Walter Bagehot, “Mr. Gladstone”
Archives for June 2016
In today’s Wall Street Journal I review a Massachusetts revival of Fiorello! Here’s an excerpt.
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What makes a musical revivable? The mere fact that it was a hit on Broadway once upon a time is no guarantee that anyone will care to see it a half-century later. Nor is the quality of the score necessarily relevant, since the caravan of pop-music taste long ago moved on from the traditional golden-age style of songwriting. To be sure, it still seems to help if a show is full of standards—but how many people under the age of 40 can whistle even one of the tunes from “Show Boat” or “South Pacific” today?
All in all, it’s a bit of a mystery why certain musicals continue to be performed while others vanish in the weeds. That’s what sent me up to Massachusetts to catch a rare revival of “Fiorello!” Not only did this 1959 show run for two years on Broadway, but it won a Pulitzer Prize, a distinction that it shares with such distinguished musicals of the past as “Of Thee I Sing,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and, more recently, “Hamilton.” Moreover, the score is by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who went on to write “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and the show has received not one but two City Center “Encores!” concert presentations, in 1994 and 2013. Yet scarcely anybody stages “Fiorello!” nowadays, and few latter-day theatergoers have heard of it. So why did it drop out of sight? Now that I’ve finally seen “Fiorello!” in a fully staged version, I’m confounded by its obscurity, for it turns out to be a charmer, lively and heartfelt and full of spectacularly well-crafted songs. What’s more, its subject—political corruption—is perennially up to date. On top of all this, the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production, directed by Bob Moss, is a Fourth of July firecracker, crisply staged and soundly performed by a young but promising cast.
If “Fiorello!” fails to make it back to Broadway, the reason will surely be that no one cares to take a chance on a musical about a long-dead mayor whose sole claim to contemporary fame is that LaGuardia Airport is named after him. But in 1959, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, who had died just 12 years earlier, was still very much a living memory in New York, the beloved three-term mayor who ran as a reform Republican but governed as a staunch progressive…
Today few Americans are inclined to idealize any politician, much less sing show tunes about him, and the title character of “Fiorello!” (played by Austin Lombardi) is a workaholic hero who spouts starry-eyed slogans (“Let’s fix the wagon/Of this gold-hungry dragon!”) that have a somewhat implausible air. But the ballads, especially “When Did I Fall in Love?” and “Till Tomorrow,” are lovely, and “Fiorello!” also sports a rousingly cynical comic ensemble song, “Little Tin Box,” in which a gaggle of political hacks (led by Rylan Morsbach) envision themselves telling a judge that they became rich not by taking bribes but by squirreling away their lunch money…
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Read the whole thing here.
Newsreel footage of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia reading “Dick Tracy” on WNYC. LaGuardia read the the funny pages out loud on radio during a 1945 newspaper strike. He is seen doing so in the opening scene of Fiorello!:
Howard Da Silva sings “Little Tin Box,” from Fiorello! This performance was originally telecast on HBO in 1980. Da Silva sang the song in the original 1959 Broadway production:
“It was extraordinary how fond she had become of this man, thought Mrs. Pollifax, and she reflected upon how few persons there were with whom she felt an instinctive rapport. There was never anything tangible about this. It was composed of humor, attitude, spirit—all invisible—and it made words completely unnecessary between them.”
Dorothy Gilman, The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax (courtesy of Mrs. T)
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
• An American in Paris (musical, G, too complex for small children, reviewed here)
• The Color Purple (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
• Fully Committed (comedy, PG-13, extended through July 31, reviewed here)
• Fun Home (serious musical, PG-13, closes Sept. 10, reviewed here)
• Hamilton (musical, PG-13, Broadway transfer of off-Broadway production, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Matilda (musical, G, closes Jan. 1, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, closes Sept. 4, reviewed here)
• On Your Feet! (jukebox musical, G, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Sense & Sensibility (serious romantic comedy, G, remounting of 2014 off-Broadway production, closes Oct. 2, original production reviewed here)
CLOSING SOON IN CAMBRIDGE, MASS.:
• Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, PG-13, two different stagings of the same play performed by the same cast in rotating repertory, closes July 10, original production reviewed here)
CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
• Confusions (five one-act comedies, PG-13, not suitable for children, closes July 3, reviewed here)
• Hero’s Welcome (serious comedy, PG-13, not suitable for children, closes July 2, reviewed here)
Joseph Epstein, “It’s Only a Hobby,” The Weekly Standard, June 30, 2008 (courtesy of Patrick Kurp)
Le Grand Cirque Calder 1927, a 1955 film directed by Jean Painlevé, in which Alexander Calder demonstrates the workings of the miniature circus that he constructed in 1927. It is now part of the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art:
(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday)
“ It’s risky business to speak for the dead. In the terrible case of Dmitri Shostakovich, the temptation is strong, because history, in the form of Stalin, didn’t allow the composer to speak for himself. Of course, there’s the music, but music is reticent about meaning—like a therapist, it prefers you draw your own conclusions.”
