Monday, November 27, 2023

The Turbulent Thirties: I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Spain

Judy Kuhn and Santino Fontana in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The composer-lyricist Harold Rome, who died in 1993, has been more or less forgotten, but he was one of the few Broadway songwriters who wore his leftist politics on his sleeve. He broke through in a 1937 revue called Pins and Needles that focused on the uneasy relationship between management and labor and was produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose members performed the sketches and musical numbers. How it managed to move from a tiny studio above the Labor Stage (the former Princess Theatre) to a Broadway house is something of a mystery, but counting all three editions, it ran for more than three years and made Rome’s reputation. His career spanned more than three more decades. A few of his shows were successful: the 1946 revue Call Me Mister, about returning servicemen; Wish You Were Here (1952), an adaptation of the Arthur Kober play Having Wonderful Time, set at an adult summer camp in the Catskills; Fanny (1954), based on a trilogy of French romantic dramas by Marcel Pagnol; and Destry Rides Again (1959), with Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray taking the roles played famously by Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 picture, a hybrid western-romantic comedy. (Destry Rides Again was the first show I saw on Broadway, when I was eight.) Until this season the only one that has been revived in New York, to my knowledge, is Fanny, which made it onto an Encores! slate in 2010 and proved to be just as bland and unmemorable as the original cast album indicated. It would be fun for someone to mount Wish You Were Here, which contains some lovely songs; Eddie Fisher made the hit parade with his recording of the title song. But don’t get your hopes up: in the original version the director, Joshua Logan, and the designer, Jo Mielziner, flooded the orchestra pit to create a swimming pool, which made even a pre-Broadway tryout tour impossible.

After the one-of-a-kind Pins and Needles, Rome’s most interesting musical was I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), which Jerome Weidman culled from his 1939 novel about life in Manhattan’s garment district. If musical theatre mavens know it at all, it’s for introducing Barbra Streisand, who played the indispensable secretary of the show’s protagonist, Harry Bogen, and brought down the house with her big number, “Miss Marmelstein.” (Bogen was played by Elliott Gould, nearly a decade before Robert Altman made him a movie star in M*A*S*H; Gould became Streisand’s first husband. And Streisand was among the singers who made the only recording of the score for Pins and Needles the same year, to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of its premiere.) Perhaps Trip Cullman’s sharp-edged, sharp-witted production of Wholesale for Classic Stage Company, which closes December 17, will have the effect of bringing a woefully neglected musical to light. Weidman’s son John, who wrote the books for three of Stephen Sondheim’s shows – including, in this critic’s opinion, his finest, the 1975 Pacific Overtures – has reworked the original book, and never having read the original I can’t say how much he’s altered it. One change I could deduce by looking at the 1962 playbill online: he’s added an opening episode with real punch that dramatizes Harry’s first bitter experience of the tough (and anti-Semitic) New York streets, which, at about thirteen years of age, he has to navigate while delivering goods for garment manufacturers. Weidman, Cullman and the inventive choreographer, Ellenore Scott, have initiated this section with a dance number featuring the talented young dancer Victor de Paula Rocha as the young Harry and ended it with Judy Kuhn as Mrs. Bogen introducing the song “Eat a Little Something,” which didn’t appear until late in the second act in the original production. In this iteration that version of the song is a reprise, sung to Santino Fontana as the grown-up Harry.

Both the late Jerome Weidman (he died twenty-five years ago) and his son John are in line for kudos for what I saw at CSC. I Can Get It for You Wholesale is warm-blooded and hard-boiled, and its portrait of an ambitious young man who has figured out how to ride the choppy tides of the Depression and prizes the sometimes ill-gotten gains of business above love and friendship is uncompromising. (It reminds me of two other downbeat sixties musicals, both from 1964, that have been sidelined over the years, though both are marvelous and both were successful in their time: What Makes Sammy Run? and Golden Boy.) The only person in his life that Wholesale’s anti-hero isn’t willing to sacrifice – including his girlfriend, Ruthie Rivkin (Rebecca Naomi Jones), and his partners, Meyer Bushkin (Adam Chanler-Berat) and Teddy Asch (Greg Hildreth) – is his mother, a strong woman and a good woman who is, however, somewhat implicated in his curdled view of the world. In any case she’s acutely aware of his moral shortcomings: in one of the ballads in Rome’s excellent score, she warns Ruthie not to give him her whole heart “Too Soon.”

