‘New York, New York’ is a Wow, Manhattanhenge is Here.
Inspired by the titular MGM motion picture written by Earl M. Rauch, the musical New York, New York at the St. James Theatre is an ambitious, updated adaptation from uneven source material. Its spectacular production values guided by the prodigious five-time Tony winner, Susan Stroman, who does double duty with direction and choreography, is set over the course of one year with the four seasons structuring the arc of development in the lives of the characters who want to “be a part of it in old New York,” from the Summer of 1946 through the Summer of 1947. Written by David Thompson, co-written by Sharon Washington with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, New York, New York’s music differs from that featured in the titular 1977 Martin Scorsese film.
The noted exceptions are a few songs like “Happy Endings” and two schazam hits sung by Liza Minnelli in the film. Minnelli was initially associated with “New York, New York,” until Liza told Uncle Frank it was his to sing. Afterward, it became a part of every concert, TV show or gig Sinatra starred in. “But The World Goes ‘Round” is singularly Minnelli’s, though others have picked it up and run with it applying their own versions.
With such song classics, the production doesn’t capitalize on their tonal motifs threading intermittently from Act I to Act II more than just once. Instead, saving the best for last, they explode toward the conclusion. At the end Jimmy Doyle’s band (the real orchestra) rises up from the pit, playing “New York, New York” with bravado and glory. By far, the two songs are the richest, most seismic and memorable of the score. Despite who is singing them, they are a pleasure because of their symbolic associations.
The first is New York City’s anthem played as an encouragement around every dooms day disaster the city experienced in recent memory from the Terrorist Attack of 9/11 to the COVID-19 botch job by the twice-impeached former president, when nightly the city came out to applaud healthcare workers and some played Sinatra recordings of the signature song from their balconies. The other lush beauty about the irrevocability of life’s changing turns, highs and lows, is a classic best remembered for Minnelli’s fabulously impassioned rendition.
These songs, in their own right, are like the North Star. “But the World Goes ‘Round” appears to guide the writers to effect a richer, stirring musical about making it in a tough, unforgiving town which necessitates growing a thick skin because regardless, the world will spin, whether one plays the broken-hearted victim as Jimmy Doyle does initially in Act I, or become the heroes of their own myths as do all the characters who serendipitously meet in a Booking agent’s office, then join Doyle to play in a “tired club” in Act II in a reviving number “San Juan Supper Club.” However, reaching success takes a while.
Specifically, the book meanders as it strikes out into different story-lines of immigrants and ethnics, who come to Manhattan to establish their unique voices and become the stars of tomorrow. Problematically, the music, which should lead in a brassy, bold pop style of the latter forties reimagined, follows without the same consequence and heft of the two signature songs we long to hear that show up in full force by the end. The story lines take wayward side directions, straying away from “the heart of it,” making Act I (17 songs) much longer than necessary to spin the characters’ struggles in New York. The central focus becomes redirected. Eventually, it comes back and the lens crystallizes on salient themes, before flitting away to feature another plot-line.
The centrality, which is supposed to be how Jimmy Doyle’s Major Chord Club and musical group comes together, is delayed by scenes of the violinist from Poland and Mrs. Veltri waiting for her solider son to come home. What is represented is the loss and death from the war, a loss which explains why Doyle drinks, is angry and argumentative with those who could help him. He grieves his talented brother dying, while he, the inferior with “flat feet,” serving unheroically behind a desk, feels guilt as the ghostly shadow of his glorious sibling occludes him.
The impact of grieving New Yorkers out from under a cataclysm of the holocaust, which took violinist Alex Mann’s family and the heroic sons of America’s war dead is important, but diluted in the mix of all that is going on. Doyle, Mann (Oliver Prose) and Mrs. Veltri (Emily Skinner) are meant to carry that theme of loss and grieving as one more aspect of the “city that never sleeps,” but the power fades too fast for the audience to fully appreciate it, as the action springs to another scene and character. This is the nature of the city which acknowledges then moves on with forward momentum.
Not all the story-lines need specific scenes for explication. Some either should have been edited to a stark jabbing point with the songs either pumped up and primed, or eliminated. They seem extraneous, done for the sake of inclusiveness, rather than out of a visceral, organic need driving the characters in their forward momentum. Editing might have slimmed down the excess that sometimes dissolves the production’s vitality. Though the writers moved away from the film’s story, to be inclusive and representative in an update, they do feature the relationship between multi-talented musician Doyle (Colton Ryan really picks it up in Act II) and powerhouse singer Francine Evans (Anna Uzele has the creditable voice).
However, the idea of a New York City, where inclusiveness and freedom, born out of anonymity and size, that also has a down side, is not manifested with unique particularity beyond the concepts of struggle and making it. Only Jimmy Doyle’s character is nuanced and shaded with interest to reveal a convincing transformation that is believable, effected beautifully by Colton Ryan.
Despite these problems with the book, Stroman leaps over them creating terrific moments in representing the lifestyle of New York City street scenes. She materializes a pageantry of perfection in staging the dance numbers with delightful framing assists from Borwitt’s scenic design and Billington’s lighting design. These gloriously drive the production, along with the fabulous projection design by Christopher Ash and Beowulf Boritt, which majestically integrates historical photographic blow-ups with the sets (scaffolding erected to look like apartment buildings). New York City in their vision is a treasure to behold back in the day, as they remind us of how we got from then to now. Of course, the heartbreaking projections of the old Pennsylvania Station torn down in contrast with Grand Central Station which we are eternally grateful for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s crusade to save it, are vital historical references in an ever changing Manhattan.
