“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today…” Anna Uzele as Francine starts to sing…
“So leave already!” interrupts the brusque manager of the polka band for whom she’s auditioning.
It’s an early scene in “New York, New York” but it’s not even the show’s first tease of the title song — a song that was first sung by Liza Minnelli in the 1977 movie of the same name, then turned into an anthem by Frank Sinatra, a recording of which has been piped in ever since at the end of Yankees games and the beginning of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and at a climactic moment in the annual Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration.
A few minutes earlier, the melody is rendered as a tinkly instrumental piece at the top of the show, while an electrician stands on the roof of a city building – we know it’s a city building because we see both the rooftop wooden water tanks that are a symbol of the city to those in the know, and (for those less in the know) the Empire State Building in the distance. The man is fiddling with a flickering neon sign, which suddenly lights up bold and bright: New York, NEW YORK
“Holy shit!” the electrician says, the first words in the musical. “I love this city.”
My feelings exactly.
It’s not until the very end of the musical that we get the “New York, New York” song in full. I won’t reveal the details. I’ll only say it’s the most exhilarating finale I can remember ever experiencing on a Broadway stage. The creative team knew what they had in this catchy iconic song, and they make the most of it.
But “New York, New York” the musical is thrilling in ways that go beyond just “New York, New York” the song.
This brand new but vintage-feeling musical presents an eclectic and electric score — a dozen of the more than thirty songs are from Kander and Ebb, the songwriting duo that created “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” but most are newly composed by 96-year-old John Kander, who’s outlived his writing partner by two decades. (He has a new lyricist, at least for several numbers in this show: Lin-Manuel Miranda.). The score soars thanks to a cast chosen for their phenomenal singing, and to a band that, at its liveliest, pumps up the brass and commits to the beat; and, at its loveliest, soothes the sorrow or longing with strings.
Beowulf Boritt’s spectacular sets, enhanced by a first-rate design team, add up to a three-dimensional travelogue of New York City, from Times Square, Central Park and Grand Central Terminal to the neighborhood stoop and fire escapes full of kibitzers. Director Susan Stroman choreographs one energetic dance after another, most memorably along a steel beam in mid-air. But, even when the cast isn’t literally dancing, she suggests the bustle, hustle and swirl of New York humanity with little wordless vignettes and in other clever ways, working in tandem with the breathtaking scenery: There is a mob rubout, a street painter who outrages his subject with a portrait that looks more Basquiat than da Vinci, and in the scene in Central Park, doormen who have just been clearing the snow from their walkways, lift their shovels together to form the railing along the park’s Bow Bridge, upon which a couple smooches.
Although the musical shares some elements from the 1977 Martin Scorsese movie starring Minelli and Robert De Niro (including three of the songs, and the post-World War II setting), the musical is not billed as an adaptation of the movie. This is a good thing, because the movie’s plot was a mess. The musical’s plot is not a mess. But David Thompson and Sharon Washington’s libretto, about newcomers to New York trying to make it here, is not what makes “New York, New York” worth seeing.
Francine’s failed audition for the polka band, when she’s cut off from singing “New York, New York,” is where she meets Tommy Doyle (Colton Ryan), who is working as an audition pianist. He stands up for her against his boss and is fired.
She’s a new arrival from Philadelphia, who wants to make it big as a singer. He wants to be a bandleader. He also wants her, from the get-go. She resists. He’s Irish; she’s Black: “Your people and my people? Oil and water.”
Jimmy is supposed to be a loud drunk who talks back to bosses and can’t keep a job. But Ryan comes off as so bland he’s almost generic – except when he’s singing. In “Music, Money and Love,” a Latin-inflected melody that is one of the seven new songs co-written by Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jimmy explains the three things that motivate every New Yorker:
Music, Money, Love
The notes I’m singing of
I guess the laughs on me
You get two but rarely three….
(Music could be taken as a metaphor for anything you feel passionate about, but for the characters in this show — and the creative team — it’s literal.)
Uzele certainly holds her own in “But The World Goes Round,” which was in the movie. If her rendition of Kander and Ebb’s standards won’t replace Frank Sinatra’s or Liza Minnelli’s, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t make her a star.
