Monday, May 29, 2023

New York, New York: Stepping Around the Heart of Scorsese’s Movie Musical

 The wonderful "Wine and Peaches" number in New York, New York. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Martin Scorsese’s 1977 New York, New York, perhaps the only Big Band musical film after the collapse of the Big Band era, is about the meeting – collision is more accurate – of two young musical hopefuls in Manhattan on V-J Day, both newly out of the service. Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro, at the end of his astonishing early career – the year after Taxi Driver) is a relentlessly confident saxophonist and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli, in her least-known great performance) is a vocalist. He keeps asking her out; she keeps telling him no. But his persistence, obnoxious as it sometimes gets, is inseparable from his charm, and though she tries to resist she ends up acceding to every one of his demands. She does go out with him, she lands him a job by performing a duet with him at an audition – it’s “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” and they’re a knockout together (Georgie Auld, who plays a supporting role, dubs Jimmy’s sax) – and they become lovers, then husband and wife. You’d have to be De Niro to pull off this part. The marriage is a disaster, because Jimmy is demonically focused on his career and professionally competitive, and when Francine doesn’t – or can’t – do exactly what he demands of her, he steams. And he cheats on her. The divergence in their careers – she becomes a star of stage and movie musicals, he becomes one of the inventors of bop – operates as a symbol for all the ways in which their relationship is unworkable.

The film is very dark, it’s overlong, and it has only a handful of supporting characters, all of them underwritten. It doesn’t quite work, but the two stars are brilliant together and the filmmaking is dazzling. The movie is sui generis, and so powerful and inventive that I’ve never been able to get enough of it. Scorsese applies his trademark expressionistic style to the musical genre. He shot it all on studio sets as a way of commenting on the artificiality of benign post-war servicemen movie musicals like On the Town and It Happened in Brooklyn, where the soldiers or sailors are played by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. In one brooding, out-of-sync scene, Jimmy stands at the top of the stairs above a subway platform, watching in the shadows while a sailor and his girl dance to music that’s only in their heads. In another, he plays solo sax next to a billboard for a crowd of zero. In another, much later in the picture, he shows up, stoned, at a club where Francine is headlining and his behavior is so belligerent that he has to be thrown out: Scorsese shoots his expulsion down a tunnel lined with lights that he kicks at as he’s dragged along. (The cinematography by László Kovács is as beautiful as anything he ever did.) He also references one terrific mid-forties picture: The Clock, where Judy Garland and Robert Walker fall in love and get married during a forty-eight-hour leave before he goes off to fight in Europe. It was the shoot that culminated in Garland and the director Vincente Minnelli’s marriage, so it carries its own set of complicated associations. In Scorsese’s film, Liza Minnelli is made up, costumed and coiffed to look eerily like her mother.

The idea of turning New York, New York into a Broadway musical four and a half decades after it failed at the box office is strange, to say the least. Or it would be if the show had any connection to the original, but it’s been entirely rewritten by David Thompson and Sharon Washington. The score is a combination of old songs by composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb – including the three they wrote for the movie, the title song, “But the World Goes ‘Round” and “Happy Endings,” and two I recognized from other shows, Flora the Red Menace and The Rink, which both starred Minnelli – and new songs by Kander and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Jimmy (played by Colton Ryan) is still a sax player who won’t take no for an answer and Francine (Anna Uzele) is still a Big Band singer, and it’s still set in the New York of the mid-forties. But now it’s about marginalized post-war types – out-of-work musicians, all of them non-white except for Jimmy, an Irish kid from New Jersey, who gravitate to Manhattan because they figure, you know, it they can make it there, they’ll make it anywhere. Francine is a Black woman from the South. Jesse (John Clay III), is an African-American trumpeter. Mateo (Angel Sigala), is a gay Cuban drummer whose sister Sofia (Janet Dacal) dreams of dancing or maybe of being a fashion designer. (During the course of the show she keeps shifting back and forth, or maybe we’re supposed to think she wants to be the first Cuban dancing fashion designer.)  Alex (Oliver Prose) is a Polish-Jewish refugee violinist who wants to go to Juilliard. Most of them are tied to dead-end jobs and hardly anybody takes them seriously except each other. And, natch, they are haunted by ghosts. Jimmy’s older brother, who was also a talented musician, was killed in the war; so, it turns out, was the son of Alex’s teacher, Madame Veltri (the talented Emily Skinner, badly used). Alex was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. The Diaz siblings have an abusive older brother – or maybe it’s their father? – who doesn’t approve of their ambitions. (The character appears only once, is barely alluded to and doesn’t appear in the cast list, so perhaps I might be forgiven for getting lost in the family relationship.)

