Tuesday, December 6, 2016

“Wonderful Town”: Making Beautiful Music with My Sister Eileen

Last week I rang in the holiday season by trekking through heavy traffic to Downtown L.A. (now fashionably known as DTLA). My destination: the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where some Broadway and L.A. Opera stars appeared in a semi-staged concert version of Wonderful Town. Though this musical boasts music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the incomparable Comden and Green, it should not be confused with the similarly-titled On the Town. That 1945 Broadway hit – about three sailors on shore leave in the Big Apple -- launched a very young Bernstein, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden (along with choreographer Jerome Robbins) on brilliant careers.  Wonderful Town, also set in New York City, came along in 1953; Bernstein, Comden, and Green were asked to step in, on short notice, to replace Leroy Anderson’s original score. Working quickly, they more than filled the bill with a nifty combination of comic songs, love ballads, Irish ditties, and a tour-de-force conga number that had playgoers tempted to dance in the aisles.

The genesis of Wonderful Town was a series of autobiographical stories by journalist Ruth McKenney. Her wry tales of moving from the Midwest to a basement apartment in kooky Greenwich Village, accompanied by her winsome younger sibling, were eventually collected into a popular 1938 book, My Sister Eileen. This was soon adapted into a stage comedy of the same name, starring Shirley Booth as the acerbic older sister struggling to find both a job and a man. (Feminists would cringe at the basic set-up: the smart sister goes dateless for most of the play while the adorable young Eileen quickly has men groveling at her pretty feet.) Ten years later, the musical was launched, with Rosalind Russell and adorably blonde Edie Adams in the starring roles.

Hit musicals of that era generally ended up as movies, often with a good deal of reworking. When On the Town was filmed in 1949, it rated a truly wonderful cast. Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin, and a very young Frank Sinatra were the singing, dancing sailors; their girls were memorably played by Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, and feisty Betty Garrett. I love this film, despite the fact that Bernstein’s original ballet music was deeply trimmed, and several of the catchy Comden and Green songs were swapped out. As for Wonderful Town, it was never exactly filmed at all. Instead there was a film titled My Sister Eileen that scrapped all of the stage show’s original music, substituting unmemorable new tunes by Jule Styne and Leo Robbin. (Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, and Jack Lemmon were the major players, with soon-to-be famous Bob Fosse in a featured role.) 

The real Ruth McKenney, as a teenager, had considered herself so homely that she attempted suicide. But in later years she truly did make her mark as both a journalist and a writer of fiction. She married, got interested (for a while) in leftwing politics, and raised two children.(I’m told her daughter eventually became a justice of the New York Supreme Court.)

Eileen eventually married the talented Nathanael West, who shook up the literary world of the 1930s with darkly satiric short novels like Miss Lonelyhearts. Hollywood soon came calling, and the experience gave West the material for the most devastating of movieland novels, 1939’s The Day of the Locust. In late 1940, West and Eileen were driving back from Mexico when he ran a stop sign in El Centro, California. There was a collision, and both were killed. So the real Eileen died four days before Wonderful Town was scheduled to begin its Broadway run. Talk about ending on a sad note.   

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