Wonderful Town

I just returned from visiting Little Trunk in New York City. I hadn’t been to New York City in quite a while. My overwhelming impression of Manhattan at street level is that, although it remains an incredibly vibrant setting, most New Yorkers are not putting any effort into improving their appearance through dress, grooming or diet.
We made it to a few of the Broadway shows. We went to see “Wonderful Town,” a revival of the 1953 musical, book by Jerome Chodorov, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Comden and Greene. I’d never heard of the show, but went to it on the strength of the creators. The star of the show is Donna Murphy in the role originally played by Rosalind Russell; I was also unfamiliar with Murphy.
Folks, this show is a smash, and Donna Murphy oozes charisma. She turns in a performance that will become legendary. Every element of the production is drenced in wit: the staging, the choreography, the costumes, the performances. The show provides a complete theatrical experience.
We saw the show on Saturday evening, the second of two shows that day. Murphy briefly went up on her lines in the First Act’s show-stopping number, “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose A Man.” She 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.
On Tuesday we went to the revival of “Fiddler On the Roof,” starring Alfred Molina as Tevye. Unfortunately, Molina was off promoting “Spider Man 2.” Tevye understudy Philip Hoffman filled in for him and performed magnificently.
Two thoughts related to the show and the production. First, “Fiddler” is an indestructible musical that communicates in any version, and I’ve seen it in numerous variations. Seeing a professional production, however, I was struck by the extent to which a lively orchestra and a cast full of powerful singing voices really bring out the emotional power of the songs and the story.
Second, I saw the first “Fiddler” touring company version of the show in Chicago in 1965 or 1966. At the time I took the show’s ethnic particularity for granted as a vehicle for telling the “universal” American story. Now the show’s celebration of the survival of the Jewish people in the face of adversity struck me as making the show a period piece twice over — as the last in the line of classic Broadway musical comedies, and as the culmination of the Jewish moment in American life. It seems inconceivable to me that a new show with such a theme would be mounted today. In any event, don’t miss this version of the show if you have the opportunity to see it.


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