Sunday, November 02, 2008


Just came back from a "community theater" production of this 1959 play about the one-time mayor of New York City. I say "community theater" because the roles were played by equity actors/singers who sing with local opera companies, work at the dinner theater that spawned Oscar nominee Amy Adams. This is not like "Waiting for Guffman."

In 1960, Fiorello! tied with The Sound of Music for Best Musical. The pair of them beat out Gypsy. Yet how often does your high school stage Fiorello!? Never? That's how often I've seen it. Remember that great movie adaptation? Of course you don't, because there wasn't one. Because, really, who else besides New Yorkers could take this play to their hearts?

It's kind of an odd play in these times. The play spans years from 1915 to 1934, all before Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor of New York. There is a brief introduction from Mayor LaGuardia in 1945, but the play ends just as he starts his ultimately successful campaign for mayor in 1933. The bulk of the play builds up to his overwhelming defeat in 1929, where he crawls back to his law offices in a sulk. Only the clandestine efforts of his long-suffering office assistant convince him to run again in 1934. He finally asks her to marry him (she's been "secretly" in love with him for 15 years), and they start out full of hope.

Ostensibly, this is the period where LaGuardia broke up Tammany Hall, but we don't see how it happens. Sure, there is the only memorable song in the play "Little Tin Box," in which pretend Tammany extortion defendants attempt to explain how they saved up to buy their yachts and mansions, despite their low salaries. But how did they end up in court? What did LaGuardia have to do with it? Who knows?

As an exercise in storytelling, Fiorello! assumes the audience has an awful lot of background information about the man, the times, and the political players. Simultaneously, it expects the audience NOT to know that Fiorello was actually a US Congressman from 1922-1933, including during his "disasterous" defeat for Mayor. Based solely on the play, you would think that Fio barely got his toes wet in the Potomac before joining the army, and then returning to NYC, never to leave it again.

Yes, I understand that some things have to be left out when you are talking about a Broadway musical--it isn't really history they are presenting. Even so, the character arc of the play is really odd unless you are fully aware of the real history of the man. You have to know that he was Mayor from 1934-1945, is credited with restoring NYC during the Great Depression, took on major Mafia figures, and voluntarily chose not to run again in 1945. If you don't know that (which I didn't, and certainly have no emotional context for these facts) the play makes no sense.

Here is my summary of the main scenes of the play:

Scene 1--F.H. LaGuardia ("Fio") has a law office where he helps immigrants with legal troubles. He has a staff of 3, although he apparently never gets paid for his work. (This is 1915.)

Scene 2--Fio decides he's going to run for Congress, because of something about Tammany Hall. He helps striking shirtwaist factory workers win a better wage, and he wins the election.

Scene 3--In DC, he insists on the need for a draft and US entry into WWI, and enlists.

Scene 4--He comes home from war, marries one of the shirtwaist factory strikers and runs for Mayor. (Okay, he came home in 1918, ran for mayor in 1929. In the play, this looks like a couple of weeks). Tammany Hall hires ruffians to disrupt a speech, his wife dies, and he loses the election all in one night.

Scene 5--Faithful Marie approaches the Republican machine to help Fio with his new campaign for mayor. The Republicans gloat over the fall of Tammany. (Whaaa? When? How? Who?) Mentor agrees to forgive Fio for ignoring him for the last 3 years (Again--whaaa?) and a judge names Fio as the Republican nominee for mayor--all without Fio's knowledge. Fio decides to accept the nomination, proposes to Marie, the Republican machine smiles, curtain falls.

This raises some questions in a non-New Yorker. Why is the Republican machine any better than the Tammany/Democrat one? Why should we root for this Fiorello, when the only legislation we see him stand for is the draft? (That one certainly plays oddly in the post-Vietnam era, where the army is all volunteer.) He hates "the exploiters" and sides with striking workers, so he becomes a Republican. Again, not so clear in these times. His campaign speeches seem to cast him as the Sesame Street candidate: "The name is L-a-G-u-a-r-d-i-a. . ." Sure, he can spell, but what makes him worth a whole musical?

I think there is a reason you don't see this play mounted very often outside New York. If your previous exposure to LaGuardia was through heinous air travel through his airport. . .a play has to work a WHOLE LOT harder for your empathy.

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