New York’s storied City Center boasts a prominent claim on the legacy of Gotham’s theatrical world. After the building’s salvation from bankruptcy and its repurposing as a performance space in the early 1940s, both the New York City Opera, now getting back on its feet after a humiliating bankruptcy, and the New York City Ballet, still going strong, were born within its Moorish-revival walls. They remained there for two decades before relocating (for a time, in the case of City Opera) to what is now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. City Center endured to become home to the Robert Joffrey Ballet and the Manhattan Theatre Club. More recently, it has hosted occasional performance runs of various arts genres. Since 1994 it has been home to its signature Encores! series, a valuable if relatively discreet program dedicated to short-run revivals of less well known American musicals in “concert” or semi-staged formats.
Offering only a few performances of each show, Encores! has never really had traction great enough to draw mass audiences or exceptionally strong critical attention. But from March 22 to 26, City Center was for a few days an island of outstanding musical and theatrical achievement in an otherwise staid New York season. This time, the series took on a Cole Porter musical for one of the few times in its history (a previous Porter revival, Du Barry Was a Lady, featured a cameo by none other than Donald Trump as—of all things—an IRS agent; he reportedly muffed his lines). The chosen Porter work this year was The New Yorkers, which originally premiered in December 1930 and ran for a respectable 168 performances before entering near oblivion. After 87 years of neglect, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel (who admits in his program note that he had never even heard of The New Yorkers until 2001) and music director Rob Berman pieced the show together from two faded carbon copies of the original typescript and research into song lyrics and musical arrangements housed in university libraries. Some liberties were taken: five songs from other Porter musicals of the era had to be adapted to liven up the score, while orchestration and choreography had to be extrapolated from vague notations and simple intuition. But the end result is a rip-roaringly energetic, expressive, and downright fun musical comedy that makes us forget we live in the era of La La Land and its painful, poorly acted, badly sung, and indifferently danced plot about two appalling narcissists. New York probably has not seen a better show since Roundabout Theatre staged Porter’s Anything Goes with Sutton Foster.
It is anyone’s guess how a show whose name honors not only the city’s proud inhabitants but also one of its most iconic (if now slipping) weekly magazines could fall into obscurity. Along with his collaborator Herbert Fields, Porter devised the show with the help of the New Yorker magazine’s early cartoonist Peter Arno, whose work brilliantly captured the city’s boozy Prohibition-era zeitgeist, and E. Ray Goetz, the theatrical personality who had helped make Porter’s previous show, Fifty Million Frenchmen, a Broadway hit. Arno, who knew the demimonde of ditzy showgirls and flashy drunkards all too well, also designed the costumes and sketched the sets. The director was Porter’s beloved Yale classmate Monty Woolley, also of Fifty Million Frenchmen fame and later immortalized on both stage and screen as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. The show featured seventeen musical numbers, including five original songs by the comic performer Jimmy Durante, whose earthy oddness proved a perfect foil to Porter’s dissipated sophistication. (All but one of the original Durante songs were presumed lost until this revival, which includes three of them). Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, a star big band, provided the orchestral music.
Arriving one year into the Great Depression, The New Yorkers confronted an audience eager to laugh through hard times. Even in this production the Durante character breaks the fourth wall to deliver a line expressing his consternation with a public that only wants to be entertained despite the state of the country “today.” It also came early enough to avoid the formal censorship codes that began to regulate performance media only a few years later. And even then, the content of both the book and Porter’s songs was racy enough to skirt the alluring edge. The show’s most iconic tune, “Love for Sale,” is sung by a prostitute who brazenly solicits the audience to “pay the price for a trip to paradise.” Here the number initially goes to a soloist in homage to the song’s later status as a hit jazz standard, but it is then reprised for a soloist with a back-up trio in a recreation of Fred Waring’s original vocal arrangement. The song survived on stage—albeit reassigned from a white singer to a black singer in the interests of “good taste”—but was immediately banned from radio performance.
