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Subways Are for Sleeping

“Legendary” lost musical by Jule Styne/Comden & Green gets the Mufti treatment with a somewhat trimmed book and streaming video of iconic Manhattan locales.

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Eric William Morris and Alyse Alan Louis in a scene from Jule Styne/Comden & Green’s “Subways Are for Sleeping” at The York Theatre (Photo credit: Ben Strothmann)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Although not seen since 1962, the Jule Styne/Betty Comden & Adolph Green Subways Are for Sleeping is famous for three things: Phyllis Newman’s Tony Award for a performance in which she spent almost the entire show in a Turkish towel, the hit song, “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” recorded by the likes of Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis, Carol Burnett and Tony Bennett, and the most famous hoax in theater history in which producer David Merrick found New Yorkers with the same names as the seven major theater critics and published an ad with their photos next to rave reviews.

Based on a book of true-life articles by Edmund G. Love, Subways Are for Sleeping was savaged by the three major critics and slipped away into the night after 205 performances. As part of its 2018 Winter Musicals in Mufti series “Celebrating Legendary Broadway Composer Jule Styne,” The York Theatre Company is offering the first New York revival in a revised version by Stuart Ross. Although for this concert version with script in hand Ross has given the show a superb production, Subways Are for Sleeping remains a minor show from its top-drawer collaborators. Musicals from books of short stories are notoriously difficult with the exception of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific which used only two from James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Tales of the South Pacific.

Comden & Green’s book for the musical follows ace feature writer Angie McKay who requests an assignment from Skyline Magazine to investigate an unknown New York population: a group of well-dressed homeless men who sleep in the subways by night and go about their daily lives by day. She has discovered that Tom Bailey, a former real estate mogul, runs a kind of employment agency from a bench in Grand Central Station from 10 AM – 12 Noon every day to give tips on finding work to this select clientele. These are men who don’t consider themselves homeless but “address-less” until they get back on their feet again. Angie puts on the act of a newly arrived visitor with no cash and nowhere to go and finds that Tom offers her special attention as the first woman to use his services.

Gina Milo and David Josefsberg in a scene from Jule Styne/Comden & Green’s “Subways Are for Sleeping” (Photo credit: Ben Strothmann)

Traveling around the city with him, Angie discovers all the ways that Tom survives, washing dishes in a fast food restaurant, dog-walking, delivering coffee, playing Santa, sleeping in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, falling in love with Tom, Angie misses her deadline on purpose and her editor Myra Blake sends out the troops to track her down. A subplot concerns Charlie Smith, a sponger who once lived on his trust fund, who meets model and former Miss Mississippi Martha Vail who is four months behind on her rent and lives in a towel in order not to be evicted. He falls hard for her and attempt to round up the money to pay off her debts so that she can go out again.

Subways Are for Sleeping is a valentine to New York and projection designer Lacey Erb has created atmospheric slides and streaming video of such iconic locations as Grand Central Station, Park Avenue, Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately, the original problem with the material has not been solved: Tom and Angie are just not very interesting. They have little or no back story and no outstanding characteristics. As was famously true in the original production, the show is stolen by the secondary leads. With their continually inventive schemes to get through each day, slacker Charlie who lives off his former friends and would-be nightclub performer Martha with her Southern accent are a total delight. Unfortunately, they are off stage most of the time. The rest of the many characters are simply walk-ons.

This is a pity as Jule Styne had written one of his best and bounciest scores with its justly famous overture recently heard at New York City Encores!’ revue, Hey, Look Me Over. Aside from the hit single, “Comes Once in a Lifetime” (which also includes a clever French lyric performed in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at the museum), the score includes Martha’s show-stopping “I Was a Shoo-In,” her account of unfortunate experiences as a beauty queen, and Charlie’s “I Just Can’t Wait (Till I See You With Clothes On)” in which he bemoans that her towel leaves nothing to the imagination. The music is joyously played by music director David Hancock Turner on the York’s recently acquired Steinway piano accompanied by bassist George Farmer.

Karl Josef Co, David Engel, Eric William Morris, Alyse Alan Louis, Kathryn McCreary and Gerry McIntyre in a scene from Jule Styne/Comden & Green’s “Subways Are for Sleeping” (Photo credit: Ben Strothmann)

Among other memorable numbers are the lilting “Ride through the Night,” “Strange Duet,” and the title song. Lovely melodies include “Girls like Me,” “I’m Just Taking My Time,” “Who Knows What Might Have Been,” and the restored “How Can You Describe a Face,” which appears on the original cast album but was cut after the show opened. Tom’s “Swing Your Projects” with its square dance rhythm, “Be A Santa” in which the cast play the melody on hand bells, and the bouncy “What Is This Feeling in the Air?” are also worthy of note. Ironically, the often repetitious lyrics by Comden and Green do not come up to the standard of Styne’s effervescent score.

Tom and Angie are played by husband and wife team Eric William Morris and Alyse Alan Louis. While they give it their all, they cannot overcome their underwritten roles which have few details about their personality. Morris appears to be attempting to channel Jack Lemmon who most likely would have been cast had there been a movie version back in the sixties, while Louis is a more generic heroine. In the role that won Newman her Tony, Gina Milo is delicious as the con-artist in the towel while she is matched in energy by David Josefsberg as Charlie whose life is changed when he comes to know of her financial problem.

Aside from Beth Glover as Angie’s editor, the high-powered Myra Blake, the rest of the cast put in cameo appearances popping up at the various locales that Tom and Angie visit: Gerry McIntyre as an out-of-work artist, Karl Josef Co as the house detective at Martha’s hotel, Kilty Reidy as a Park Avenue doorman, Kathryn McCreary as a museum guard, David Engel as a former top executive. It is to director Ross’ credit that they are so immediately recognizable in their brief appearances in these roles. Completists will want to catch this rare revival of the Styne/Comden & Green show now being seen for the first time in 56 years.

Subways Are for Sleeping (through March 4, 2018)

The York Theatre Company

The Winter 2018 Musicals in Mufti

Celebrating the Legendary Composer Jule Styne

Theatre at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, at 54th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-935-5820 or visit http://www.yorktheatre.org

Running time: one hour and 55 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (497 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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