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The Lost Musicals: Make Mine Manhattan
Richard Lewine and Arnold B. Horwitt’s Make Mine Manhattan, which clocked in 429 performances at the Broadhurst in 1948 might be the longest-running musical you’ve never heard of. I had never heard of it until I processed the Richard Lewine Papers in 2007. The collection includes scores and scripts from many musicals and revues Lewine composed before becoming a successful television producer. Make Mine Manhattan intrigued me the most because the songs have been recorded and because it was a pretty big hit.
Though not equaling the runs of the big hits of the era like South Pacific, Kiss Me Kate, Where’s Charley, Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow, it easily beat out Allegro, Miss Liberty, Love Life, Street Scene and Lost in the Stars. Strictly speaking, it’s not a musical; it’s a revue. This format of self-contained songs and comedy skits, more structured and more carefully written vaudeville was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s, especially for the song-writing team of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz.
Many songs from their revues have become standards, and the tunestack for the MGM musical, The Bandwagon, was comprised from the Dietz and Schwartz catalog, including the instrumental version of "Dancing in the Dark,” danced by Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, and choreographed by Michael Kidd, one of the most sublime sequences in musical film.
Dietz and Schwartz were the star practitioners of the Revue, with a successful string of hits in the 20s and 30s, including Merry-Go-Round, The Little Show, The Second Little Show, Three’s a Crowd, The Band Wagon and At Home Abroad. The musical changed substantially in 1943 with the huge success of Oklahoma, which ushered in the age of the integrated musical play. There were still plenty of hit musical comedies and after that revues became less profitable, but a few holdovers from the earlier style of entertainment. By the late 40s there were only a few revues each season, and with a few exceptions, like Dietz and Schwartz’ Inside USA, Charles Gaynor’s Lend an Ear and Make Mine Manhattan, most of them flopped.
Many famous revues were made up of songs and sketches on a particular theme. In Irving Berlin and Moss Hart’s classic revue, As Thousands Cheer (1933), each segment was inspired by a newspaper story. In Inside U.S.A. each segment focused on a different American location.
Make Mine Manhattan was, naturally, a revue about New York City. Some of the songs, like “Saturday Night in Central Park” and “Manhattan in the Spring” were fairly general, but others dealt with more specific aspects of New York life. There was a song called, “Trafft’s,” a thinly veiled tribute to the popular restaurant chain, Schrafft’s. Another song “Phil the Fiddler” told a Horatio Alger-type story set in Gilded Age New York.
“The Subway Song,” in which a young man complained about the difficulty of dating in New York when “you live in Brooklyn on New Lots Avenue and she lives in the Bronx on 242nd Street” seems as applicable today as it was sixty years ago! Make Mine Manhattan didn’t get a cast album, but most of the songs can be heard on Ben Bagley’s Make Mine Manhattan and Other Great Revues Revisited.
Listening to the delightful score, it’s easy to believe that the show was a hit. Oh—and it had one other thing going for it: the cast featured the talents of a 26 year-old comedian making his Broadway debut: Sid Caesar, just two years before Your Show of Shows would make him household name all over America.
Its New York-centric theme made a national tour unlikely for Make Mine Manhattan, but it did play on what was known as the Subway Circuit, which consisted of large theatres in the outer Burroughs, New Jersey and Long Island, where Broadway shows would play short engagements to audiences who didn’t make it to Times Square, despite living in the vicinity.
The Subway Circuit had been in operation since the early 20th century and also hosted vaudeville shows and touring productions from the Metropolitan Opera. Some theatres on the Subway Circuit were the Bronx Opera House, the Standard Theatre on 90th and Broadway, Brandt's Flatbush, Brighton Beach and Majestic Theatres in Brooklyn, as well as other theatres in Jackson Heights, Atlantic City and Long Island.
Lewine and Horwitt’s next revue, The Girls Against the Boys was much less successful. By 1959, the well-structured musical plays of the 40s were becoming old hat and a revue was very old hat. By that time Lewine had already moved on to a second, highly successful career in television, where he produced some acclaimed early programs including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Streisand’s first television special, the now legendary My Name is Barbra.
To learn more about Make Mine Manhattan and Richard Lewine, check out the Richard Lewine Papers in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. If you're interested in seeing Make Mine Manhattan, it's being revived in New York in March of next year by the UnsungMusicalsCo.