In the autumn of 2001, Encores! presented a concert called the Broadway Bash. The highlight turned out to be Donna Murphy’s rendition of “I Happen to Like New York,” from Cole Porter’s 1930 musical The New Yorkers. Though I knew the song, I’d never heard of The New Yorkers. But the impact of that performance (it was only a few weeks after New York had been brutally attacked on September 11, and the song exerted a powerful emotional pull) sent me on a hunt. What was this little-known, moderately successful, largely mysterious Depression-era show?
The more I learned, the more fascinating it all became. The New Yorkers, it turns out, was the brainchild of producer/songwriter E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno, who was the first indisputably great cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine (James Thurber joined him there a few years after he arrived). Though Arno is remembered today—if at all—mainly for the cover art on the original cast album of The Pajama Game, he was hugely influential in the success of the publication that gave The New Yorkers its title. The Broadway show was, in some ways, an example of the then-primitive art of cross-promotional branding. The magazine was only five years old when the show was produced, and by no means the juggernaut that it was to become.
Arno, who worked there until his death, was a politically incorrect, mercilessly mordant dissector of the urban classes. His early targets consisted largely of wealthy older men chasing after chorus girls, stout dowagers whose sex appeal had spectacularly failed them, clueless little bald men with waxed mustaches, alcoholic bluebloods, the bootleggers who serviced them, and working class stiffs who watched it all in fascinated horror. His trademark was a drunk passed out in a chair or on a bar, whose eyes were rendered as a pair of x’s.
Arno was as seduced by Broadway as a lot of folks who went to work every day near Times Square, but from his perch at The New Yorker he was able to do something about it. In cahoots with producer Goetz, he enlisted bookwriter Herbert Fields and Cole Porter, then enjoying his first real Broadway successes, in the creation of a show that held up all of his favorite subjects to cheerful ridicule and simultaneously promoted the name of the magazine. He also drew the poster art, and created sketches for the sets and costumes.
Porter and Fields, who were already collaborators, seem to have joined in this adventure gleefully. There was not much sentiment in The New Yorkers, but there was a cartoonist’s sense of the preposterous in snapshot form. The resulting show was a celebration of Arno’s sense of the libidinous excesses of the New York gentry in the waning days of Prohibition—bawdy, unpredictably cock-eyed, and utterly amoral. It took little trouble with formality—sometimes it seemed to be a revue, sometimes a book musical, sometimes a variety show. One of its characters gets shot dead three times and keeps reappearing in different guises, with barely a word of explanation. It was that kind of show.
Producer Goetz, eager to dismantle the audience’s anxiety about the stock market crash and the onrushing Great Depression, tried to make sure his show had everything: girls and gags, stuffy gents, unshaven goons, Jimmy Durante, and even guest appearances by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. There were three different bands and two different choruses. Porter wrote most of the score, but Durante provided his own material. The Pennsylvanians showed up from time to time to sing reprises, but also included a few of their own original numbers.
The show’s most famous song, “Love For Sale,” was immediately banned on the radio. The tone, in fact, was shockingly risqué for a Broadway musical of the time, but never mean. For all its attempts to be a real satire, The New Yorkers was affectionate and sympathetic to its characters when it bothered to pay any attention to them at all. It was simply a craziness, a giddy, gilded entertainment of the period.
All that remains of the original, after 87 years of neglect, is a couple of barely decipherable carbon copy scripts (including stage managers’ notations that say things like “Waring Girls do specialty” or “Business with machine gun.” We can only guess at what they are describing.) All but one of the Porter songs survive, but only one of the Durante songs was known to exist until the crack research team at Encores! uncovered the “lost” material at UCLA’s rarely visited Durante archives. The orchestrations and vocal arrangements are all lost, except for a few that turned up in the Fred Waring papers at Penn State. For a show that spends a bit of time making fun of sophomoric collegiate style, the resurrection of The New Yorkers actually owes a debt to some good university research centers.
The show was hardly intact, yet even in this dubious condition, it made us laugh, and many elements of the score were impressive. The unusually reckless tone was refreshing and, to the best of our knowledge, unique, combining a ribald high-society sex comedy with a gangland backdrop, a few prescient notions about theatre of the absurd, and, of course, many elements of vaudeville. There were too many good things about it to pass it up, yet left on its own, it would remain an incomplete evening. So we’ve taken a page from the spirit of the original, and, within reason, simply thrown caution to the winds; we’ve reinvented what we had to.
In creating the third reclamation funded by the generosity of the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Broadway Musical Restoration Fund, Encores! has gone outside of our natural comfort zone; usually we’re as faithful to the original show as we can possibly be. But there’s so much adultery in The New Yorkers, we got carried away and joined in. We’ve cut much of the Waring material—we weren’t even sure what it was—and a couple of the rediscovered Durante songs because it seemed impossible to realize them without the great Schnozzola himself. We’ve shanghaied a few numbers from other Porter shows that we felt could appropriately fill out the missing pieces. This makes The New Yorkers unusual as a restoration. To paraphrase a much later Porter lyric, we’ve tried to be true to it—in our fashion.
Two of the purloined songs come from Fifty Million Frenchmen, the show that Porter and Fields wrote immediately before The New Yorkers. Another is from Gay Divorce, which immediately followed. And we’ve added one song apiece from Let’s Face It! and Leave It To Me, leaving 14 from the original New Yorkers score. While this can hardly be called an authentic restoration in an academic sense, we have been as meticulous as we can about recreating the style and sound of the early 1930s.
Encores! music director Rob Berman has created period-appropriate arrangements and routines that have been expertly orchestrated by Larry Moore and Joshua Clayton using the theater orchestration techniques of the day. We’ve listened carefully to period recordings, including those made by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, duly noting that Waring, when not leading his aggregation, was investing its profits in a new-fangled kitchen gadget that was soon to bear his name: the Waring Blender. And, in fact, The New Yorkers itself sometimes feels like it was created by throwing all of the resources of musical comedy into that very device and turning on the switch.
Ironically, perhaps, 1930 was also the year in which Hollywood introduced the infamous “Production Code.” Feeling that movies were openly promoting immoral behavior and salaciousness, the industry decided to police itself by promulgating a set of rigid guidelines that began: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” Movies like Blonde Venus and Madam Satan would soon be out. Tugboat Annie was on its way.
The New Yorkers paid no attention whatsoever to any of this, despite the existence of the Padlock Law of 1927, a comparably censorious New York state law which was, on Broadway, even less often observed than Prohibition itself. During the Jazz Age Broadway was a local New York business for the classes, while Hollywood catered nationally to the masses, so nothing much ever got padlocked. Still, the Production Code formed a dividing line in film, creating lots of squeaky-clean movies and some with their confounding sexual and moral implications buried deep in the subtext.
The New Yorkers has no subtext, and follows not the Production Code, but rather the alcoholic’s creed: never apologize, never explain. In the ensuing decades, Broadway did largely tame itself, thanks to the more sober ministrations of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and their ilk, though Porter continued to tease audiences with songs like “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Too Darn Hot” well into the 1950s.
The Production Code, meanwhile, finally gave up the ghost in 1968, as the country was succumbing to a new era of Woodstock, acid rock, free love, psychedelic drugs, and moral mayhem. Peter Arno, at the age of 64, died in February of that very year.
The New Yorkers plays Encores! City Center March 22-26. For tickets and information visit NYCityCenter.org.
Jack Viertel is the artistic director of Encores! and the author of The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built.