The dialogue’s sexual innuendo is so delicious that one wonders whether a production could be mounted on a college campus today without a Title IX complaint. When the heroine is asked—as martinis are shaken—whether she is “wet,” she is certainly not being asked her position on Prohibition. Her gangster amour’s first meeting with her louche parents ends with an observation that their future relationship will depend “on the depth of the well and length of the pump handle.” The romantic frustration her oversexed mother sings about in “The Physician” really picks up when she gets around to the uncaring doctor’s exploration of “the innermost parts of me.” And the old fashioned use of the verb “to make” as a euphemism for the F-bomb is liberally deployed: one slutty character is announced with, “She has made history and made historians,” while the line that gives the title of the Porter standard “Please Don't Make Me Be Good”” (originally for Fifty Million Frenchmen) is preceded by, “You can make me, sweetheart, but . . .” It should be recalled that, in the same year as the premiere of The New Yorkers, Groucho Marx’s equivalent line “I think I'll try to make her” was clumsily cut from the film version of Animal Crackers and not restored for commercial release until 2016.
Director John Rando posits that the plot may have torpedoed The New Yorkers. It is thin by later Broadway standards, lacks psychological depth, and has a strikingly Seinfeldian lack of sentiment. But it is hardly inconsequential and certainly no thinner than the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, both of which enjoyed great stage success before becoming feature films (the Marx Brothers’ weaker first Broadway show, I'll Say She Is, which did disappear after its initial run, was coincidentally revived off Broadway last year). Here the young socialite Alice Wentworth is bored with her toffy and tubby fiancé, the “well bred, well read, and well fed” Phillip Booster, artfully played by Todd Buonopane. She easily falls for the suave gangster Al Spanish, delivered arrestingly by the versatile Tam Mutu, whose moll in turn falls for the jilted Booster. In a nod to the show’s racy reputation, the latter couple shag in a comically choreographed sequence set to Porter’s relatively tame “Getting Myself Ready for You.” Al’s rival gangster, the lavender-dashed Feet McGeegan (“Feet,” he explains, is short for “Effete”), nastily battles him for control of New York’s caviar market and eventually secures his arrest for parking too close to a fire hydrant. With Al in jail, Alice moves his speakeasy to the Upper East Side home of her cordially adulterous parents Windham and Gloria Wentworth, where it is raided by the police. They arrest the entire cast except for her father, who breaks them out of Sing Sing—“dreary even for Westchester,” as it is described—and flies them all in the family sea plane to Naples, Florida. The swamp climate—this is not, Alice’s mother reminds us, Naples, Italy—proves too much for them, and they promptly return to New York despite the possible consequences. The show-ending number is the comfortingly iconic “I Happen to Like New York,” wisely reassigned to Scarlett Strallen’s convinced and confident Alice rather than the family butler (named “Mildew”), as was the case in the original show. Strallen made the anthem meaningful to an auditorium that greeted it with a reverential silence rarely observed outside of Bayreuth; the only exception was the peals of laughter that broke out at the song’s couplet about going to Hackensack and taking the next train back.
Zaniness is more likely to have been the culprit for the original show’s failure, even if the times were indeed zany. In an apposite side note on the original production team, Fred Waring made his fortune not from music but by investing so heavily in an early model electric blender that it still bears his name. Absurdist elements made the show uproariously funny to my deeply cynical ears and, by every indication, to the rest of the audience. But it may well have made a lesser impression on the downtrodden Depression-era public. Taking jibes at the futility of Prohibition, the characters produce booze on demand from the most surprising of places, including a fully mixed martini from Gloria Wentworth’s purse when the cast is stuck in Florida. The playful “Say It with Gin” song, which advises a would-be lover to abandon candy, flowers, and “something high-brow to read” (for “she might not even know how to read!”), is delivered by a cheerful gang of bootleggers that comes out of nowhere. Feet McGeegan is shot dead three times and assumes a new persona each time he returns to the stage—a public prosecutor, a police superintendent, a Florida real estate agent, and even the unexpectedly supercilious warden of Sing Sing. Arnie Burton’s suave acting and ever more exaggerated death scenes made the conceit self-aware enough to enjoy to the hilt. The Durante songs, performed by the outsized Kevin Chamberlin with a downtown charm that carefully avoided impressions or caricatures, were also amusingly bizarre. When another character accuses him of having a head made of wood, he ends the first half in an ebullient march in which the entire cast rhythmically chants “Wood, wood, wood” while he extols the solid properties of American lumber and has everyone build a reverential pile of wooden objects. By the end we see pianos and canoes carried in from the wings and stacked atop the more prosaic items. As the company marches offstage under the closing curtain, he looks out to the audience and incredulously declares, “This is the actual way the first act ended in 1930, folks!” The line got quite a laugh, but the revival would have been just as worthwhile without the commentary. Under Berman’s baton, the twenty-nine-piece Encores! Orchestra alone had me walking on air.