The York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series has been celebrating George Abbott recently, but this weekend will be the first "real" George Abbott musical of the set of three. Two weeks ago, there was Jumbo, the first musical that Abbott ever attempted but one for which he was brought in as a "mere" co-director. Last week was How Now, Dow Jones, for which Abbott came in out-of-town after original director Arthur Penn left.
New Girl in Town, which opened on May 14, 1957, was a true "George Abbott show," for he was not only the original director but also the book writer. Indeed, according to his autobiography Mister Abbott, Abbott jump-started the project: He was in Hollywood when Doris Day told him about this musical movie of Anna Christie that pop songwriter Bob Merrill had written, but the project was shelved. (Abbott didn't say so but, at that time, the property was called A Saint She Ain't -- a title that Dick Vosburgh used for his 1999 British musical in which W.C. Fields, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Durante, and the Andrews Sisters all meet and have adventures together.)
Once Abbott returned to New York, he got in touch with Merrill, heard the score, liked it, and endorsed it to the producers of his previous two Broadway productions (The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees). They were Frederick Brisson, Robert E. Griffith, and last -- but as events would have it, hardly least -- Harold S. Prince. Prince would produce and/or direct many a serious musical play in the years to come, but New Girl in Town was the first with which he'd be associated.
It was so serious, in fact, that just the idea of it -- a musical of a Eugene O'Neill play?! -- would have seemed laughable only 15 years earlier in the pre-Oklahoma! era. Anna Christie was a 1921 Broadway hit but is most famous through its 1930 movie version, which was heavily advertised as the movie in which "Garbo Talks!" Her opening line is still considered a classic: "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side...and don't be stingy, baby!" She says it after she's walked into a bar, looking for the father she hasn't seen in 15 years. He's Chris Christopherson, who owns a coal barge on which he lives with his worse-for-wear mistress, Marthy, who isn't thrilled to be displaced when Chris's daughter shows up out of the blue -- but she goes.
Chris doesn't see Anna for what she is -- a woman who's turned to prostitution -- but idealizes her. That makes her a bit contemptuous of him, but she has other concerns after Chris rescues a sailor named Matt from the ornery sea. Matt eventually falls desperately in love with Anna, who loves him, too -- but she knows that her past can't be overlooked.
Tough play, tough musical -- so you wouldn't assume that Bob Merrill would be the logical composer-lyricist for the assignment. He had written Tin Pan Alley million sellers but they were called "If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd Have Baked a Cake" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" Nevertheless, Merrill's score was one of the stronger debuts in musical theater history. As you can tell from the RCA Victor cast album, it starts with a rollicking opening ("Roll Your Socks Up") before seguéing into Chris's tender "Anna Lilla," in which he remembers his daughter as she was. Then comes "Sunshine Girl," a catchy tune that's meant to be a popular song of the day. (It's so good that it would have been, had it been written then.) Then Anna tells Chris what life was like "On the Farm," where her cousins lusted after her, caught her, and started her on the road to ruin.
The next song is one of the most charming: "Flings," sings Marthy with one of her women pals as these two lovable decrepits reminisce about their youthful romances: "Flings is wonderful things." And here's where Merrill and Abbott made one of the better changes to Anna Christie. Marthy doesn't go away quietly but stays on the scene -- and Thelma Ritter, who played her in New Girl in Town, was sure glad of that. Ritter had only appeared twice before on Broadway, once in the '20s and once in the '30s, each time in a short-running show. Now, she'd returned after a solid Hollywood career that had netted her four Oscar nominations. She'd get two more in later years though she would never win; but Broadway would better appreciate her, giving her not only a Tony nomination but also a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical.
She wasn't the only one to get the nod that year. Gwen Verdon also won for playing Anna Christie, making for the first tie in Tony history. Verdon has often been criticized for not having a singing voice that was the equal of her dancing -- but considering how she danced, no voice could have been commensurate. Verdon had a distinctive sound and she certainly seems in control on the cast album, especially in her two plaintive numbers, "It's Good to Be Alive" and "If That Was Love." (Alas, New Girl was before my theatergoing time, so I never did get to hear her deliver "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side...and don't be stingy, baby!" -- which Abbott wisely retained.)
Ritter and Verdon would win the show's only Tonys; tough year, what with The Music Man winning most everything and Fosse's choreography losing to Jerome Robbins's West Side Story work. But Fosse (and Verdon) must have felt that he would have had a better chance at the choreography prize if Abbott had left in the ballet he conceived. "The Red Light Ballet" was a look at whorehouse life. "I made no protest against this number," wrote Abbott, "nor did my associates, until we saw it before an audience. Then the cold, shocked reaction of the viewers made us realize that the sequence was just plain dirty. We wanted to take it out, but Gwen and Fosse fought for it like tigers. We argued that the dream ballet was a device already worn threadbare by its frequent use on Broadway; that, in any case, the ballet was false because it pictured the bordello in glamorous, exciting terms, whereas Anna Christie had nothing but loathing for her past; and, finally, that the audience hated it. They replied that it was high art, that they didn't care what the audience liked, and that people had thrown fruit at Stravinsky. We tried to point out that the act of throwing fruit at a project was not in the strictest logic an absolute proof of its high art."
According to Abbott, Fosse wanted another chance, and got it. "But," wrote Abbott, "though the new dance started off differently, it somehow seemed to end up as the old peep show. I would give Fosse orders to work on the waltz number, but if I happened to drop into his rehearsals, I would find him flogging away at the same damn ballet." That Abbott wouldn't restore it is one reason why Fosse vowed that he'd be a director-choreographer from then on, and he almost always was.
I've often heard that much of this ballet wound up in Pippin, taking place when the title character goes off on his sexual adventures. If so, I'll side with Fosse, for I consider it to be contain one of musical theater's most effective moments: Four people each took one of Pippin's arms and legs and held him aloft, parallel to the stage. Then a young lovely rolled under him and the quartet lowered Pippin onto her as if he were a pants-press machine, then immediately lifted him up. The young lovely would roll away, a new one would replace her, and the foursome lowered Pippin once again -- and again, and again. It was a brilliant way of showing mindless sex.
"New Girl in Town was never right because of this," wrote Abbott. While that may have been true, the show did last a year and 10 days at the 46th Street Theatre. But it hasn't been seen too often since. Given that the York is holding a George Abbott Festival, it should offer a New Girl in Town without the ballet -- which it will, of course, because Musicals in Mufti are glorified staged readings (though often glorious ones).
But wouldn't it be something if director Michael Montel and musical director Jack Lee reinstated a song dropped from the score? When New Girl in Town was out of town, it contained a number called "Elegance." There are those who'll tell you that this is the same song that later turned up as the second-act opener for Hello, Dolly! after its producer, David Merrick, reached out to Merrill in Detroit to help bolster Jerry Herman's score. Can you let us know for sure, Messrs. Montel and Lee, by including the song?
New Girl in Town plays November 15-17, with performances on Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2:30 and 8pm, and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30pm. Audience discussions follow each matinée. Single tickets are $30, and are available through Telecharge at 212-239-6200. Call (212) 935-5820 or visit www.yorktheatre.org.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]