The entire nineteen-member ensemble deserves praise, but the five principal performers are superb. Fontana, the multi-award-winning actor last seen on stage as Michael Dorsey in the musical Tootsie, does the best sustained and most emotionally varied work I’ve seen from him, though I’ve always been in his corner. Fontana makes Harry’s charisma and conviviality powerfully likable, and he’s buttoned the desperation underneath so that we can scarcely see it, only detect it in the character’s increasingly unlikable actions (and of course in his mother’s warnings to Ruthie). The performance is an expert trick of balance: we have to be swept up by him and wary of him at the same time. Of our current musical-theatre stars, Fontana is perhaps most equipped to pull it off. I first saw him reveal the darker tones in a protagonist in a non-musical, James Lapine’s adaptation of Act One at Lincoln Center in 2014, where Fontana’s portrayal of Moss Hart as an aspiring young playwright was more complicated – less innocent – than the way Hart presented himself in the famous memoir the play was based on. The role of Bogen demands, of course, that he go much farther and much darker.

The two leading women, Judy Kuhn (whose work I know well) and Rebecca Naomi Jones, are admirable in different ways. Kuhn is a dramatic singer-actress essaying what turns out to be one of the few complex musical-theatre roles this side of Mama Rose in Gypsy that are written for older performers. Her singing is, as always, beyond reproach, but it’s completely subservient to her masterful shaping of the character. The first things you notice about Jones are the sweetness of her voice and the warmth of her presence; she’s an ideal ingénue. These elements are so striking that it takes longer to recognize the subtleties of her performance; her other qualities, including her beauty, may place her in danger of being underrated as an actress. I was very happy to see Adam Chanler-Berat’s name in the program because I loved him as Peter in Peter and the Starcatcher and, in Boston, the Huntington Theatre mounting of Sunday in the Park with George. He has the tragic victim role here, the naïve, credulous partner whom Harry throws to the wolves when their company goes to court on charges of tax fraud, and he’s very affecting, as is Sarah Steele as his wife Blanche. Greg Hildreth, who was also in the company of Peter and the Starcatcher, is impressive: a vaudevillian with depth. In smaller roles the veteran Adam Grupper as Harry’s first contact in the garment world as an adult and Julia Lester as Miss Marmelstein are both first-rate. Lester does full justice to Streisand’s 1962 showstopper.

Mark Wedekind has designed an ingeniously pared-down set for intimate three-quarters seating that consists solely of tables and chairs (except for a sort of three-dimensional collage against the upstage wall of emblematic dress-shop items). And Cullman and Scott employ it not just skillfully but wittily to sketch in a variety of environments. This is the most intriguing and potent direction I’ve seen from Cullman, and his collaboration with the actors is distinguished. Ann Hould-Ward, whose outstanding work in costume design goes back to the first Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George, gives the actors wonderful clothes, and Adam Honoré has lit the show with both bold and muted strokes. All the musical experts involved in the show – David Chase, who adapted and arranged the score; the associate music director, Reagan Casteel; the music coordinator, Michael Aarons; the conductor (doubling on keys), Jacinth Greywoode, and the five other members of the band – enhance the show immeasurably. I Can Get It for You Wholesale is definitely one of the highlights of the New York musical theatre since its post-COVID return.

Jen Silverman’s Spain at 2ndStage has a promising subject, the filming of the 1937 documentary The Spanish Earth, a propaganda piece promoting the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War that Joris Ivens directed and that John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway received credit for writing, though Lillian Hellman, Archibald MacLeish and Jean Renoir (in the French version) apparently all worked on it. And the play begins promisingly, too, with Andrew Burnap – last seen as King Arthur in the revival of Camelot – as Ivens, setting up the plot in a wry comic monologue to the audience. But the wit and humor run out and the tone shifts to deadly serious. The genre shifts too, to paranoid political thriller, as Ivens’ girlfriend Helen (Marin Ireland) begins to realize how much danger they’re both in from Stalinist forces, even in their little Greenwich Village apartment. These shifts aren’t beneficial to the play, which grows worse and worse. Burnap is quite good; so is Erik Lochtefeld as Dos Passos (Dos to his friends). As Papa Hemingway, Danny Wolohan (who also appeared in Camelot), the only remnant of the play’s initial gesture toward comedy, is about as authentic as Corey Stoll in the same role in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and far less entertaining. As for Ireland, who has demonstrated her talent on other occasions, she acts so ferociously that she wears you down after about half an hour. (The running time is ninety minutes.)

– 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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