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Friday, February 25, 2011

Wonderful Town and My Sister Eileen

Today marks the anniversary of the opening of the musical Wonderful Town, which premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre on February 25, 1953. The musical—by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green—was one of many adaptations of Ruth McKenney’s memoir, My Sister Eileen. The show focuses on the book’s last two chapters, which take place during Ruth and Eileen McKenney’s six months living at 14 Gay Street in Greenwich Village.

The McKenney sisters moved from Ohio to New York in the early 1930s. Eileen was a struggling actress; Ruth, a writer, eventually landed a job working for the New Yorker chronicling their lives. In 1938, those stories were collected into My Sister Eileen.

Though Wonderful Town is today the most famous adaptation of the book, the story has been produced many times on stage, screen, radio, and TV.

In 1940, a stage adaptation of My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov opened at the Biltmore and ran for 864 performances. By the time the play was set to open, Eileen had married novelist Nathaniel West and they’d moved to California, where she worked for Walt Disney. Four days before the Broadway debut, Eileen and West were killed in an automobile accident en route to the airport to fly to New York for the opening. Ruth went into mourning and never saw the play.

Two years later, Hollywood adapted the Fields/Chodorov play into a film with Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Janet Blair as Eileen. The movie was then adapted for CBS radio; in 1946, Russell and Blair reprised their roles for a half-hour radio play that served as a pilot for a regular series. However, instead of picking up the series, CBS instead began airing My Friend Irma—which seemed to be enough of a knock-off that Ruth McKenney ultimately received a settlement from the network.

This finally brings us to February 25, 1953, and Wonderful Town, which took the Fields/Chodorov play and set it to music.

Once again, Rosalind Russell played Ruth; in this incarnation, Edith Adams played Eileen. Interestingly, though the book is set in Ruth and Eileen’s basement at 14 Gay Street and the original play in a “one-room Greenwich Village studio near Christopher Street,” Wonderful Town moves the action to Christopher Street itself. The show’s memorable opening number, Christopher Street, has a tour guide showing gawking out-of-towners around the Village. He shows them the “painters and pigeons” in Washington Square; Waverly Place (a “bit of ‘Paree’ in Greenwich Village”), and everything else that America’s Left Bank was supposed to have (“Poets! Actors! Dancers! Writers!”). Bernstein, Green, and Comden—who had worked at the Village Vanguard as a group called the Revuers—clearly knew the scene they were parodying.

Wonderful Town won five Tonys in 1953, including Best Musical and a nod for Rosalind Russell’s performance as Ruth. A 2003 revival also earned a number of Tony nominations, ultimately only winning best choreography.

There were two more notable adaptations of My Sister Eileen after the success of Wonderful Town. A new film version came out in 1955; it was a musical, too, but it wasn’t the Broadway show. When the film rights to Wonderful Town proved too costly for Columbia Pictures, they simply hired Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write a new score. The film starred Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Fosse. In response, Wonderful Town was then filmed for television and aired in 1958. (You can see an excerpt of Rosalind Russell performing Swing! here.)

Finally, in 1960, the original Ruth McKenney stories served as the basis for a television series called My Sister Eileen, which ran for one season with Elaine Stritch as Ruth.

Today, there’s still a studio apartment in the basement of 14 Gay Street (between Waverly and Christopher); indeed very little on the street has changed in the 75 years since Ruth and Eileen called it home. If you are the area, take a stroll; who knows—maybe Poets! Actors! Dancers! or Writers! will suddenly appear and serenade you.

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Read more about Greenwich Village -- and take a walking tour -- with
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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1 comment:

A Man and A Mouse said...

Thanks for this information. It's quite a twisted tale.

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