This month, Cole Porter’s little-known 1930s Prohibition musical The New Yorkers will be revived for a limited run at New York City Center (March 22–26) as part of the Encores! season. Bringing The New Yorkers back to the stage has been a long time coming—artistic director Jack Viertel has been on the hunt for the nearly forgotten show since 2001—and according to Encores’ music director Rob Berman, it’s “the biggest and most creative reconstruction job” that the organization has ever taken on.
With a book by Herbert Fields and music and lyrics by Porter, The New Yorkers was the brainchild of producer-songwriter E. Ray Goetz and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno. A product of its time, it’s a celebration of speakeasies, gangsters, and society games. The musical played 168 performances on Broadway between 1930-1931, but all that remained of the show 87 years later were some barely decipherable carbon copy scripts scribbled with stage managers’ notes.
“There were no musical materials existing, no piano vocal score, no orchestrations, no book scores…and no recording,” says Berman. “[Viertel and I] were both very clear with the size of the job and what it would require.”
One of the first steps, he explains, was piecing together the various versions of the script that were in circulation. The Encores! research team quickly learned that the reason there were so many different scripts was because the original show kept changing—even after the show moved to Broadway. One of the better-known songs from The New Yorkers, “I Happen to Like New York,” was inserted some time during the Broadway run.
Berman says that although The New Yorkers was a book musical, the original show resembled more of a revue. “This is the 1930s, long before Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized how musicals are written, structured, and integrated,” he explains. The New Yorkers featured a Cole Porter score, but its star Jimmy Durante would often provide his own material and “would just launch into one of his numbers for no reason.” The show also featured guest appearances by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, who sang reprises but also included their own original numbers in some performances.
Over the last year, the Encores! research team has been working to put the show back together—sifting for clues through original scripts, as well as old Playbills, photographs, reviews, and archives. Three new Jimmy Durante songs were uncovered at UCLA, as well as a few Fred Waring papers at Penn State. Berman is also grateful to Musical Theater Works’ former literary manager Andrew Barrett, who had put together a one-night-only town hall presentation of The New Yorkers in 1994, and provided copies of much of the material from the Cole Porter archives at Yale.
But piecing all of the different versions together was proving to be complicated, and there were some missing pieces. The end result, says Berman, is “a departure from what we usually do.” The duo felt that the New York City Center production needed to feature a complete score, and made the decision to add a few Cole Porter songs from other musicals to fill in some of the gaps.
“We’ve taken some liberties that we believe are totally in the spirit of what the show must have been like,” says Berman. “You’ll hear every Cole Porter song that was in the original production, we’ve just enhanced it slightly.”
Berman led the charge on what he calls “the re-teaming of the score.” For each song, he determined the key feel, form, introduction, and accompaniment; he also wrote the vocal arrangements, dance arrangements, and created a piano score. For the orchestrations, Berman worked with longtime Encores! orchestrators Joshua Clayton and Larry Moore, who recreated the score for a 30-piece orchestra.
Berman says that the trio did have some models to work from. Orchestrations and recordings existed for Porter’s 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchmen and his 1932 show Gay Divorce, which gave the music team at Encores! a feel for the style and sound of his work from that time period. “Our goal with all of the arranging and orchestrating is, to the best of our ability, to make it sound like we think it would have sounded like in the 1930s,” says Berman.
The music team has since been working with Viertel, director John Rando, and choreographer Chris Bailey to stage what they believe is the best version of The New Yokers for Encores! “Even though we’ve taken some liberties,” says Berman, “we’ve captured the spirit of what the show was—pretty antic, a little anarchic, and very sexy.”
Take a sneak peek at rehearsals for the revival below:
The score restoration for The New Yorkers was made possible by The Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Broadway Musical Restoration Fund and Denise R. Sobel. Performances will run March 22–26; for tickets and more information visit NYCityCenter.org.