Remembering Wonderful Town
Leonard Bernstein’s career writing for the American Musical Theatre was an intermittent one, with other things on his plate as a classical composer, conductor and pianist holding equal weight among his interests. However, it was as a musical theatre composer that we best remember him. Bernstein had a knack for conveying the world of New York City through his theatre music, the hustle and bustle of the city and the adventure (and occasionally turmoil) to be found therein. Three of his musicals, On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and West Side Story (1957) each capture a different aspect of New York City at a different time and place during the first half of the twentieth century. Today, I am taking a look at Wonderful Town.
Wonderful Town draws its inspiration from the 1940 play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, itself an adaptation of a series of autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney that appeared in The New Yorker. Set in 1935, the story centers on two sisters from Ohio, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, who venture to New York City’s Greenwich Village to find careers and independence. In a basement apartment, they soon find themselves tackling the challenges of acclimating to Manhattan, even as constant explosions in the neighborhood from the blasting for the new subway system keep them on edge.
Wonderful Town is largely episodic in nature, a collage of Ruth and Eileen’s experiences with work and romance in the Big Apple. Ruth finds work as a reporter and is sent on some hilariously ridiculous assignments and Eileen, who is attractive and seems to invite the attention of every man she meets, begins juggling a series of interested men. Conflict arises when Ruth and Eileen both find themselves attracted to the same man, Bob Baker, Ruth’s editor at the magazine. Of course, everything works out in the end.
Wonderful Town is a valentine to New York City adventure and a tribute those who have the gumption to make a life there. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had collaborated with Bernstein on On the Town, would also write the lyrics for Wonderful Town. Among the songs that stand out in a sublimely memorable score are the lament “Ohio,” the enchanting “A Little Bit in Love,” the show-stopping “One Hundred Easy Ways,” the out-of-control “Conga,” the gentle “A Quiet Girl,” and the airy “It’s Love.” Fields and Chodorov served as the book writers, adapting their play for the musical stage. George Abbott directed the show, with Donald Saddler providing the choreography.
The musical also created a star opportunity for Rosalind Russell who won a Tony Award playing Ruth. Edie Adams played Eileen, and George Gaynes played Bob Baker. Wonderful Town also won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Conductor and Musical Director, and Best Scenic Design. It ran for 559 performances. During the run, Carol Channing took over for Russell. In 1958, the musical was filmed for television with Russell reprising her role and Jackie McKeever and Sydney Chaplin rounding out the cast.
Wonderful Town, despite its Broadway success, never received a feature film version. This most likely had to do with the fact that Columbia Pictures made a film musical adaptation of My Sister Eileenin 1955 with a score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin (the team who wrote the score for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) starring Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh. Bob Fosse choreographed the film and Richard Quine and Blake Edwards wrote the screenplay.
Revivals of Wonderful Town have been plentiful. New York City Center revived the show three times between 1958 and 1966. In 2003, Wonderful Town received a full-scale Broadway revival starring Donna Murphy. That production found its genesis with the City Center’s Encores! series and was such a hit, it was moved to Broadway where it was nominated for Best Revival and won a Tony Award for Kathleen Marshall’s inspired choreography.