Jimmy and Francine are the central characters in the musical. But the show also focuses on the ups and downs of several other strivers over the course of a year, starting in the summer of 1946.
Alex Mann (Oliver Prose) is a teenage Jewish refugee from Poland who wants to be a professional violinist, and seeks out the great Madame Veltri (Emily Skinner), whom he saw at Carnegie Hall before he could speak English, in hopes that she will be his teacher, and help him get into Juilliard.
Mateo Diaz (Angel Sigala), recently arrived from Cuba, dreams of having enough money to buy a gold dress for his mother Sofia (Janet Dacal) – which he lays out in the song “Gold.”. Mateo, a drummer, aims to bring Cuban music to New York.
Jesse Webb (John Clay III) is a Black G.I. who grew up in the South. He plans to be a professional trumpeter. “I’m gonna show all those people who said I was a nobody in Natchez, a nobody in the army, a nobody in the kitchen that I AM somebody!” This leads to “My Own Music,” which becomes a duet with Mateo, who works in the same kitchen, and then an ensemble piece with all the other kitchen workers, who aim to be a prize fighter, a dress designer, a restauranteur. “Everybody in New York is here to do something they can’t do someplace else,” Jesse says, unnecessarily.
Some might view the various storylines, which overlap and eventually converge, as obvious and overly familiar. I prefer to think of “New York, New York” as a musical that should have been made seventy years ago. That it finally exists could be considered an act of reparation. Yet, as much as the stories, and Donna Zakowska’s glorious costumes, set the musical firmly in the 1940s, the creative team subtly plants an analogy to the present day. Each one of the characters is given a backstory that involves terrible losses they suffered during the war. For them — and for us — New York, New York offers not just a chance to make music, money and love, but also to recover from collective trauma.
New York, New York
St. James Theater
Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes including an intermission
Tickets: $59 – $259. Rush: $30. Digital lottery: $45
Music and lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson and Sharon Washington, additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman.
Scenic and projection design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Donna Zakowska, lighting design by Ken Billington, sound design by Kai Harada, projection design by Christopher Ash, hair and wig design by Sabana Majeed,
Orchestrations, Music Supervision and Arrangements by Sam Davis, Orchestrations by Daryl Waters, vocal arrangements by David Loud, music direction by Alvin Hough, Jr. Musical Coordinator: Kristy Norter; Conducted by Alvin Hough, Jr.; Associate Conductor: Caleb Hoyer; Assistant Conductor: Roberto Sinha; Trumpets: Rebecca Steinberg and John Walsh; Trombone: Nate Mayland; Bass Trombone: Jeff Nelson; French Horn: Nancy Billmann; Reeds: Jay Brandford, Steve Lyon, Chris McDonnell and Tom Murray; Keyboard: Caleb Hoyer and Roberto Sinha; Acoustic and Electric Bass: Corey Schutzer; Drums/Percussion: Bruce Doctor and Victor Pablo; Concertmaster: Emily Bruskin Yarbrough; Violin/Viola: Jocelin Pan and Annaleisa Place; Cello: Melissa Westgate; Guitar: Eric Davis;
Cast: Colton Ryan as Jimmy Doyle, Anna Uzele as Francine Evans, Clyde Alves as Tommy Caggiano, John Clay III as Jesse Webb, Janet Dacal as Sofia Diaz, Ben Davis as Gordon Kendrick, Oliver Prose as Alex Mann, Angel Sigala as Mateo Diaz, Emily Skinner as Madame Veltri, Wendi Bergamini, Allison Blackwell, Giovanni Bonaventura, Jim Borstelmann, Lauren Carr, Mike Cefalo, Bryan J. Cortés, Kristine Covillo, Gabriella Enriquez, Haley Fish, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Richard Gatta, Stephen Hanna, Naomi Kakuk, Akina Kitazawa, Ian Liberto, Kevin Ligon, Leo Moctezuma, Aaron Nicholas Patterson, Alex Prakken, Dayna Marie Quincy, Julian Ramos, Drew Redington, Benjamin Rivera, Vanessa Sears, Davis Wayne, Jeff Williams, and Darius Wright.