I was recently reading about composer, Gary Fagin, who is working on a musical called “Robert Moses Astride New York.” A musical about Robert Moses? Really? What will they think of next? A musical about the newsboys strike of 1899? Been there. A musical about the Atlantic Yards? Done that. A musical about Fiorello LaGuardia? Old news.
It turns out that people and events in New York City history, no matter how unromantic, no matter how un-musical they might seem, have been the subject of many a musical interpretation. One of these shows even won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
“Fiorello!” is a musical about New York City mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia (1882-1947), who took on and beat down Tammany Hall. The book is by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock. It is one of only eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ever, and it also won a Tony award for Best Musical, beating out “Gypsy” and sharing first place honors with “The Sound of Music” in 1959.
This is quite a remarkable feat for an obscure musical that does not often get revived, save for a few productions in cities other than New York. Robert J. Eisenberg of The Huffinton Post, calls it “The Greatest Musical You’ve Never Heard Of,” in his blog post of the same name, and argues that, not only would it appeal to New Yorkers, it has universal appeal as it is “a story of decency, humanity and good triumphing over criminal, against insurmountable odds. It’s about breaking corruption and injustice, in order to bring good government and responsibility to the American public. And in the midst of it all, a double love story.”
On a slightly more modest scale, the 2010 “In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards” is a musical that “places eminent domain, gentrification and democracy under the bright spotlight of the stage.” According to a November 23, 3010 article in The Local, a Fort Greene blog, “Mayor Bloomberg, Borough President Marty Markowitz, developer Bruce Ratner, Councilmember Letitia James and even rapper Jay-Z, a part-owner of the Nets, are characters in the musical…” The script is written by The Civilians, an “investigative theater” group that used interviews with local residents to inform song lyrics.
On the other end of the production scale, the recent Disney Broadway production, “Newsies: The Musical” opened earlier this year to fairly positive reviews. Harvey Fierstein, the actor and playwright, wrote the book based on the 1992 Disney film. A distinctly Disneyfied version of an actual historic event, the musical recounts the strike waged by “newsies,” children and adults, but mostly young boys, who hawked newspapers on New York’s street corners, against publishing titans Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. One can see how the David and Goliath nature of the story would appeal to Disney Producers, and, in the end, of the musical at least, the newsies win the strike and Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor, plays a major role in this version of the story.
So why not a musical about Robert Moses? In fact, this is not the first time someone has chosen Moses as a muse. According to Ben Gibberd’s article, “Writing the Myth of Robert Moses,”
In 1990, the visual artist Theodora Skipitares created ”The Radiant City,” an Off Broadway play in which singing and dancing puppets delivered a harsh and surreal critique of Moses and his legacy. In 2005, the theatrical group Les Freres Corbusier tackled Moses’ legacy in another Off Broadway production, a multimedia revue titled ”Boozy: The Life, Death and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses.”
Believe it or not, I saw the production of “The Radiant City” when it was playing in New York. I remember songs with titles such as “The Master Builder” and “This is Jones Beach” and people dressed as buildings and cars dancing around the stage. It was a bit bizarre, to say the least. I have higher hopes of Fagin’s “Robert Moses Astride New York.” I hear that Jane Jacobs and even Fiorello himself will make appearances. Here’s a brief preview to whet your appetite:
Roads blast through;
Triborough, Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Verrazano;
Northern State, Southern State, Saw Mill, Henry Hudson;
Jones Beach, Riverside Park.