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It's a Helluva Town: New York Musicals

In honor of our most grievously wounded city, here's a list of musicals and songs about New York. Musicals are New York, even if they were conceived elsewhere. One of the few geniunely American forms of entertainment, the modern musical (i.e., the musical dating from Showboat on up) would likely not exist without New York. And many of the creators were born, raised, and/or educated in New York. Betty Comden and Adolph Green are inextricably linked to the fun side of the city--one could make the case that they comprise part of the soul of New York--with a good number of the musicals they worked on being set entirely or partially in the city. But many other composers drew inspiration from New York as well, as this long list will attest.

Annie (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin)

Set mostly in Depression-era New York (1933). Absolutely, positively New York. Places include the Lower East Side, St. Mark's Place, under the 59th Street Bridge, Daddy Warbucks's Fifth Avenue mansion, a walking tour of the city, and Rockefeller Center.

Applause (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set mostly in contemporary New York. Scenes in the Theatre District (at the Tonys) and Greenwich Village.

Bells Are Ringing (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set in then-contemporary New York City (1950s). Atmosphere is the typical Comden and Green New York, a "gay, warm-hearted small town, where people dance and sing in the subway." Would that it were so....

Billion Dollar Baby (Music by Morton Gould, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set partially in 1920s New York, with a scene or two in Atlantic City. Scenes in a home in Staten Island, the Staten Island Ferry, the speakeasy Chez Georgia, and the Waldorf Astoria. The show ends with the Wall Street crash of 1929 (seems so penny-ante these days--ah, experience), which is obviously a downer of an ending, which is probably why we won't be seeing this show produced on stage too often. One song is titled "Broadway Blossom."

Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story (music and lyrics by various)

One scene in the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in the 1950s.

Catch Me If I Fall (music, lyrics, and book by Barbara Schottenfeld)

Set in Manhattan in the 1980s. This topical musical deals with a businessman who marries an artistic Romanian woman in order to prevent her from having to return to her homeland during the troubles of the 1980s. His ex-wife and girlfriend aren't pleased.... One of the songs is titled "When You Live In New York."

A Chorus Line (Music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban)

Set in 1970s New York in an unnamed theatre. Possibly the greatest musical about New York musicals, and certainly the greatest one about gypsies. Mentions all kinds of places in the city: the Bronx, the High School of Performing Arts, etc., and one of the characters is from Trenton, New Jersey.

Company (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth)

Set in NYC, circa the early 1970s. The song "Another Hundred People" is about alienation in the big city. Now, when I hear the line, "And every day/Some go away," I start crying.

Do Re Mi (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set in various locations in New York during the years when jukeboxes were cropping up in ice cream parlors and elsewhere.

Drat! The Cat! (Music by Milton Schafer, book and lyrics by Ira Levin)

Set in 1890s New York City. Legendary one-week musical with fantastic score, one of the best ever to flop so badly. Scenes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Academy of Music, a private room at Delmonico's, and Pier Fourteen.

Dreamgirls (Music by Henry Krieger, book and lyrics by Tom Eyen)

Set partially in New York City (Harlem) from 1962 to 1982. Scenes at the Apollo Theatre. I saw this show but don't have the CD, and I can't recall how much of it was set in New York.

Fiorello! (Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick)

Set in New York over a 30-year period from 1915 or so to 1945. Scenes in the mayor's office, Greenwich Village, the Republican clubhouse on West Third Street, and an uptown penthouse. It also deals with Tammany Hall and New York politics.

Follies (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

Set in New York's mythical Weismann Theatre in 1970. The location of the theatre is not that important, except for its relationship to Broadway and to the United Nations (one of the main characters hosts dinners for elderly men from the UN).

42nd Street (Music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin)

Set in New York's theatre district during the Depression. Primal rags-to-riches unknown-to-star story set on "Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty 42nd Street." Classic New York-themed songs: "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," the title song.

Funny Girl (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill)

Set partially in the Lower East Side (Fanny Brice grew up there) and the theatre district. Fanny Brice was a archetypical Jewish New Yorker.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin)

Set partially in NYC during the Prohibition era--I'm not entirely sure how, since according to the summary the action takes place on a cruise ship and in Paris, but the front matter of the CD booklet says that NYC is one of the settings. There's a song, "Homesick Blues," about "dear old New York."

George M! (Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan)

Set mostly in New York from 1878 to 1937. New York from another theatre perspective, this time a classic one. Songs include "Give My Regards to Broadway," "All Aboard for Broadway," "My Town," "Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway"--a whole raft of standards.

Golden Boy (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)

Set mostly in NYC between 1960 and 1964. Scenes in a Harlem gym and elsewhere in Harlem. Songs include "Don't Forget 127th Street" and "While the City Sleeps."

The Great American Backstage Musical (Music and lyrics by Bill Solly)

With a title like this, where else could this show be set? (It's also set partially in London and California.) The time period is the late 1930s through the end of WW II. The show is framed by the setting of Johnny's Bar in Greenwich Village.

