Encores’ revival of Fiorello!, like Proust’s Madeleine, took me back to the time I dined with Howard DaSilva. The venerable character actor had once starred in a TV series my father produced; this was a meal with our family. I only recall he was jovial and funny, and it felt like I was sitting next to Benjamin Franklin himself, for that was his most famous role. I later learned DaSilva’s career in musicals involved key roles in important musicals in four different decades. A remarkable feat – even more incredible when you consider he didn’t possess a particularly mellifluous singing voice. As I often tell young musical theatre aspirants, It’s not about the voice.
In the 1930s, DaSilva played the lead in one of the era’s most extraordinary productions, The Cradle Will Rock. Marc Blitzstein wrote book, music and lyrics, with John Houseman producing for the Federal Theatre, Orson Welles directing and Lehman Engel conducting. Since this was a government-supported production, and Blitzstein’s incendiary pro-union/anti-plutocrat text was, to say the least, controversial, the cast and audience arrived on opening night to find their theatre padlocked. Not to be denied, they all marched up Seventh Avenue and filed into an empty theatre. Blitzstein sat at the piano, and the actors performed from seats in the audience, since their union wouldn’t allow them to appear on stage. Quite a night, that, but DaSilva had a more revolutionary role ahead of him.
For in 1943, Oklahoma! changed practically everything about how musicals were written, and DaSilva played the heavy, Jud Fry. Some other time I’ll outline how the show permanently altered the genre, but it’s DaSilva’s most famous roles of the 1950s and 1960s that provide an interesting comparison. In 1959 came Fiorello!, an unusual-for-its-time biographical show; it won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1969 came the revolutionary show about a revolution, 1776, and folks I know are still shocked it didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize.
Both Fiorello! and 1776 tell bits of history the audience was already familiar with, raising the question: How can you keep an audience wondering what’s going to happen next when the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen?
Peter Stone’s much-heralded book for 1776 uses ample humor – most coming from Benjamin Franklin – and a focus on the intricate details of founding a nation. We see the days ticking off on a wall calendar: as July 4 approaches, the odds still seem insurmountable. The machinations of politics involve getting one Virginian to introduce a resolution and another to write up a declaration. And the central dramatic issue becomes the one that would rip the nation apart four score and seven years hence, whether to abolish slavery. Watching it, we get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of the process, each step along the way is fraught with tension: the birth process of our nation wasn’t easy, and we sympathize with the founder’s struggles even though we know how it all turned out.
Fiorello! was fashioned for an audience which knew Fiorello H. LaGuardia well. He left office a mere fourteen years before the show opened. The book is by Jerome Weidman and the show’s director, George Abbott, the premiere shaper of traditional musicals (Call Me Madam, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees). Abbott knew more than anyone, perhaps, the value of pacing and the modulations of tone. What Fiorello! has in spades is emotion: we feel for the long-suffering secretary, the long-suffering right-hand man, the political boss DaSilva played and a brave comic character who loves a crooked cop. Sure, we see LaGuardia grab rungs up the political ladder, but the show keeps coming back to relatable emotional touchstones. It’s never wonky, and the amazing score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is allowed to shine.
But here’s the odd thing: LaGuardia himself is not given much time to shine. He has very few songs, and, as he confesses late in the show, he has trouble expressing himself when it comes to romance. It’s a biography in which we get to know the subject largely through the eyes of others. He sings very little, but he’s sung of often.
So many biographical entertainments are hagiography, designed to convince the viewer that the subject is some sort of a superman. The authors of Fiorello! knew better than to do that, because they correctly judged that their audience already believed LaGuardia was a superman. After all, he’d cleaned big old bad old New York City of the evil Machine known as Tammany Hall.
But this brings us to why this brilliant musical can’t be produced today. You tell people nowadays you’re going to a show about LaGuardia and they say “The airport?” Unlike the audience of 54 years ago, people today are unaware of urban political Machines, how corrupt they were, and what it was like to be a citizen under their rule. The primary victory of LaGuardia’s life, putting an end to the Tammany Machine, is unknown today to people who weren’t history majors. And the musical doesn’t depict it. After a brief framing device, the entire show depicts years before LaGuardia became mayor. Weidman and Abbott didn’t have to restate what the audience already knew. So they didn’t. And today people don’t know the essential facts required to understand a Tony-winning musical’s plot.
In my musical, Such Good Friends, I dealt with the scoundrel time, the mid-century persecution and blacklisting of suspected Communists in the entertainment industry. I had to keep an eye on what my audience knew about the subject, and what they didn’t. Like 1776 and Fiorello!, I used an ample amount of humor: It’s about funny people trying to go about the funny business of putting a comedy variety show on the air in the early days of television. The inevitable tragedy of what Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt did to old friends is leavened by the way comic characters crack jokes at their own misfortunes, plus the on-camera antics and also the off-. My show comes to mind because Howard DaSilva lived through blacklisting, just like my characters, and I stumbled on this remarkable picture of him refusing to name names.