The cast of New York, New York.
The cast of New York, New York.

How New York, New York Captures the Grit & Glamour of NYC

No song has celebrated the Big Apple more famously than the ebullient “New York, New York.” The enduring hit by Frank Sinatra was introduced in the 1977 film of the same name, and now this iconic anthem, written by the legendary John Kander and Fred Ebb, has inspired a new Broadway musical. Also titled New York, New York, it’s set to begin previews March 24 and open April 26 at the St. James Theatre.

New York, New York features a combination of new and classic material from Kander and Ebb, including beloved songs such as “New York, New York,” and “But the World Goes Round,” as well as new music and songs by Kander and three-time Tony Award winner and native New Yorker Lin-Manuel Miranda. New York, New York’s director and choreographer, five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, cites the late Ebb’s lyrics as a more direct influence: “‘Be a part of it … If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.’ That idea of people coming to New York from all over to change who they are, and also to be the best they can possibly be—that’s a big part of our show,” she says.

With Tony-winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, Stroman’s collaborator on productions ranging from 2011’s critically acclaimed The Scottsboro Boys to last season’s POTUS, Stroman has constructed a valentine that captures New York’s grit as well as its gleaming promise. Says Boritt: “It’s a story about young people coming here with big dreams — young artists, specifically, though there are other characters. It’s taken me back to when I was 22 and working in little theatres in the South Bronx — wherever I could, doing whatever it took.”

Set in 1946, the show, like the movie, follows an aspiring musician and singer — played by Colton Ryan and Anna Uzele, respectively — who fall in love. “But they cross paths with other characters,” Stroman explains. “One of the things they all have in common — which all New Yorkers have in common — is that even though they’re from different cultures, they’re looking for ‘The Major Chord.’ That’s the name of a song John Kander has written, and that chord is made up of music — your art, or your passion — and money, which you need to survive. And then love. You can get one or two of those things, but it’s very difficult to get all three.”

In choreographing New York, New York, Stroman kept the era in mind. “So we tap into a lot of those famous styles that were popular then, like swing dancing and jazz, and tap, of course. We have ballroom dance and ballet, some classical moments, and good old musical-theater staging. But there’s also a whole vocabulary of movement in New York City, a heightened way that people move past each other, walking fast.”

Boritt muses, “What I often say when I’m starting to work with Stro” — as Stroman is known affectionately to her colleagues — “is that I’m creating a sculpture in dance with her. One part of my job is to keep the set moving fluidly enough so that as people are dancing through it, pieces can glide in and out, and appear as if they’re sort of dancing along with the performers.”

That task has been made especially challenging in that this musical showcases “probably 40 different locations,” by Boritt’s estimation. “You get a little bit of the high life — a couple of moments at the Metropolitan Museum or Carnegie Hall — but what we’ve really tried to do is create those back-alley places while giving you a glimpse of the glitz. We could be on 42nd Street and 11th Avenue, and off in the distance there’s the Chrysler Building. The set tries to capture that duality, where the city close-up can be hard and dirty, but then you turn a corner and see this glittering, inspiring thing.”

To help him evoke that mix of grime and grandeur, Boritt enlisted the Ukrainian artist Irina Portnyagina to craft a series of painted backdrops. “I had worked with Irina on and off before she basically retired and moved to Amsterdam,” he says. “And I called her and said, ‘I need 12 backdrops for this show, and no one can do them like you.’ She did eight of the drops, so now we have a Grand Central and an old Penn Station that are 30 feet tall and 40 feet wide, and Central Park in the winter. … Each one is a masterpiece. The modern technique is to put an LED-style wall up and use video, but we wouldn’t have gotten the same detail. And this is a Golden Age–style musical, and we’re harking back to a different era.”

Stroman suggests that the period in which New York, New York unfolds, right after World War II, invites some parallels to our own. “People were pulling plywood off of storefronts and getting vaccinations for smallpox, and there was great hope in the air,” she notes. “The show celebrates that resilience New Yorkers have. New York is really a character in the piece. … We live in a city of extremes; we’ve had an extreme terrorist attack and an extreme plague. But it’s the greatest of all cities — the most tolerant, the most colorful, with the greatest culture. It can break you, but it can save you too.”

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