When I visited my oldest daughter in New York in 2004, I’d never heard of “Wonderful Town.” A revival of the 1953 musical, book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Comden and Greene, was playing on Broadway. We went to see it on the strength of the creators. The star of the show was Donna Murphy in the role originally played by Shirley Booth on Broadway in the 1940 play, and Rosalind Russell in the 1942 film, on which the musical was based — My Sister Eileen.
The 1942 film of My Sister Eileen played on TCM last week. Rosalind Russell is a knockout in it. According to Robert Osborne, Bernstein insisted that she reprise her film role in the musical even though she couldn’t sing, and tailored the score to suit her. Comden and Greene’s account of the show on the Bernstein site suggests that Osborne’s story is apocryphal; Russell was already lined up to star in the show when Bernstein agreed to write the score. In that Russell definitely couldn’t sing and that the score accommodated her limitations — as well as the fact that she is hilarious in the film — the story nevertheless has an air of plausibility.
When we went to the show, I was not only unfamiliar with the musical and the sources (stories, book, play, film) on which it was based, I was also unfamiliar with Donna Murphy. I thought the show was a smash and that Donna Murphy oozed star power. She turned in a magnificent performance. Every element of the production was drenched in wit: the staging, the choreography, the costumes, the performances. The show provided an exhilarating theatrical experience.
We saw the show on a Saturday evening, the second of two shows that day. Murphy briefly went up on her lines in Act One’s show-stopping number, “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose A Man.” Murphy even turned her error into a theatrical experience for the audience — “It’s live theater,” she sang, both arms raised — and quickly recovered. The audience went berserk.
The video below shows Murphy performing “Swing” together with the cast. It’s one of the highlights of the show. You don’t want it to end, do you? Luckily, we can watch Russell performing the same number on a kinescope of the 1958 telecast here.