Listen: Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film, “New York, New York” wasn’t easy to begin with. It was so long and unwieldy that a 14 minute musical segment was excised from it for wide release. Even that didn’t work, so later it was added back in. Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli were terrific, but the story was always an issue. The songs — the title song and “But The World Goes Round” — nevertheless became hits.
Now why try and turn this into a Broadway musical? The version currently at the St. James Theater has no book, no story, and no idea what it’s supposed to be about. They’ve tossed most of the original movie story to make it a musical about “making it anywhere” like the famous song says. But it’s a mess. The original characters are thin and undeveloped. There’s a preposterous plot addition of a black and white main couple, something that in 1946 post-War New York is ridiculous. The show seems a lot like leftovers: scraps from “In the Heights” dropped onto “Chicago.” There’s also a fiddler on the street (he never gets to the roof).
Susan Stroman tried to direct this show, and I give her credit for some sparkling set pieces. One of them involves tap dancing on the famous 1932 high in the sky girder photograph called “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper.” (No big deal that this musical takes place 14 years later and that there’s no explanationfor why two main characters are even there– they’re musicians).. Another involves umbrellas. Stroman’s dancers glide even when they don’t seem to know what direction they’re gliding. Stroman, who’s so gifted, tries to make lemonade from lemons. But what she gets is Crystal Light.
De Niro’s Jimmy Doyle is played by a milquetoast named Colton Ryan. He doesn’t know whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, a musician or a singer. Like all the actors, Ryan fakes playing instruments and it’s very disheartening especially after seeing Sean Hayes’s virtuoso rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” in “Good Night, Oscar.” Doyle’s band is as fake as the show. Minnelli’s Francine is now Black, and played by Anna Uzele, who’s very good but no Minnelli. She’s also burdened with selling contemporary dialogue about race that would never have been broached in 1946. (Ironically, a real life Doyle — director John — is well known for staging musicals in which the actors actually play their instruments.)
Most of David Thompson’s book is strung together with non-sequiturs. Scenes start and don’t necessarily finish. We don’t know what these characters want, and they don’t seem eager to get it. A lot of musical numbers are supplied by secondary characters because Thompson has nothing pressing for Jimmy and Francine to do. And here’s something really weird: an incredibly talented performer named Allison Blackwell sings opera in the second for no apparent reason — first as a maid, then as a diva. She’s so good the audience goes wild. But she has no character name, and is only listed in the chorus. Of course, by the time this happens, we’d given up any hope of coherence. But someone should hire this woman immediately.
No one wants a big budget musical to fail. But just a few minutes in, you can smell “New York, New York” is a stinker. It will also take two hours and thirty five minutes before Francine sings the title song, which is all anyone wants to hear, anyway. The other songs? Aside from “World Goes Round,” they are all the same, plucked from the long ago stored trunk of John Kander and Fred Ebb. They are leftovers. One of them, called “Happy Endings,” could really be sung to the tune of “Pretty Women” from “Sweeney Todd.” Only one song, “Along Comes Love,” which opens the second act, feels like a lost gem.
How did this show get 12 nominations from the Outer Critics Circle? It’s lunacy. But look at those nominations: there isn’t one for Best Book of a Musical. That’s because even the OCC could not find a through-line, a story, or anything that holds “New York, New York” together. That should be very telling.
So what is the Best New Musical of 2023? I’m thinking it’s “Some Like it Hot,” which I loved and still recommend. Compared to this show, “Some Like it Hot” is “My Fair Lady.”