Broadway Blip: New Girl in Town
In the mid 1950s, composer-lyricist Bob Merrill found himself writing musicals for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at a time when the studio was just beginning to phase out the whole genre. The times were changing and the big-budget Hollywood musical was no longer the box office draw it had once been. A new sensibility was creeping into film that demanded tighter, smaller productions that were less expensive to produce. America was also changing. The children of the World War II vets were growing up, contemporary music was evolving, and soon rock & roll would be taking over the radio landscape. This new generation wanted Chuck Berry, Elvis and before long, The Beatles. Families were divided on entertainment. Musical films and the music generated by musicals grew more and more passé, a victim of the generation gap. This certainly took its toll on film musicals. After a few final crowning achievements with Gigi and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, by the middle of the 60s, MGM had halted production on musicals altogether.
Merrill found himself in an unfortunate predicament. He had begun work on three musicals for MGM: one inspired by the dark Eugene O’Neill play Anna Christie, one adapted from O’Neill’s lighthearted comedy Ah, Wilderness! and one based on the popular MGM non-musical film Lili. Since none of these three properties were given the green light for production during those last golden days of the MGM musical era, Merrill was left with nothing but his ideas, his passion for them, and a Hollywood that was no longer looking for musicals. He had to create a new plan and he turned his eyes to the east where there was a place where people who wrote musicals could still make a living.
Hollywood’s loss turned out to be Broadway’s gain as Bob Merrill would take these three aborted MGM projects to New York City and re-envision them for the musical stage. The film musical may have been on the decline, but in the late 50s, the Broadway musical was still thriving with huge hits and critical successes like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, West Side Story and Bells Are Ringing bringing audiences in in droves. This would be the perfect landscape for Merrill to reshape and hone his skills, exercising them toward writing for the stage. It would be during the next seven years that he would reach the pinnacle of his varied and long career, providing music and/or lyrics for several Broadway hits and serving as a show doctor on another. It was on Broadway where the true artistry and whimsy of Bob Merrill was given fertile ground to take root and grow.
If one were to read Eugene O’Neill’s four-act play Anna Christie, they would immediately be struck by how harsh and gloomy it is in both subject and tone. Set in 1910, the story is that of a former prostitute (Anna) who comes to New York City to find the father (Old Chris) she hasn’t seen since she was five years old and living in Sweden. At a bar that caters to sailors, father and daughter reunite. In an effort to turn her life around, Anna agrees to join her father on his coal barge where the balance of the play takes place. Old Chris and Anna rescue a handful of shipwrecked sailors, one of them (Mat) Anna dislikes, but over time she falls in love with him. Old Chris is not happy about this and refuses to allow the couple to marry. Confrontations abound as Old Chris forbids Anna to marry any sailor, let alone Mat. Anna reveals she was raped in her father’s absence while living with her mother’s relatives, something that has created an icy wall between father and daughter. Mat is unhappy to find out about his fiancée’s career in prostitution. Eventually, Anna forgives Old Chris for being absentee from her life. He consents to let her marry Mat, and Mat forgives her being a prostitute as long as she promises to give it up for good. Chris and Mat depart for South Africa as part of a crew on the same ship, but they assure Anna that they will both return to her when their obligation is complete.
Anna Christie won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and it is a popular title in the repertory of American Theatre. It was a daring play in its day, dealing with powerfully charged and taboo subjects such as abandonment, rape, and prostitution and doing so without tip-toeing around them. It’s ending is somewhat ambiguous, leaving the audience hopeful for the main characters, but making no guarantee of a happily-ever-after. The dialogue is written and performed with thick Swedish accents that evoke a coldness that is in step with the temperature of the characters’ Scandinavian origins. The play’s locales are not warm: a dilapidated bar and a coal barge hardly stir up feelings of a Rodgers and Hammerstein clambake or a Lerner and Loewe embassy ball. In fact, everything about the play gives the impression of a dustiness and dinginess that is a metaphor for the cobwebbed recesses of the mind where we lock away bad memories and pain. Outside of a love-against-all-odds subplot, there is very little about Anna Christie that suggests it would make a successful musical comedy.
