Stephen Sondheim ruined musicals like Fiorello! In its day, it was the talk of Broadway, co-winning (with The Sound of Music) the Tony Award in 1960, and nabbing the Pulitzer Prize as well. Produced by Robert Griffith and Harold Prince, it was another feather in the cap for director and co-author George Abbott (writing with Jerome Weidman), and an early hit for Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), preceding She Loves Me (first produced in 1963) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964). It ran a respectable two years on Broadway. Then, outside of concert performances, it disappeared from New York’s stages.
In a year that brought well-received revivals of She Loves Me and Fiddler back to Broadway, we have, for a limited time, an Off-Broadway return for Fiorello! Playing not far from where Tammany Hall once bedeviled the city’s beloved “Little Flower,” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the first full production New York has seen since the Eisenhower era reveals a show abloom with delightful songs. Warmly received by an audience old enough to have voted for LaGuardia, they also captivated younger viewers who know his name more from an airport and a performing arts high school.
But the songs have aged better than the show, the sort of optimistic, can-do musical – light on psychology, complexity and dark humor – that Sondheim and his acolytes would soon render passé. (Maybe they’d find more to work with in the story of LaGuardia’s sister, Gemma, said to be the only American-born woman interned in a Nazi concentration camp.) Fiorello! is packed with issues – women shirtwaist strikes, ethnicity (he was half-Italian and half-Jewish), corruption, World War I, the threat of political assassination. These are dealt with one per song, or one per scene, and prove no match for LaGuardia’s grit and gumption as the book barely pauses to consider the Republican’s years in Congress and moves on to the next obstacle in his path toward his legendary mayoralty. About that: the show, produced 15 years after his death, ends just as he assumes office, leaving contemporary audiences in the dark about his achievements, other than taking to the airwaves to read the funny pages to kids during a newspaper strike. Hamilton it’s not.
Fiorello!’s chief asset was its Tony-winning star, Tom Bosley, a dead ringer for LaGuardia. This modestly staged and well-intentioned remounting, from the Berkshire Theatre Group and directed by Bob Moss, is underpowered. Its lead, Austin Scott Lombardi, is more of a James Franco type, suitable for something like Newsies but an unsatisfactory anchor. There are long stretches when the book sidelines LaGuardia, requiring a supporting cast of pols and dolls that can pick up the slack to illuminate his wheeling dealing and his relationships with his first and second wives. They don’t.
Still – those songs. “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box” are classics about the electoral machine, “Till Tomorrow” and “Home Again” beauties about the women in his life, “I Love a Cop” a sweet charm song for two supporting characters. Despite a deficient showcase, hearing these and more in context is a rare treat, and the idealized past of Fiorello! provides temporary shelter from our own wretched election season.