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

By Jack Viertel
25 Jan 2013

City Center Fiorello! star Danny Rutigliano with Sheldon Harnick
Photo by Joan Marcus

The premiere of that song is featured in the Jan. 30-Feb. 3 Encores! production of Fiorello! (Read about the cast of director Gary Griffin's new concert staging.)

When called upon, the team could conjure periods, from the lilting waltzes of pre-World War I America to the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age. And they could be quick and professional. As the show's orchestrator, Irwin Kostal, recalled in an unpublished memoir, "During the tryout, just before the New York opening, Sheldon and Jerry were called upon to do the impossible and write a showstopper, and it had to go in the next night. This was the kind of situation George Abbott thrived on, and his energy inspired everybody in the show. With a typical combination of creativity, necessity and a lot of trepidation, Sheldon and Jerry wrote 'Little Tin Box' in one night. It was rehearsed the next morning, orchestrated and copied that day and was in the show that night, all within 24 hours. That's Broadway at its best, people rising to the occasion, doing the impossible. Everything comes together just as time runs out."

Actually, according to Harnick, "Jerry Bock had gone to the movies that night, and I had this idea for the song, and took a piece of music he'd written for one of our audition songs that had been discarded. When Jerry got back from the movies I said to him, 'We wrote a new song tonight.' And he said, 'That's nice, how's my music?' When I played it for him he was very happy, but it still needed music for the chorus, so he stayed up all night and finished it."

But for all the exigencies of their showbiz trial by fire, Bock and Harnick also demonstrated a tenderness and maturity that was completely unexpected. In one extraordinary love song called "When Did I Fall In Love" they seized the opportunity to fly free, including an extended verse and a fresh musical interlude that allows an unexpectedly emotional note to enter a world that is largely dominated by tough politicians and bristling New Yorkers. The song is a promise of even greater things to come from the team, and, indeed, Fiorello! is the first youthful expression of a musical and lyric voice that would continue to reach and grow for a decade, through the team's last collaboration, The Rothschilds, in 1970.

Before decade's end, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, and Strouse and Adams had entered the fray, not to mention Stephen Sondheim. But in many respects the '60s (and especially the mid-'60s) were, and should be remembered as, the Bock and Harnick years.

The show today exists as a kind of double-nostalgic valentine, first to the nineteen-teens and '20s, and secondly to the self-assured musicals of the '60s, when Prince and Abbott and a cluster of talented directors, choreographers, designers, librettists and actors went to work every day turning out works that were designed to amuse us for a season, and that, somehow, have managed to stand the test of time for the half century that has followed. Doubtless 20 years from now, it will be time for Fiorello! again.

(Jack Viertel is artistic director of Encores! This piece appears in the January 2013 Playbill for New York City Center.)

Watch Playbill Video rehearsal highlights of the Encores! revival of Fiorello!