Tony Award Winners: 1953 Wonderful Town

8 Mar

wonderful town


Wonderful Town is the first Tony winning musical to not really cross over into general culture.   This is a shame, because it’s the funniest musical yet, and that may be partially why this work isn’t taken as seriously–the story is very slapstick.   This musical is based on a movie based on a play based on short stories.

One aside here–one item I hear frequently about Broadway these days is handwringing over how many musicals are based on movies these days.   “I just wish that Broadway shows were stories written for the stage again.”   Since movies began, they had been influencing theatre, and it should be so.  While movies are certainly based around a broad audience, they explore the visual medium in interesting ways.   Also, what decent story has been written in the last 75 years that cinema hasn’t already touched.  Besides, with musicals, it really doesn’t matter where their ideas come from, as long as they’re adapted adequately for the medium at hand.

Now that I’ve finished that sidebar, Roselind Russell is there in all her Roziness, to the degree that it almost obfuscates the solid music that lays beneath.   Her voice is not perfect, but it suits the work like a hand in glove, and the rest of the cast have good strong voices for support.  I also appreciate how cleverly the music was written to work with Roz’s personality, and still have a tune.

And the music writers–talk about royalty, Bernstein did the score, and Comden & Green did the lyrics.    The music is playful and silly and much much better than it has to be, balancing between Bernstein’s jazzy/classical influences and humorous pop.   Sondheim’s statements about tunes not being “hummable” as meaning that the music is original really hits home here.  When I first heard this soundtrack, I thought the music sounded slight and forgettable, but with repeated listens, Bernstein is very much there, with his musical themes and atonal shifts, and the rich music underneath somewhat mundane lyrics are phenomenal once they sink in.

Best songs:  Conga is a showstopper, and probably the only song you might have heard if you know nothing about this play.  Ohio, Pass the Football, and What a Waste are all great as well.   Swing! is the most interesting, having Russell go from singing to a stream-of-consciousness beat poetry jam and back again.

While writing this, it struck me that Wonderful Town might have dated itself a bit with its emphasis on swing.   In 1952 swing was on its way out and rock n’ roll was on its way in.   It would be a few years, sure, but for a long while swing was thought of as fuddy duddy music your grandparents would listen to.   On another sidenote, it’s really strange that in any revival of this play the leading lady inevitably does an Katherine Hepburn impression.  Or do bad Rosalind Russell impressions sound like Katherine Hepburn?

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