Stroman choreographs the ensemble with excitement, energy and vibrance. She shepherds the musical’s technical team to strike it hot. They create the atmosphere and stylized beauty of post war New York neighborhoods, synchronizing the scenic design, lighting design and projection design. Along with Donna Zakowska’s stunningly hued costumes pegged to the period, Michael Clifton’s period makeup design, Sabana Majeed’s hair and wig design and Kai Harada’s sound design (I heard every word) these talents manifest Stroman’s concepts of a bustling, charged city hyped up to establish the nation’s new-found prominence after winning WW II in Europe and the Pacific. The city of dreams is once more collecting its dreamers who will sink or swim according to luck and perseverance.
There are many moments in New York, New York I loved. The song “Wine and Peaches,” performed with the ensemble’s tap dance on a foundational iron beam, beautifully set “high in the sky” with the city projected from down below during the ironworkers lunchtime is gobsmacking. It’s a remembrance of the iconic black and white photo of the Empire State Building being erected and ironworkers sitting on the structural beams over 80 + stories up. The song is emblematic of New York City construction workers who are brave, balanced and accustomed to such heights, that they might dance “for the hell of it.” It is also a testament of the tremendous development in the city whose air rights allow buildings to rise taller and taller. Symbolically, visually and musically performed with grace and fun, the number is one of the most memorable and brilliant.
Another moment that is thematically important is the song “Major Chord,” as Jimmy Doyle and friend Tommy Caggiano (Clyde Alves, a fine song and dance man) discuss that “music, money and love” combined in a harmonious chord become what drives a purposeful life for them. In the lead up praise of the city, Tommy’s humorous truism rings clear for New Yorkers when he says, “It’s the greatest social experiment. Everybody lives here and everybody’s natural enemy lives here. And we manage not to kill each other. For the most part.”
To top his comments as New Yorkers are wont to do, Jimmy says, for him, New York City is a “major chord,” and Uzele’s Francine joins in to ask how to find her major chord (music, money, love). Tommy and Jimmy help her find an apartment near Jimmy to start her journey to become a star. Eventually, as fate throws Francine and Jimmy together (more through events he causes) they marry, have ups and downs and reconcile at the “Major Chord,” Jimmy’s successful club which concludes the musical with a resounding and stupendously staged “New York, New York,” sung by Uzele’s Francine.
In Act I, “New York in the Rain” is beautifully sung and staged with colorfully hued umbrellas skipping across the stage, under their own power, and others held by the ensemble who twirl them in uniformity with graceful energy. As Jimmy, Ryan’s “Can You Hear Me?” and “Marry Me,” are appropriately winsome and romantic as Act I concludes with Francine and Jimmy’s relationship sealed in love and marriage.
Act II picks up the forward momentum. Jimmy pushes for his “major chord” in his relationship with Francine, “Along Comes Love” and in the dynamic “San Juan Supper Club” (Ryan, Angel Sigala, John Clay III) which is a rousing, dance number where the musicians we’ve met in Act I come together to form Jimmy’s band which will headline his club Major Chord. In the superb “Quiet Thing,” Ryan’s Doyle shares the preciousness of arriving at his dream, not with great fanfare, but with the inner knowledge of its success, which is the confidence that the dream is the reality. The lyrics and music are Kander and Ebb at their finest, and Ryan delivers a superb, heartfelt slam dunk that any artist can identify with.
As Francine understands that the villain with a smile, Gordon Kendrick (Ben Davis), wants to unrealistically take her, a black woman, out on the road so he can sexually seduce her, Francine affirms what her husband Doyle has told her all along. Kendrick is a hypocritical wolf in a “promoter’s clothing.” She concludes her last song on the radio after Kendrick tells her “she’s finished.” “But the World Goes ‘Round” is Uzele’s home run and Francine’s realization that she must move away from him and join Jimmy at the Major Chord Club.
An incredible and breathtaking encomium to New York City is in one of the final musical numbers “Light” presented by Jesse (John Clay III) and the ensemble. Kudos go to the technical team and Stroman to effect Manhattanhenge through the projections, sets and lighting. It is absolutely magnificent and of course, symbolic that light, love and musical goodness can be in a city that is its own memorial to industry, dreams and aspirations.
Manhattanhenge occurs when the sunset perfectly lines up with the east-west streets on the main street grid in Manhattan. It’s Stonehenge in NYC! Happening twice over a two-day period, on one day you can see the sun in full and on the other day you get a partial view of the sun. Then to encapsulate the “light” in the city that is its own monument, Francine concludes accompanied by Jimmy Doyle’s band with “New York, New York.” And indeed, the show ends in a major chord at Doyle’s Major Chord Club in a beautiful flourish with Uzele singing her heart out as the audience stands with applause dunning the critics who panned the production.
New York, New York is exuberant, complex and bears seeing twice. There is so much happening you’re going to miss something and think the fault is in the production, as I did initially. Stroman is her representative genius. If one goes without expectation, your enjoyment will be immense. Look for the fine performances. Colton Ryan is sensitive and heartfelt especially in Act II and his gradual transformation is exceptional in “Quiet Thing,” and afterward. There’s nothing like knowing one is a success and at home in that confidence. The principals, especially Uzele, Janet Dacal, Ben Davis, Angel Sigala and the others mentioned above have golden voices. All are their own major chords, thanks to the music supervision and arrangements by Sam Davis.
For tickets and times go to the production’s website https://newyorknewyorkbroadway.com/