Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Fiorello!
There’s a new mayor in town—a man from a party locked out of the Gracie Mansion for over a decade who ran on a platform opposing the establishment and promising to improve the lot of the city's poor and disenfranchised. Thus ends Fiorello!, the hit 1959 musical with a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.
Fiorello! was the second time Bock and Harnickhad worked together on a Broadway musical, but it was their first hit and the show that coupled the team’s names into a unit as indivisible as Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Lerner and Loewe. I am very excited to announce that it is this month’s Musical of the Month, and the first in a year-long series celebrating the life, work, and 90th birthday(!) of Sheldon Harnick.
Harnick was born in Chicago in 1924 where, after a brief stint in the army during World War II, he got his start as a professional violinist playing at the Edgewater Hotel. Eventually, an illness forced him to abandon the violin, and he moved to New York to write. He found work relatively quickly and earned critical praise for his contributions to the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. After a decade or so of smaller projects, he was hired as the lyricist for the boxing musical “The Body Beautiful” (to be featured later in this series). Jerry Bock was already attached to the project, and the two found they worked together well (even if the musical was, ultimately, not a hit).
When Bock was hired to write music for Fiorello!, the book-writer Jerome Weidman (father of librettist and playwright, John Weidman) originally planned to write lyrics as well. However, the production team eventually decided another style was needed, and, after considering lyricists including Yip Harburg and Stephen Sondheim, decided to give Bock’s earlier writing partner a chance. Although producer Harold Prince reportedly worried that Harnick’s lyrical tone might be too satirical for the show, Harnick was invited to write a set of songs “on spec” (without payment). He did, and was hired soon thereafter.
Fiorello! opened in November of 1959 to rave reviews and ran for 796 performances (the longest original run of any Bock and Harnick show after Fiddler on the Roof). It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of only eight musicals to have been so honored), and, in a rare split decision by the Tony voters, tied with The Sound of Music for the Best Musical Award (other nominated shows that season included Gypsy and Once Upon A Mattress). Fiorello! was revived at New York City Center in 1962; launched the now famous Encores! concert series at the same venue in 1994; and was...well...encored in 2013 for the 20th anniversary season of the series.
In the archives at NYPL there are photographs of window displays in department stores featuring clothing in the style of Fiorello and promotional pictures showing Bock, director George Abbott, and Hal Prince boarding Pan Am flights to cast their next show. All of these give a sense of the phenomenal success of the show in the early 1960s. In this series, though, I also hope to capture and share not just artifacts, but also the memories of those who were there, either as creators or audience members. Daniel Langan, a retired press agent, producer, and writer remembers the day Fiorello won the Pulitzer in a scene that could have been pulled from the musical itself:
“In May of 1960 I took time off from the Syracuse Post-Standard where I was a reporter, assistant editor and critic and journeyed to Manhattan to take in shows that had opened since my last visit. I saw, and loved, FIORELLO! on that trip night and a day or so later was waiting for a friend at the entrance to Sardi’s Restaurant where we were to have lunch. While I was waiting I noticed a man coming through Shubert Alley who obviously was in a hurry. He stopped on the north side of 44th Street, waited for traffic to clear and began to cross the street. Half-way over he cupped his hands into a megaphone shape and shouted to a some men standing in front of the separate Sardi Building offices entrance. “Hey fellas, we just won the Pulitzer.” It was unmistakably Hal Prince, co-producer of FIORELLO. He joined the men waiting for him and after they exchanged hugs and congratulations, the group entered the building and took the elevator to one of the many theatre-related firms that occupied the floors above the restaurant. A moment in time for me! I can still envision him cupping his hands and shouting the good news.”
Twelve years later, I used that same entrance to meet with Prince in the offices of the Ash-LeDonne theatre advertising agency. I was the press agent for the Phoenix Theatre and Prince had directed the Phoenix production of Eugene O’Neill’s THE GREAT GOD BROWN, which opened the previous night. We were there to read the overnight reviews in order to cull critical quotes that could be used in newspaper advertising for the play. Another moment in time for me."
Later Langan became a tenant of the Sardi’s Building himself when his company, Langan Communications, rented an office there for more than seven years.
Do you have your own memories of Fiorello! productions either in New York or elsewhere? Leave them in the comments below.
A note on the text:
The scans of the libretto of Fiorello! linked below are taken from a prompt book given to the Library for the Performing Arts by Harold Prince (Call Number RM# 390). It is made available here for research use with the kind permission of the copyright holders, but may not be used for any other purpose. If you would like to stage a production of Fiorello! of any kind, please contact Music Theater International.