the play that's about strong women," Moss says. "That's almost entirely in the script, but to some extent, that's also a virtue – I call it a virtue – of our production."
The production is also defined by its cast – especially their ages. Every actor in the show is in their early 20s.
Initially, this casting arose because the BTG production was non-Equity, and younger actors are more likely to be non-union. However, Moss argues this conceit is beneficial to the material. "Almost every character in this play is over 40, but when you're over 40, you're not quite so idealistic," he says. "I think when you see all these young people telling this story, it becomes much more hopeful, and I think that hope comes across that footlights."
A sense of hope is crucial to making Fiorello! work. Consider, for instance, that even though LaGuardia is fighting Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine that ran New York City for years, we never meet the Tammany leaders. "This is not good guys versus bad guys," Moss says. "This is just good guys trying to maneuver in the world."
He sees that spirit in Harnick himself. Now 92, the lyricist has been a regular presence at rehearsals and performances of this revival, and Moss says he's been endlessly enthusiastic. "Having him in the room, blessing these young kids, and giving it his seal of approval, has been so moving to everybody," he explains. "Here he is, in his nineties, bouncing into the rehearsal room and laying his hands on it and saying, 'This is good.'"
Moss continues, "When he left the room, I tried to distill his humanity and say, 'That's what we want to bring into the production. This humanity that he has wants to inform every moment.'"
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Alexander Hill. Top photo: Austin Scott Lombardi as Fiorello LaGuardia.
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