When Wonderful Town opened on Broadway in February 1953, the musical represented the fourth iteration of author Ruth McKenney’s autobiographical tales of the misadventures that befell her and her younger sister Eileen when they left their Ohio home to find fame and fortune in New York City.
Originally published in The New Yorker, McKenney’s infectiously comic stories were anthologized in the 1938 best-seller My Sister Eileen. Two years later, playwrights Jerome Chodorov and Joseph A. Fields adapted the stories into a hit stage play of the same name, then turned the play into a popular 1942 film, starring Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen. Russell and Blair repeated their roles in a 1946 radio adaptation for CBS’ Academy Awards Theater; a planned CBS radio series to star Lucille Ball, however, never materialized. (Another popular series, My Friend Irma, appropriated My Sister Eileen’s basic premise and characterizations, resulting in a successful lawsuit brought by McKenney and her producer.)
In 1952, Fields and Chodorov began work on a musical adaptation of the story, intent on creating a vehicle for Russell’s long-anticipated return to the Broadway stage. But by December of that year, the songs created by the composer originally hired for the assignment were deemed unusable by the two writers. With the start of rehearsals only five weeks away, and with Russell’s availability limited due to her film commitments, director George Abbott placed a frantic call to lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, pleading for their help with the show; they in turn asked their old friend and collaborator Leonard Bernstein if he would supply a few songs for the adaptation. Neither Green nor Comden was especially excited by the project, but their attitudes were soon changed by Bernstein’s enthusiasm for the source material and its musical possibilities. In the midst of their initial meeting with the composer, Green wrote later, Bernstein suddenly exclaimed, “Say, I’ve got a great idea for a ‘Sister Eileen’ tune.” At that moment, according to Green, “We started working on the show. I don’t think we left that studio all month.”
Wonderful Town would become the third of Bernstein’s creations (including the ballet Fancy Free and its musical theater adaptation, On the Town) to deal with the idea of New York as a big, warmhearted haven for arriving innocents. (Comden and Green would create the similarly themed Bells Are Ringing with composer Jule Styne three years later.) Drawing in part on his previous work in jazz composition, opera and operetta, Bernstein created one of his most eclectic scores, including ballads (“A Little Bit in Love” and “A Quiet Girl”), exuberant dance numbers (“Conga” and “Swing”), comic character songs (“One Hundred Easy Ways” and “Pass The Football”) and Bernstein’s favorite, “Conversation Piece,” in which five characters engage in a halting discussion at an achingly uncomfortable dinner party. Although the score contained no stand-alone hits, its infectious romanticism, laced with Comden and Green’s witty lyrics, drew critical plaudits and helped make Wonderful Town the musical hit of the 1952/1953 season. Winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the show ran for 559 performances, making it Bernstein’s most successful Broadway show after West Side Story. (After her departure, Russell was replaced by Carol Channing for the final six months of the run.)
Although professional revivals have been infrequent, the show’s popularity has endured, due in large part to a growing appreciation of Bernstein’s surprisingly sophisticated score. A live television broadcast of the show, again featuring Russell as Ruth, aired in November 1958; several studio recordings of the score were also made in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. In May 2000, Wonderful Town was presented in staged concert form as part of the City Center Encores! series, featuring Donna Murphy and Laura Benanti; its success led to a major Broadway revival of the show in 2003, directed by Kathleen Marshall and starring Murphy, who won a Tony Award for her performance. Now, Tony Award winner and Goodman Resident Manilow Director Mary Zimmerman sets her new exploration of this beloved work in the era in which it was created, the early 1950s, when Greenwich Village continued to be the thriving hub of poets, painters, writers and free-thinkers of all persuasions. Nearly 80 years after they first appeared in print, Ruth McKenney’s tale of two young sisters poised on the brink of urban adventure continues to delight new generations of audiences with their innocence, charm and irresistible humor—brought to rousing musical life by the acknowledged masters of American musical comedy.