NEW YORK, NEW YORK - LICENSED SONG AS MUSICAL
If one needs any evidence that a beloved pop song can alone be the “raison d’etre” – and the only reason - for a full scale Broadway musical look no further than “New York, New York”. The John Kander (music) and Fred Edd (lyrics) song first appeared in director Martin Scorces’s 1977 romantic musical drama sung by Liza Minnelli. The story takes place in post-WWII New York City: Minnelli plays Francine Evans, an ambitious and talented singer, who falls in love with Jimmy Doyle, a volatile jazz saxophonist. Their individual careers prevail, their marriage does not.
Now almost 45 years after the movie, time - 1946-47, and place - New York City, are the same but Francine (played by the spirited and talented Anna Uzele, formerly a “Six” queen) is Black; Jimmy Doyle (played by Colton Ryan, whose breakthrough role was in “Girl From the North Country’) is still Irish. As in the movie, they marry, and their marriage gets tested. But in happily-ever-after-Broadway-musical-land, the relationship seems to endure despite its problems.
The new book by David Thompson, who’s portfolio is better distinguished by his book for “The Scottsboro Boys and other Kander and Ebb shows like “The World Goes ‘Round” and revised librettos for "Chicago " and "Flora The Red Menace”. In his stage adaptation of “New York, New York”, Thompson has given Doyle a melting pot of ethnic, working-class New York friends, most of whom claim some measure of immigrant background. Thus Scorcese’s homage to the Hollywood musical and fable of show biz egos morphs here into a very uninspired musical about conventional American myths of equality and opportunity. Oddly, too, the the interracial marriage of Francine and Jimmy has less consequence to the characters in this musical than it would have to a real interracial couple even in a non-Southern metropolis like New York City in the late 40s.
No matter. The real asset of “New York, New York’ is the Kander and Ebb canon, individual songs of which have been integrated into Thompson’s book, along with some unmemorable, new numbers. (Lin Manuel Miranda is credited with new lyrics for Kander’s new songs; Ebb died in 2004.) Among the most appealing numbers is Jimmy’s “A Quiet Thing”, an elegiac melody from “Flora the Red Menace '' that Colton hauntingly begins a capella. Uzele’s big voice is perfect for the big song, “And the World Goes “Round” (first performed in the movie, New York, New York" as “But the World Goes Round.”)
Other than the finale, the show-stopping ensemble number is “Wine and Peaches”. As steelworkers, the ensemble performs a tap number on girders framing a skyscraper high above Manhattan streets. The scenery which is lowered in from the fly and moved in from the wings is a breathtaking craftsmanship from scenic designer Beowulf Boritt who received this year's Tony Award for his work here. The tap on the narrow beams is amazing, too, all of it choreographed and directed by multiple Tony award winner Susan Stroman. In other parts of the show, though, Stroman’s choreography seems peculiar, or irrelevant to the story, like elaborate dance maneuvers involving umbrellas in the rain or shovels in a snowstorm. Plainly annoying is Stroman’s constant parading of pedestrian New Yorkers in all manner of period costume back and forth across theri stage to effect streetscapes - everyone from firemen to nurses, from nuns to even a Superman.
All this leads, exhaustingly, finally, to the performance of the title song, which has been teased with a few bars , riffs or orchestral references here and there throughout the score The number is brilliantly staged, using a surprise scenic device (another reason for Borrit’s Tony Award). Now part of the American songbook, the tune, which was appropriated from Minnelli by Frank Sinatra as his signature song, means as much to New Yorkers as does the "Star-Spangled Banner" to patriotic Americans in the heartland. The song’s a great big band number: Colton as Jimmy leads his orchestra to it with swagger, and Uzele as Francine delivers it with the big voice and the star power it deserves. The Broadway audience estatically sings along; they got what they came for, which is about the only thing “New York, New York’ , the stage musical, is about.