Jeremy Denk, review of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time (New York Times Book Review, May 9, 2016)
Nobody walks anywhere in a small town, except maybe next door or across the street. When I told my mother I was going to walk downtown to buy a belt, she boggled. It took me a good ten minutes to persuade her that I wasn’t kidding, and another five to talk her out of driving downtown to pick me up after I’d made my purchase.
It’s been years since I last took a long walk in Smalltown, U.S.A. Much has changed since then, though mostly only on the surface. I walked across a couple of dusty, weedy vacant lots that once held stores at which I shopped when young, and I saw quite a few buildings that had changed virtually beyond recognition in the thirty-two years since I went off to college. One of them used to be a fire station, the same one I visited on a first-grade field trip. Now it’s a schoolhouse, an Adult Basic Education Center. I wonder if the fire pole is still there….
Read the whole thing here.
“This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
V.S. Naipaul, “Our Universal Civilization”
Ivy Compton-Burnett admitted in old age that she could no longer read the novels of Jane Austen, which she loved, because she knew them so well that they could no longer hold her attention. Much the same thing happened to me with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: I read them so often as a boy that I lost the ability to enjoy them in adulthood. Even so, the Holmes stories are still very much a part of the common stock of literary reference on which I draw in writing and conversation. Hence it was a source of great vexation in recent months that I found it impossible to trace to its original source a remark by Holmes that I remembered—or, as it turned out, misremembered—as follows: “I shall watch your future career with great interest.”
I was certain beyond the slightest possibility of doubt that Holmes had said something like that, for I was no less certain that it was also a favorite phrase of Bertie Wooster, whose conversation is studded with quotations from the books and stories that P.G. Wodehouse read as a boy, among which the published cases of Sherlock Holmes figure prominently. But I couldn’t trace the remark to anything that Conan Doyle or Wodehouse had written, try though I might, and the more I tried to find it via Google, the more frustrated I became.
Over the weekend it finally occurred to me to do what I should have done long ago, which was to ask Mrs. T, who is, like me, an ardent Wodehouse fan of long standing. No sooner did I ask her than her face lit up brightly with the realization that she knew something I didn’t. “I think you’ve got it wrong,” she said with uncontained glee. “It’s not great, it’s considerable.” And sure enough, it was: a quick search on Google told me that Bertie says “I shall watch your future progress with considerable interest” in Joy in the Morning and The Mating Season, in addition to which the same sentence is said to Bertie by another character in one of the stories collected in Very Good, Jeeves!
The problem, as I should have realized all along, is that Bertie was a notorious quotation-bungler, making it unlikely in the extreme that he would have cited Holmes exactly. So I took to Twitter and asked for help, and within a few minutes two of my followers had pointed me to two stories by Conan Doyle that, between them, are clearly the source of the “quotation.”
The first story is “The Adventure of the Three Students,” collected in 1905 in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which ends as follows:
Well, Soames, I think we have cleared your little problem up, and our breakfast awaits us at home. Come, Watson! As to you, sir, I trust that a bright future awaits you in Rhodesia. For once you have fallen low. Let us see, in the future, how high you can rise.
The second story is “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” collected in 1917 in His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes signs off with this capper: “If our ex-missionary friends escape the clutches of Lestrade, I shall expect to hear of some brilliant incidents in their future career.”
It’s easy enough in retrospect to see how Bertie, whom even the ever-faithful Jeeves unhesitatingly described as “mentally negligible,” might well have managed to conflate these two quotations. His mind—such as it was—worked that way. Had I continued searching on my own, though, I very much doubt that I would ever have managed to track them down to their primary sources. Such being the case, I humbly thank Mrs. T, David Hines, and David Mackinder for pointing me in all the right directions.
I feel much better now, thanks.