There’s all this plot, but none of it is coherent, so Thompson and Washington’s Tony nomination for best book of a musical is a joke. The characters are barely sketched in, including Francine’s, though she’s the co-star. I couldn’t make head or tail or her and Jimmy’s relationship – first, like her movie counterpart, she keeps turning Jimmy down for a date, then she reluctantly agrees and suddenly they’re a couple, though we never see the smallest sign that they’re falling for one another. He proposes at the end of act one; their marriage falls apart in act two, though not because he’s selfish or a careerist. Actually he turns out to be a sweetie, but she gets discovered by a producer (Ben Davis) and Jimmy gets jealous because it’s clear that the guy has a yen for her. (We’re supposed to believe that Francine doesn’t pick up on his intentions, even after he walks into their apartment at two in the morning with flowers.) And don’t even ask about the scene where, after he sees the bruises on Sofia’s arm, Mateo goes after their brother/father with a baseball bat but, instead of knocking him unconscious, merely sends him cowering to the floor and then extends a hand to help him up.

New York, New York is pretty bad, but it’s not all bad. It’s a gigantic show that never stops moving. Susan Stroman’s staging is layered and exciting; she makes a cast of twenty-seven look like forty, and her choreography is endlessly inventive. Every visual element of the production, starting with Beowulf Boritt’s sets and extending to Donna Zakowska’s costumes, Ken Billington’s lighting and the projections by Christopher Ash and Boritt, is spectacular. In one scene, we’re led down a subway platform as trains roar past each other; it’s the niftiest effect of its kind since On the Twentieth Century. The eleven-o’clock company number, led by Clay, called “Light” (it’s the best of the new songs), climaxes in a lighting cue that should make Broadway history. And even if the supporting players haven’t been given any characters to play, there’s enough talent on the stage – particularly Clay’s, Sigala’s, Dacal’s and Prose’s – to divert you.

And that’s lucky, because the leading couple is a hole at the center of the musical. Uzele is game and she looks great, but her vocal stylings, as the old phrase is, are unpleasing: she does too much belting, and her baby-talk alto keeps undercutting the lyrics, especially on “But the World Goes ‘Round.” She’s at her best in the title song, which finishes off the show with a fitting punch. Truly, I haven’t a fucking clue what Colton Ryan thinks he’s doing, though I guess the Tony Awards committee thought they did. (Joke Tony nomination #2.) Ryan was part of the magnificent ensemble in Girl from the North Country, but here he’s so affected that he seems to be visiting from another galaxy where emotional realism hasn’t been discovered yet. In the first act everything he does is a comedy routine, only it has no rhythm and it isn’t funny; in the second act he’s mostly dead serious, but that amounts to nothing but a series of routines too. His singing is dreadful. And what is up with that manufactured accent? He's like a robot trying to sound Scandinavian.

When De Niro played Jimmy Doyle, his amphetamine-jag energy was as mesmerizing as it was exhausting, and he was sexy. And you always knew exactly what he wanted. You can say the movie’s Jimmy is a narcissist, but actually it’s more complicated, because even though he always follows his own bent and manipulates Francine into sacrificing herself for him over and over again, he’s also in love with her, right to the end. Of course no one in 2023 is going to try to put a character like him on the stage; it’s much too easy just to dismiss him as a prick and a misogynist. But I think it’s a shame that there’s no room now for examinations of artists who are unapologetic about putting their art first, like Neil Young in the fine Jonathan Demme documentary Heart of Gold. Do we have to like every protagonist – to refuse to even acknowledge the ones who don’t earn good citizen medals?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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