Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

Encores! Fiorello!
By: Edward Lieberman
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Danny Rutigliano as LaGuardia and cast in a scene from Encores! Fiorello!
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

In 1943, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dedicated the New York City Center as Manhattan’s first performing arts center, saving the then 20-year old building from the wrecking ball. In typical LaGuardia style, at the opening concert he took the baton and conducted the New York Philharmonic performing the National Anthem. In 1994, City Center returned the favor (posthumously) by inaugurating its Encores! series of revivals with a production of Fiorello!, the 1959 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical celebrating the famous mayor that launched the careers of Tom Bosley (as Mayor LaGuardia) and songwriting team, Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics).

In what can only be described as unintentionally ironic timing, the City Center opened its 20th season of Encores! last weekend with another production of Fiorello!, starring Danny Rutigliano as the diminutive three-term mayor of New York. I say ironic because former Mayor Ed Koch died in the midst of the show’s five-day run. Mayor Koch was arguably the only other mayor whose ego and persona came close to that of LaGuardia.

The show, whose book was written by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, was always something of an enigma: although LaGuardia was best known as the most recognizable mayor in America, famously reading the comics to the children of New York over the radio during a newspaper strike, this part of his career is only referred to in the first twenty seconds of the show. It almost immediately flashes back to his early career as a lawyer and congressman, recounting his loss to Jimmy Walker during the height of the Jazz Age that Walker so personified, and ends before his election as mayor. But that quibble aside, the show portrays the music, issues and ethnic politics of a by-gone era with echoes in the present day.

Kate Baldwin as Thea in a scene from Fiorello!
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The story begins with young lawyer LaGuardia, with a waiting room full of poor immigrant clients (“On the Side of the Angels”), taking on the case of the ladies working at the Nifty Shirtwaist Factory, who are striking for equal pay (Lilly Ledbetter, anyone?). After winning the case, he sets his sights on getting the Republican nomination for Congress in a district controlled for generations by the Tammany Hall Democratic organization. His timing is perfect, as the Republican leader (ably played by Broadway veteran Shuler Hensley) and his henchman (listed in the program only as “Political Hacks”) are playing cards and casting about for someone -- preferably living -- to run as their sacrificial lamb (“Politics and Poker”). Of course, LaGuardia mounts a vigorous campaign in his polyglot district, spelling his name in English, Italian and Yiddish (“The Name’s LaGuardia”) and, much to the chagrin of the District Leader, surprises everyone by actually winning (“The Bum Won”)!

In Washington, LaGuardia upsets some of his constituents by vociferously supporting the Draft Act, and is rebuked by a U.S. Senator, played by newcomer Barney Frank (in his one night only Broadway debut), who tells LaGuardia that new congressmen are supposed to be seen, not heard. He soon enlists in the War and departs for Europe (“Till Tomorrow”).

The story turns dark in the second act, depicting the death of LaGuardia’s first wife and his losing campaign against Jimmy Walker (“Gentleman Jimmy”), before ending on a more hopeful note, recounting the ethical lapses of the Walker Administration (“Little Tin Box”), his marriage to his long-suffering secretary, and, of course, hinting at the successful mayoral years to come (he is told “the fun is over; they’ll listen to you now.”)

Barney Frank (former Rep. from Mass.) with Danny Rutigliano in a scene
from Encores! Fiorello!
(Photo credit: Maryann Lopinto)

What made this show so popular (it ran for 795 performances) and successful (tied for Tony Award with Sound of Music, beating out Gypsy; only the third musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama) was the score by Bock and Harnick. Although the show is knocked for not having a standout hit song, the music runs the gamut from a pre-War, see-the-troops-off waltz (“Till Tomorrow”); a patriotic welcome home march (“Home Again”); a Roaring Twenties razz-ma-tazz number (“Gentleman Jimmy”); to the priceless and hilariously satirical take on political corruption, “Little Tin Box.” There is not a clunker among them.

As is usual in Encores! productions, the premium is in the music, with the orchestra featured prominently on stage, under the direction of Rob Berman. Moreover, although Encores! productions are billed as concert versions, this staging continues the recent trend of making them much more, with polished dance numbers, choreographed by Alex Sanchez, and elaborate costumes by consultant Jess Goldstein. Even the cast has become more professional, largely eschewing the ever-present scripts, often relegating them to mere props.

The cast was flawless, as well. Mr. Rutigliano channels LaGuardia, both in stature and his indomitable enthusiasm, and even displays some deft dance moves. Other standout performances were turned in by Adam Heller and Andrew Samonsky as LaGuardia’s long-suffering office assistants; Erin Dilly, as his adoring but overlooked secretary; Kate Baldwin, as LaGuardia’s first wife, who belts the romantic ballad, “When Did I Fall in Love,” out of the park; and Shuler Hensley, as the Republican District Leader, who perfectly portrays the corrupt politicians of the Walker regime in “Little Tin Box.”

Shuler Hensley and his “political hacks” in a scene from Encores! Fiorello!
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

One could not say the same for newcomer Barney Frank, who recently retired after decades in the House of Representatives. If he left politics to become an actor, perhaps he should think again, since he flubbed his only line despite holding it tightly in his hand. Perhaps it was significant that he was playing the role of a U.S. Senator, since one of Massachusetts’ Senate seats just opened up with Sen. Kerry’s elevation to Secretary of State. Does his appearance in that role signify that he is thinking about changing over to the Senate? As a theatergoer, one can only hope that he gives that career move more thought, if only to spare us another cameo.

Yes, this show is dated. But an analysis of the book demonstrates the truism that nothing really changes in politics: the ethnic politics of the early twentieth century portrayed in the show, pitting Italians and Jewish immigrants against the entrenched Irish machine, had echoes in the new influence of Latino voting in the last election. (If LaGuardia were alive today, I bet he’d speak Spanish.) Likewise, the financial corruption of the Walker pols (one, when asked how he was able to purchase a private yacht on a salary of “fifty bucks a week,” explains, “For a month or two I simply gave up smoking, and I put my extra pennies one by one . . . into a Little Tin Box,”) has present day descendants in K-Street and super PAC’s.

One of the great things about Encores! is that it takes forgotten gems and rekindles interest in them, in some cases leading to full-scale revivals (i.e. the recent reincarnation of Finian’s Rainbow). As noted, this show is dated, and a sampling of people outside the theater revealed that few knew who LaGuardia was, other than the fact that the airport is named after him. But the recent election showed that there is a need for shows like Fiorello! showing what is good about our public servants, as well lampooning the foibles of our political system and its practitioners. Perhaps the juxtaposition of this production with the unfortunate death of Mayor Koch was providential; only Koch could lay claim to the mantle of LaGuardia, both in spirit and reputation. I can see it now: Koch, the Musical! – How’m I Doing?

Upcoming New York City Center Encores! productions:

March 20-24: It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman
May 8-12: On Your Toes

Fiorello! (January 30 – February 3, 2013)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 130 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call CityTix® at 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org

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