Guys and Dolls (Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser)

Set partially in Prohibition-era New York City, with the main male character a slick Broadway gambler. Major-league classic. Songs include "The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York."

Hair (Music by Galt MacDermot, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado)

Set in the East Village. Sort of. The show is mostly fantasy numbers, practically a revue, and the "real" setting isn't very prominent.

Hallelujah, Baby! (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set partially in New York during a variety of eras. Scenes in a 1920s Harlem nightclub, the theatre district, and generic upper-class New York in the 1960s.

Hello, Dolly! (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart)

Set partially in NYC in 1898. Starts out in Yonkers and moves to the Big Apple.

I Can Get It For You Wholesale (Music and lyrics by Harold Rome)

Set in the Garment District of New York in 1937 and deals with politics and double-dealing in that profession. Scenes in a factory in the Garment District and the Bronx, as well as in some tony restaurants/nightclubs and penthouses. Songs include "Ballet of the Garment Trade."

Jelly's Last Jam (Music by Jelly Roll Morton with Luther Henderson, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead)

The site of Jelly Roll Morton's fall from grace. Having succeeded in Chicago, he travels to New York to join in the big time. But they already have their own stars. Worse, everyone in the music business is a sharpie or a thug, and when he refuses to bow to their pressure, he finds he can't even play in the seediest nightclubs. Defeated, he leaves the city. Songs include "Good Ole New York" and "That's the Way We Do Things in New York."

Lady in the Dark (Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin)

Set in the publishing world of New York City. I think. Makes sense, but I can't confirm this.

The Life (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, and book by David Newman, Gasman, and Coleman)

Set in NYC "today," on 42nd Street and elsewhere, including the Port Authority and the Lincoln Tunnel. The seedy side of New York as hookers struggle with various problems in their lives.

Little Shop of Horrors (Music by Alan Menken, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman)

Set in Skid Row in New York during the 1950s.

Mack & Mabel (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman)

Set partially in Brooklyn in 1911, in Mack Sennett's first movie studio.

Make Mine Manhattan (Music by Richard Lewine, lyrics by Arnold B. Horwitt)

A 1948 revue. I know zilch about it, but the summary in Broadway Musicals Show by Show indicates that it covers a lot of then-topical issues concerning New York, including the establishment of the UN, the menu at Schrafft's, and the "current" production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro.

Mame (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman)

Set partially in a New York (Manhattan) ranging from pre-Depression to post-WW II. Scenes at No. 3 Beekman Place.

Merrily We Roll Along (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

Set partially in New York over 25 years, from 1955 to 1980. Scenes in a New York TV studio, a Central Park West apartment, a courthouse in lower Manhattan, outside the Alvin Theatre, a Sutton Place apartment, a Greenwich Village nightclub, and the roof of an apartment building in the Upper West Side. I'm not sure if the school that the two main characters attended was supposed to be in New York.

Miss Liberty (Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin)

Set in New York (and Paris) in 1885. Deals with not the creation of the Statue of Liberty itself, but with the model who posed for it. Naturally, the wrong one is brought to New York.

My One and Only (Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin)

Set in 1927 in what I believe must be partially New York, since one of the characters is a bootlegging Harlem minister. I don't have this CD, though, and the description I have is obviously inadequate.

No Way to Treat a Lady (Music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen)

Set in late 1960s New York.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Music by Burton Lane, lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner)

Set partially in contemporary (1960s) New York City. I think. I can't find my copy of the CD, and I don't have an adequate summary.

On the Town (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Perhaps the greatest New York show. Set in Manhattan during WWII and wanders all over it. Contains the classic "New York, New York" as its opening number. "Come Up to My Place" mentions a whole bunch of lost-or-moved-but-not-forgotten New York landmarks, like the aquarium and the Hippodrome. Other songs: "Carnegie Hall," "Dance: Times Square," "Ballet: The Imaginary Coney Island," "Dance: The Real Coney Island," and, in the remastered version, the dance "Times Square: 1944."

On Your Toes (Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart)

Set in New York in the 1930s or so--not entirely sure what the period is supposed to be. Songs include the ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."

One Touch of Venus (Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash)

Set in New York at a time period that I guess is contemporary with the show's opening (early 1940s). Scenes at the "Whitelaw Savory Foundation of Modern Art Museum" and "Ozone Heights."

Play On! (music and lyrics by Duke Ellington [adapted by Luther Henderson])

Set in Harlem, NYC, I think during the Harlem Renaissance. This show adapts Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to an urban setting, with a female songwriter forced to pose as a man to get "himself" taken seriously. Loaded with classic jazz about NYC, including "Take the 'A' Train" and "Drop Me Off in Harlem."

The Producers (Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks)

Set in New York in 1959-1960 or so. Maybe the ultimate musical about producing musicals in New York. Scenes in Shubert Alley outside the Shubert Theatre, a Greenwich Village tenement, an Upper East Side townhouse, "Little Old Lady Land," and onstage at the Shubert Theatre (bizarre, when you consider that this show has been running since inception at the St. James).

