On Saturday (Feb 2, 2013) my sweetie and I went to see the musical
"Fiorello" at the New York City Center "Encores" presentation. This
was my second time seeing it: the first time was in May, 1961, when I
saw Tom Bosley (better known to the public as "Howard Cunningham" on
"Happy Days") play the late New York mayor. At that time LaGuardia
had been mayor only 15 years before (before my time), and it seemed
like most of the audience were fans. I do remember the spontaneous
applause that came from the audience when a picture of FDR was shown
in a newsreel on the stage.
Fiorello is a theatricalized biography of mayor LaGuardia. It was so good, that it was only one of eight musicals to win the Pulitzer prize for drama. And, speaking of ovations, the night that we saw it they had a special guest star, with a small walk-on part -- Barney Frank. When he made his entrance there was a minute and a half sustained cheer and applause.
The reason that I'm writing about it here, is that there is lots of nitty-gritty stuff about politics. The musical starts (after a brief recollection of when Fiorello (played by Danny Rutigliano) reads the comics over municipal station WNYC during an extended newspaper strike). Fiorello ("the little flower") LaGuardia is shown as an idealistic young lawyer whose mission in life is to help the poor and downtrodden: "On the side of the angels". Interestingly enough (my how times have changed) he was a Republican! He's shown in the next scene teaching young women the right way to picket their money-grubbing boss on a strike against the Nifty shirtwaist factory
The Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, is as corrupt as they come, and is using the local police to quash the strike. However, Fiorello, and the young strikers prevail. But one of the strikers, Dora (played by a wonderful Jenn Gambatese) unaccountably falls in love the policeman Floyd (Jeremy Bobb) who later becomes a Tammany operative.
But the next scene is one that that Kossacks should like: at the "Ben Marino Republican Club", the local Republican leaders have the unenviable task of picking a candidate for Congress in the 14th district, where no Republican has ever won. They need "Some qualified Republican who's willing to lose". All the guys but Ben (who was played in the original by Howard Da Silva -- a victim of the McCarthy inspired blacklist, but here is played by a great Shuler Hensley) would rather play poker
LaGuardia bursts in and demands that they run him. They figure that they've found a convenient sacrificial lamb, and accept. Much to their utter amazement he wins -- after some rousing campaign rallies
-- after campaigning as a progressive reformer (this is 1918),
-- "God forbid independent".
Once in congress, he's confronted by a a senior senator (played by Barney Frank) who takes him to task for violating the unwritten rule that freshman representatives not give speeches on the floor of Congress (this got a sustained laugh from the audience). LaGuardia has pushed a draft (conscription into the Army) as being the only fair and equitable way to get soldiers for the upcomming war with Germany, volunteers himself and goes overseas.
In the meantime he's courting Thea (played by Kate Baldwin) -- a refugee from Trieste -- a young model that he met at shirtwaist strike (much to the chagrin of his long suffering secretary Marie (played by Erin Dilly), who's been deeply in love with him for years). He promises her that he will liberate Trieste from the Austrians, which he does! After he comes home they marry.
Now go forward ten years -- LaGuardia has returned to his law practice (in fact, though he returned to Congress, but this isn't mentioned) and he and Thea are very happy. But Fiorello hates corruption, and runs as the Republican candidate for mayor against "Gentleman Jimmy Walker" (sung by Emily Skinner playing a fictional Broadway star Mitzi Travers)
and the corrupt Tammany machine. There's a scene in which some Tammany leaders conspire with a local mob boss to have LaGuardia killed at one of his rallies a week before the election. The scheme is foiled, but Fiorello is called away to find that his wife has died. It wasn't stated in the musical, but according to Wikipedia, she died of
Tuberculosis. But he loses in a landslide. However Walker's administration was so corrupt that judicial investigations convicted many of the officials, and Walker himself resigned after two years and fled to Europe with his mistress (not stated in the musical) to avoid indictment. The hearings are portrayed in the funniest song in the show -- "Little Tin Box"
For the next election, Fiorello bounces back, and even will take advice from the Republican organization in the person of Ben Marino, and is elected for the first of three terms. At the end he finally proposes to his secretary, who has been nursing her love for him for years, but after she has seemingly given up on him ("The Very Next
In all it was a wonderful night at the theater. All of the performers were topnotch. As was pointed out by the Times critic Ben Brantley, Erin Dilly, Jenn Gambetese and Emily Skinner are all Broadway stars but here were happy to portray supporting roles. And it was also an occasion for me to learn what an incredible mayor LaGuardia was -- during his three terms he not only crushed the power of an old political machine -- Tammany Hall -- he started projects that built roads -- the West side highway, FDR drive, battery tunnel, and took over the last of the private subway firms -- the IRT. And of course, there's LaGuardia airport (which was a small field called Floyd Bennet field before he
made it into a major airport). He also instituted countless progressive programs.
When I first saw the musical in 1961 there were still many progressive Republicans in New York City. Of course that branch of the party has been long extinct.