Bob Merrill was never someone to look at a prospective project and tally up what wouldn’t work. In fact, Merrill excelled at finding silver linings and glimmers of hope in the murkiest of places, taking the impossible and making it plausible. If ever there was a distinct mark of the Merrill style, it was in his ability to tell dark, often troubling, stories, embrace the shadows therein, and parlay them into the motivators that propel characters into that fantastic realm of hope and possibility; a place where the illusion of happiness keeps the sad and the lonely moving forward against all odds. It is a very elegant and poetic way to look at humanity and capture it in song. He celebrates and elevates the survivor to the place of supreme champion and reality-defying magician. Darkness is only a matter of perspective and, in Merrill’s mind, the survivor isn’t afraid to walk through the storm, but additionally, the survivor requires the contrast of the clouds to see the sunlight. It is in this way of thinking that he could find a way to take a play like Anna Christie and envision it as a musical comedy.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would never have allowed for a film musical adaptation of Anna Christie without some major revisions to (and rethinking of) the plot. It was in the early stages that Bob Merrill had to attack the project gingerly, finding places to sanitize the final product in the MGM fashion. It was by necessity that he would have to create and invent in the style of brightening the darkness, if only to appease a studio that was famous for and insistent upon its happy endings. It turns out, however, that the challenges of the project helped to reveal his unique style. When MGM passed on the film musical of Anna Christie, an undaunted Merrill summoned his own silver lining and went to New York City where the rejected, rechristened New Girl in Town, was reworked for a Broadway opening.
George Abbott, Broadway director and librettist extraordinaire, was brought onboard to write the book for and direct New Girl in Town and Bob Merrill would continue to write and rewrite music for the score. With Hollywood out of the picture and Broadway far more progressive in tackling controversial themes, the authors would be more at liberty to stick to the subject matter of O’Neill’s play. This is by no means meant to indicate that New Girl in Town would be a direct musicalization of Anna Christie. Unfettered now, as they were, the creators, along with choreographer Bob Fosse, would find their own tone for New Girl in Town, something that can best be described as a hybrid of the original play and what was most-likely intended for MGM. Though it was treated like a musical comedy with many of the conventions of the genre interspersed throughout, much of the heaviness of the plot remained and a secondary character was fleshed-out into a secondary female lead, drawing some focus away from Anna.
The out-of-town tryout led to some changes to New Girl in Town, especially one major alteration regarding dance. Choreographer Bob Fosse was incensed that his “Cathouse Ballet” was cut at the discretion of Director George Abbott. Set in a brothel, and not shying away from artfully depicting the depravity and salaciousness one finds in such places, audiences were made uncomfortable and it was decided it sould be excised. The scenery from the ballet was burned in an effort to keep the sequence from being easily reinstated (though Fosse saw that it was after the production opened in New York). As was usually the case where Fosse was concerned, the choreography was well-regarded and his muse Gwen Verdon danced it beautifully, the ballet arguably didn’t do much to help tell the story. If anything, it glorified a memory of Anna’s that she was trying to run away from and didn’t do much to further the plot.
New Girl in Town opened at the 46th Street Theatre on May 4, 1957 to mostly positive, if not necessarily ecstatic, reviews. This was also the season where The Music Man and West Side Story premiered and New Girl in Town did not enjoy the popularity of the former or the artistic prowess of the latter. It didn’t help that it opened right after the Tony Awards in 1957 and had to wait almost a year before it could be considered for nominations. By then, its newness had worn out. In 1958, it did receive Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor, and Best Director, and, in a surprising turn of events, Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter, who were both in the running for Best Actress, tied as dual winners for New Girl in Town. Just a little over a month after the Tony ceremony, New Girl in Town closed on May 24, 1958 after a solid (if lackluster) run of 431 performances. The musical was given an original cast recording on RCA Victor Records.
The shelf life of New Girl in Town has not been an enduring one. In fact, after the original production, the musical never received a Broadway revival (though Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre gave it one in 2012). The songs didn’t catch on with singing artists like those from the other big musicals of the day, though “Flings” received a handful of recordings including those by Carol Burnett and Martha Raye. What it did achieve was that it brought Bob Merrill back to New York City where he would, over his next few shows, evolve into one of the most sought after composers and lyricists of the next decade.