Promises, Promises (Music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David)

Set in New York. I think. I can't find a summary that makes this clear.

Rags (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz)

Set in 1910 New York. Lots of lyrics about the city during that time, especially from an immigrant's point of view. Scenes at Ellis Island, a sweatshop (presumably in the Lower East Side, according to the song "Penny a Tune"), an Irish pub, the Yiddish theatre, and elsewhere.

Ragtime (Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)

Set partially in turn-of-the-century New York (both the city and New Rochelle). Scenes in Harlem, the dock in New York Harbor, a Manhattan courtroom, the Polo Grounds, and (in the climactic scene) the Morgan Library.

Rent (Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larsen)

Set in a crumbling apartment in, and on the streets of, the Lower East Side in contemporary New York.

Ruthless! The Musical (music by Marvin Laird, lyrics and book by Joel Paley)

Set partially in contemporary-ish New York. In the second act, the characters mostly relocate to NYC because Judy Denmark has become Ginger DelMarco and has become a big theatrical star.

Saturday Night (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

Set in Brooklyn in 1929. Sondheim's most New York-pervaded lyrics. I have the CD (American cast), but damned if I know what I've done with the libretto. I do recall that several songs dealt with Wall Street and the joys of Brooklyn.

Seesaw (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Set in 1970s New York. Scenes in Times Square (the naughty version, not the current sanitized one), the fountain in front of Lincoln Center, El Barrio, and a theatre. The original production used a backdrop of constant visual projections of the city (stylized) onto moving screens, making the city a "third main character."

70, Girls, 70 (Music by John Kander and Dorothea Freitag, lyrics by Fred Ebb)

Set in the 1970s, this musical deals with the plight of the poor elderly in New York City. The score doesn't really get into the setting, though it does celebrate performing on Broadway ("Broadway, My Street"). Scenes in Bloomingdale's and the New York Coliseum.

Street Scene (Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes)

Set in an undefined period (but pre-1950) in a New York tenement during an oppresively hot summer. Described as the white Northern Porgy and Bess.

The Streets of New York (Music by Richard B. Chodosh, lyrics and book by Barry Alan Grael)

Set in 1880s New York (the prologue takes place in the 1860s), this off-Broadway production is one of the great forgotten musicals of the 1960s. Scenes in a Wall Street bank; a bigger and better Wall Street bank; a walking tour ("Tourist Madrigal"); a house at 219 Division Street; Delmonico's Restaurant; Nineteen-and-a-half Cross Street, Five Points (front and rear); and Brooklyn Heights.

Subways Are for Sleeping (Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set in contemporary New York (1960s). Various subways, Grand Central Station, the Egyptian and French wings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Times Square, and Rockerfeller Plaza.

Sunday in the Park with George (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

The second act is set in modern-day New York, in the art world.

Sweet Charity (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon)

Set in NYC, circa the mid-1960s. I don't know what they show on the stage, but in the movie they're all over the city.

They're Playing Our Song (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, and book by Neil Simon)

Set mostly in NYC during the 1970s. A successful songwriter and his new lyricist fall in love, then struggle with their relationship in the big city.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Set mostly in Brooklyn during the turn of the century. Based on the classic novel. Otherwise, I know nothing about it.

Up in Central Park (Music by Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Set in 1870s New York. I know nothing about this show, but it's described as "recaptur[ing] the vintage Currier and Ives charms found up in New York's Central Park" in Broadway Musicals Show by Show. It also deals with Tammany Hall.

West Side Story (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

Set (where else?) on the West Side.

The Wild Party (Music and lyrics either by Michael John LaChiusa or by Andrew Lippa)

Set in Harlem, NYC, in 1928; decadent partying in symbolic settings.

The Will Rogers Follies (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set partially in New York City on the stage. My dad borrowed this CD off me, so I can't remember how much of a New York connection it has in the lyrics.

Woman of the Year (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb)

Set in New York. I think. I can't confirm this.

Wonderful Town (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Set in Depression-era New York City (1935), mostly in the Village. Another love note to the city by Comden & Green. Songs include "Christopher Street."

Honorable Mention:

Annie Get Your Gun: The climax takes place at Governor's Island, New York.

Damn Yankees: Set in Washington, DC, but the central conceit concerns the Yankees, obviously.

The Full Monty: Set in Buffalo.

High Button Shoes: Set in New Brunswick and Atlantic City, New Jersey.

I Love My Wife: Set in Trenton, New Jersey, and mentions Passaic.

The Magic Show: Set in Passaic, New Jersey.

On the Twentieth Century: Not exactly set there (it's set on a train going there), but the lyrics sometimes refer to New York, the world of the theatre, and landmarks. "New York in sixteen hours," Shubert Alley, Luchow's, etc.

Plain and Fancy: Set in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Amish country), but two of the main characters are sophisticated New Yorkers.

Romance Romance: The second act is set in the Hamptons (which are on Long Island, for those of you, like me, who didn't know).

Steel Pier: Set in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wish You Were Here: Set in the Catskills.

All non-lyric material copyright 2001-2002, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved

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