Fiorello LaGuardia. Mayor of New York City 1934-1945. Took on corruption at Tammany Hall. Had a Broadway musical made about his life. The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Fiorello, originally opened in 1959 at the Broadhurst Theater and closed in 1961 finishing up at The Broadway Theater. It reopened in June 1962 at the New York City Center for a two week run. There were revivals with some production changes in 1994 at the first Encores! series at the New York City Center and again in 2003 at the 20th anniversary of the same series.
As Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater explains, “Even with the changes, Fiorello, a musical about the beloved LaGuardia’s pre-mayoral career and love life, might be close to the perfect musical for the Encores! series, although it is far from the perfect musical. The good match is not just because Fiorello launched the series or because Mayor LaGuardia is the reason why City Center still survives – he saved it from the wrecking ball by turning it into the city’s first performing arts center. (As the Fiorello program explains, with unintentional irony: “The goal was to bring the performing arts to all New Yorkers – at a fraction of Broadway ticket prices.”). Actually, Fiorello is close to the perfect musical for Encores! in part because it is far from the perfect musical — something that wouldn’t really work as a long run on Broadway anymore.”
The original production was directed by George Abbott with choreography by Peter Gennaro. Tom Bosley, of Happy Days fame, originated the title role opposite Howard DaSilva as the Republican machine boss, Ben Marino. The cast featured Ellen Hanley as Thea, Pat Stanley as Dora, Patricia Wilson as Marie, Nathaniel Frey as Morris, and Broadway’s future Superman, Bob Holiday, as Neil.
The story follows the life of Fiorello H. La Guardia during World War I and ten years later. As Mayor of New York City, La Guardia reforms city politics by helping end Tammany Hall’s vaunted political machine.
The musical contains several songs built around a group of machine politicians. In “Politics and Poker”, Republican machine politicians try to pick a congressional candidate in a district they consider hopeless while playing a game of poker and compare politics to poker. The lyric is set to waltz tempo “to underscore the frivolity of their cynicism.” In “The Bum Won”, these same politicians commiserate with one another after LaGuardia has won the election without their support. In “Little Tin Box”, they imagine a series of Tammany politicians attempting to explain to a judge that their wealth came from their scrupulous habits of saving (“I can see Your Honor doesn’t pull his punches/ And it looks a trifle fishy, I’ll admit/ But for one whole week I went without my lunches/ And it mounted up, Your Honor, bit by bit/ Up Your Honor, bit by bit.”)
In “I Love a Cop”, woman factory worker describes her hapless situation of having fallen in love with a policeman who was called out against a strike by her union; “The Name’s La Guardia” has LaGuardia campaigning in English, Italian and Yiddish. There is also a ragtime number, “Gentleman Jimmy” about bon vivant mayor James J. “Jimmy” Walker, and the comic “Marie’s Law”, in which Marie proposes a “law” about how husbands should treat their wives. (“Every girl shall have a honeymoon, which will last at least a year/ During which aforesaid honeymoon, every care shall disappear…”.)
Besides the inevitable invention of some peripheral characters, the musical plays a bit fast and loose with some basic facts of LaGuardia’s life. In fact, LaGuardia’s first wife, Thea, died after only three years of marriage, but the fictional Thea lives another eight years, so that her death can be one more calamity during LaGuardia’s unsuccessful 1929 mayoral campaign; also, the script downplays LaGuardia’s generally successful congressional career to make him seem more of an outsider and increase the triumph of his eventual mayoral victory in 1933.
Even though Fiorello may be a little outdated in terms of the types of characters and issues of that time, the issue of corruption in government and politics is still a relevant topic today especially under the microscope of an election year like this year. It would be quite interesting to see if someone could put a current spin on Fiorello. Maybe–I said MAYBE–if Donald Trump wins the Presidency as an “outsider” and he surprises the masses and cleans up Washington, a musical could be made about his time in office. (Remember that Fiorello opened a short 12 years after he left office, so something like this could be done relatively quickly.) It would be an interesting spin for sure. And if not, it would at least be fun to compare the issues of Fiorello against the current climate of the political landscape albeit at a national level as opposed to the city level. I bet the same underlying circumstances still hold true.