Wonderful Town is a musical with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein. It is based on the play My Sister Eileen, which is itself based on the collection of short stories by Ruth McKenney of the same name. It follows the story of Ruth and Eileen, who come to New York City from Columbus, Ohio in search of love and fortune. Having premiered in 1953, Wonderful Town has seen only one major Broadway revival in 2003, starring Donna Murphy (and later in the run, Brooke Shields) as Ruth.
Wonderful Town was written by Leonard Bernstein (music), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics), and Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov (book). It was originally directed by George Abbott, choreographed by Donald Saddler and produced by Robert Fryer. It debuted on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on February 25, 1953 and ran for 559 performances, closing in July 3, 1954. It was broadcast live as a television special on CBS in 1958, starring Rosalind Russell and revived on Broadway in 2003 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, starring Donna Murphy, and later Brooke Shields.
The story is a reworking of the play My Sister Eileen, following the story of two sisters from Ohio who move to New York City in search of love and fortune. The main characters are Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, two sisters from Columbus, Ohio trying to make their way in the big city. The play is based on a collection of short stories by Ruth McKenney, also entitled My Sister Eileen, in which Ruth recounts memories of growing up with her sister. The collection was published as an orange hardcover book in 1938; three years after the events depicted in the musical. Only the final two stories in the book have anything to do with the plot of Wonderful Town, and they are heavily modified for the musical. In the original story, the sisters' landlord is named Mr. Spitzer, while his name is Mr. Appopolous in the musical version.
My Sister Eileen was filmed twice. Once in 1942 with Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair playing the sisters and again in 1955 with Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh.
In 1953, the original production was nominated for six Tony Awards and won in all six categories (Best Musical, Rosalind Russell for Best Actress, Best Scenic Design, Best Choreographer, Best Conductor and Musical Director, and the Theatre World Award). The 2003 revival was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning one for Best Choreography (Kathleen Marshall). Despite the critical acclaim it has received, Wonderful Town remains relatively obscure in all but the most knowledgable musical theatre circles. It has gained some popularity from the recent revival, but given its difficult musical score and highly sophisticated script, it is only ever attempted by the most capable community theater groups, much less a high school. However, high schools are using this show as a type 'one-uppance' to their competition, owing to its intricacy.
A much lighter piece than Leonard Bernstein's later works, West Side Story and Candide, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's lyrics are paired with Bernstein's music to produce some of the most popular songs of the 1950s.
Though there have been only two major Broadway productions of Wonderful Town, many recordings of the music have been made over the years.
Act I begins during the summer of 1935 in Greenwich Village, New York. A tour guide leads a group of sightseers on a tour of "Christopher Street". There, we meet its colorful citizens.
When the tourists have departed, the witty Ruth Sherwood arrives with her pretty young sister Eileen. The two have just arrived from Ohio determined to forge a life in the big city as a writer (Ruth) and an actress (Eileen). Soon they are living in a basement apartment, recently vacated by a local prostitute Violet, and loaned by the "loveable" landlord, Mr. Appopolous. The sisters are soon stricken with homesickness for "Ohio".
The next morning, Ruth and Eileen set out to try their hand at "Conquering New York", only to find defeat and humiliation. Eileen, at least, has met Frank Lippencott, a local Walgreen's manager who has developed a crush on her. Ruth, however, is left to wonder at her sister's magnetic appeal and her own unique romantic abilities, as she lists "One Hundred Easy Ways" to lose a man.
Eventually, Ruth talks her way into the offices of a short story magazine, where she meets Bob Baker, an editor, and his assistants. The men abruptly tell her "What A Waste" it was to come to New York. Undaunted, Ruth leaves three stories with Bob in the hope that he will read them.
Meanwhile, Eileen has been eating all of her lunches (free, naturally), at Walgreen's, and finds herself "A Little Bit In Love" with Frank.
The upstairs neighbors, Wreck, an out-of-season football player, and his live-in lover, Helen, ask the girls to hide Wreck while Helen's mother Mrs. Wade is in town. Eileen happily agrees to stow him in their apartment. Wreck describes his lucky history as a student at Trenton Tech, who got by on his ability to "Pass The Football".
Eileen has invited Frank Lippencott, Bob Baker, and a slimy newspaper scribe, Chick Clark, over for potluck supper. Unaware of each other's feelings, both girls find themselves attracted to Bob. Soon all five of them are seated around the cramped apartment trying to fill the awkward silence, in "Conversation Piece".
Ruth and Bob quarrel over the quality of her stories, and he finally tells her off. He soon regrets it, and sings of his inability to find "A Quiet Girl" to love.
Anxious to be alone with Eileen, Chick Clark creates a bogus assignment for Ruth. He sends her off to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to interview a group of Brazilian sailors. She quickly realizes that their sole interest is to learn the "Conga".
The sailors follow Ruth home, where the girls soon find themselves in chaotic confusion, as all the citizens of Christopher Street join the conga line. Ruth runs into Bob and gives him a piece of her mind, while Eileen is hauled off to jail for causing the riot. Act II begins in the local jail, where Eileen finds herself surrounded by Officer Lonigan and his brigade of doting Irish police officers. Given her name, they are convinced that she is Irish, and they serenade her with "My Darlin' Eileen". Ruth comes to assure her that she will bail her out as soon as she collects the money from her new job as a promoter for the Village Vortex, a local nightclub. At the club, Ruth "digs the rhythm" of "Swing".
Thanks to Bob, Eileen is soon released from jail, and the sisters learn that Appopolous has been so scandalized by Eileen's arrest, he has threatened to evict them. Eileen discovers that Ruth is also attracted to Bob Baker, and the two of them wish, for a moment, that they had never left home, reprising "Ohio". Eileen is then confronted by the rhythmical Speedy Valenti, owner of the Village Vortex, who gives her her New York debut as a singer.
Eileen soon learns that Bob Baker has quit his job as a result of a disagreement with his boss about Ruth's story on the Brazilian sailors. Eileen is thrilled that Bob quit his job and assures him that "It's Love". The mood at the Vortex turns jazzy with the "Ballet At The Village Vortex". Eileen finds herself with a case of stage fright and she convinces Ruth to join her on stage to sing the "Wrong Note Rag". The Vortex is alive with singing and dancing, and Bob decides it's the perfect moment to let Ruth know how he feels. The curtain closes as Eileen and the guests at the club sing "It's Love" in celebration of Ruth and Bob's newfound affection.
Original Broadway Cast
The original Broadway production of Wonderful Town opened February 25, 1953 at the Winter Garden Theatre.
Opening Night Cast:
New Broadway Cast
The New Broadway production of Wonderful Town opened November 23, 2003 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.