Theater: “New York, New York” at the St. James Theater
New York is the place where dreams come true. New York is the city where you reinvent yourself. Yeah yeah, we cynical New Yorkers say, rolling our eyes. We’ve heard it all before.
But there are truths to cliches. And it’s hard for even the most hardened among us to ignore the unabashedly sentimental and ultimately irresistible new musical “New York, New York” (St. James Theatre).
The play diverges markedly from the 1977 Scorsese film, “New York, New York” which was a flop when it premiered (it opened against “Star Wars.”) The story of Jimmy Doyle, an abusive, screwed-up jazz sax player (Robert DeNiro) and his on-again, off-again romance with Francine Evans, a 1940s Big Band singer (Liza Minnelli) did not sit well with critics (with the exception of Pauline Kael) and most moviegoers (with the exception of yours truly.)
The current Broadway show, set in post-WW II New York, retains Jimmy and Francine’s troubled romance but overlays a racial aspect: Jimmy (Colton Ryan from “Girl from the North Country”) is Irish, and Francine (the amazing Anna Uzele who played Catherine Parr in “Six”) is Black, and instead of ducking the issue, it addresses it head-on.
On a similar note, Jesse (John Clay III), a black GI returning from WW II, wants to be a trumpeter but can only get a job working in a kitchen. Mateo (Angel Sigala), a closeted gay Cuban, wants to play the bongos professionally but his parents want him to keep working in a warehouse. “A musician is not a real job,” his mother (Janet Dacal) says scornfully.
The musical is helped significantly by the addition of new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and choreography by Susan Stroman, both of which add a Latin flavor to the show. And while several numbers from the movie—“You are My Lucky Star” and “The Man I Love”—are gone, Kander and Ebb’s wonderful “The World Goes Round” is not, and is performed to a fare-thee-well by Anna Uzele.
Perhaps the best musical numbers in NYNY, though, reflect those elements that are uniquely New York: construction workers lunching on a girder suspended in the air, snow on Bow Bridge in Central Park, Manhattanhenge, even the whispering gallery in Grand Central Station! How can any self-respecting New Yorker—or New Yorkophile—not melt at such knowing references.
The other thing the Scorsese movie is famous for it is that it introduced “New York, New York,” which became the city’s unofficial anthem and which was quickly associated with both Frank Sinatra and the New York Yankees. I am happy to report it’s in the play too. So start spreading the news. “New York, New York” like the city itself is top of the heap and A-number-one. And that’s coming from the most uber-cynical New Yorker I know. Me.