Fiorello! Gets a Second Vote of Confidence from Encores! in New Concert Revival

By Jack Viertel
25 Jan 2013

Playbill cover from the original Broadway production

Fiorello!, with a book by novelist Jerome Weidman and Abbott, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, only the third musical ever to do so. It is remembered today for its extraordinarily bountiful score, which introduced large audiences to the team that would go on to more delicate success with She Loves Me and achieve blockbuster status with Fiddler on the Roof .

But Fiorello!, which launched their careers, was a young show, and plays like one even today. Weidman and Abbott made the surprising choice not to tell of Fiorello's famous exploits as the crusading mayor of New York, and instead focused on his years as a young reform-minded attorney who ran against the Tammany machine against all odds, and won. The famous LaGuardia years were really the late '30s and '40s, but the musical begins in 1912 and ends in 1933.

Its spirit of youth extends to the score itself. Like the young LaGuardia, Bock and Harnick were fearlessly beginning, and had the courage of their convictions.

Tom Bosley in the original Broadway production of Fiorello!

"In our first Broadway show," Harnick says, "I tried to write like what I thought a musical comedy was supposed to sound like, and that sure didn't work. So on this one I thought, I'm just going to sound like myself, and it has to be better. And it was."

Both composer and lyricist spoke with a kind of unforced originality that sometimes attends those who have little to lose and everything to gain. The score of Fiorello! celebrates the bold, young agit-prop language of the shirtwaist factory strike of 1912, the comic frustrations and bewilderments of young love, the dedication of youthful community organizers and, in a couple of comedy sextets, the kind of revuelike material that was typical of young songwriters of the period, though at an unusually high level — the jokes are actually funny.

"The one spot we could never solve," Harnick recalls, "was a moment in the second act. LaGuardia's wife has died, he's just been beaten badly by Jimmy Walker for mayor, and it's a ripe spot for him to express something — but the two songs we wrote were thrown out. Abbott found them both self-pitying, and he had no time for self-pity. We settled for a short reprise of 'The Name's LaGuardia.' About 15 or 20 years ago, I saw a production and thought, 'this is really a copout,' and so began a 10-year argument with Jerry Bock, who really didn't think we needed to go back to the show, which, he pointed out, had won the Pulitzer. I tried a lot of different approaches, and finally came up with one — an anti-Jimmy Walker song — and Jerry read it, and said, 'That I can set.' It was the last thing he wrote before he died."