Congratulations to Patrick Casey for getting the correct answer first!
On April 18, 1903, The Souls of Black Folk by pillar of Harlem society W.E.B. DuBois was published. A seminal work of both African-American literature and American sociology, DuBois’ collection of essays dealt with issues of racism, politics, history, and education. It helped to pave the way for social movements that would follow, both in Harlem and elsewhere.
On April 16, 1633, Wouter Van Twiller arrived in New Amsterdam to take over the governorship. Though ostensibly appointed because he had made two previous voyages to the colony and was familiar with its conditions, it is widely believed that Van Twiller’s appointment was mostly due to the influence of his uncle, Kilian Van Rensselaer, one of the founding directors of the Dutch West India Company. Beneficiary of nepotism or not, Van Twiller proved an excellent businessman, increasing fur trade with the natives and amassing a good fortune for himself and for the company. He was not, however, a good politician, and infamously lost Connecticut to the English, only a year after the Dutch had purchased it. This led to complaints from his advisors and directors and he was removed from office in 1638.
On the Town
Written during the height of World War II, when three sailors meeting the loves of their lives only to then return to their ship was an ending more fraught with worry than it would be today, Leonard Bernstein’s comic opera (adapted from his ballet) benefitted enormously from Comden & Green’s collaboration. The exuberant “New York, New York”, the mournful “Lonely Town”, and the jovial “Come Up to My Place” take us on a tour of the Big Apple that stretches from the American Museum of Natural History to Coney Island. Filmed by Stanley Donen in 1949 and revived on Broadway in 2014, this jaunt through the turnstiles of the city’s subways and the halls of its cultural institutions has reminded eight decades worth of audiences that “the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down”.
Like the city in which it is set, Jerry Herman’s masterpiece is a work of reinvention. Adapted from a Thornton Wilder farce, in turn adapted from an older European play, this musical’s title character has been a feather in the cap of many of musical theatre’s greatest stars: Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler, and most recently Bernadette Peters. Recognizing New York City as “a slick town… where the lights are bright as the stars”, we are treated to a turn-of-the-century metropolis of grand hats, grand parades, and grand restaurants (the last of these based on Luchow’s, the late and legendary dining palace underneath “the lights of 14th Street”). The show’s 10 Tony Awards held the record for 37 years.
Based on a flop movie, this hit musical recouped its $5-million investment in only seven months, the fastest Disney show on Broadway ever to turn a profit. Inspired by the 1899 newsboy strike against Joseph Pulitzer, the show revels in period Gotham settings, from the New York World offices, to flophouses, to Bowery theatres, to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Composer Alan Menken won the Tony Award for Best Original Score, with iconic songs such as “King of New York” and “Seize the Day”. But the best references to the city’s imprint on the characters’ identity comes in the rousing “Brooklyn’s Here”, reflecting the local pride of the city’s most populous borough, as the strike grows and the newsboys’ band together in their mutual interests: “We are the boys from the beaches of Brighton, Prospect Park and the Navy Yard pier. Strikes ain’t fun but they sure is excitin’. Loud and clear – Brooklyn’s here!”
When show business takes a look at itself, it can be unflinching or glorious. In this case, it is definitely the latter—a splendid confection of a tale about a big tap show from the audition process to opening night. Based on the Busby Berkely film about the Depression-era performers, at a time when the subject was contemporary, the now nostalgic 1980 extravaganza was the final project of director Gower Champion, who died on the morning of the first performance. The title song is only one of many to feature references that revel in the city details. Others include “The Lullaby of Broadway” and “About a Quarter to Nine”. The show borrows songs from other Berkely films to make a hodgepodge score, also featuring “We’re in the Money” and “Go Into Your Dance”. After winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, it ran another nine years and is currently the 14th longest running show in Broadway history.
Nothing is more intrinsic to New York than Broadway Theatre. And within that world, the musical is the most widely and deeply loved form of entertainment. This year, Beautiful New York has chosen to forego the extravagant lists of 50 or 100 gems at a time, and we have returned to our original vision of a top 10 list. Because of this, there are many great musicals in which the city plays an irreplaceable part, becoming a character in the show as well as just a setting, that simply could not make the cut. If another list were presented including Annie, Bells Are Ringing, A Chorus Line, Company, Funny Girl, The Goodbye Girl, Hamilton, Hair, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Life, Mame, My Favorite Year, The Producers, Ragtime, or Thoroughly Modern Millie, we wouldn’t put up much of an argument. But, with all respect to those wonderful honorable mentions, we here begin the list of our choices for the top 10 greatest NYC musicals. As always, we will reveal one per day, beginning with #10.
The first major success from collaborators Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (who would later go on to write Fiddler on the Roof), this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of New York’s most famous and best loved mayor Fiorello LaGuardia immerses us in the machinations of city politics in the waning days of Tammany Hall. Tom Bosley won a Tony Award for his portrayal of “the Little Flower” who appealed to a diverse voting base by campaigning in English, Italian, and Yiddish. Police officers, union leaders, and legal clerks all get their moment. But the show comes most to life during the comic ensembles led by Howard DaSilva as the boss of the Republican political machine. Songs like “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box” hit the funny bone and remind us how little has changed since LaGuardia’s day.