There’s a big new Broadway musical called “New York, New York,” and it’s based on the Martin Scorsese movie of the same title.
Both the film and the series have main characters named Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans, both are set immediately after World War II, and both prominently feature a certain anthem by John Kander and Fred Ebb. You know, the one whose first five notes, played on a piano, are enough to automatically prompt the brain to fill in the rest.
And it’s that title track alone, rather than the movie, that’s the real inspiration for the sprawling, heavy, and surprisingly boring show that kicked off Wednesday night at the St. James Theater.
Extrapolating from its lyrics, “New York, New York,” directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is about the people who wear those “wandering shoes,” those who “want to wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep.” Jimmy (Colton Ryan) and Francine (Anna Uzele) now rub shoulders with the characters imagined by writer David Thompson with Sharon Washington. They are musicians and singers, fighters and dreamers. And sadly, none make much of an impression, mired in a syrupy muck of good feelings and squealing civic cheerleaders.
As the various story lines move toward their inevitable intersection, any signs of wrinkles or creases have been smoothed out. The most prominent victims are the redesigned Jimmy and Francine, who have been flattened into cardboard figures. The film’s Jimmy, played by Robert De Niro, was an obnoxious, abusive, narcissistic saxophonist jerk who fell in love with Liza Minnelli’s Francine, a passionate singer who rose through the ranks from canary in big bands to solo star ; their volatile relationship wouldn’t pass the smell test with 2023 ratings.
The new Jimmy is just a minor irritant who went from good saxophonist to brilliant multi-instrumentalist as at home in jazz with African-American trumpeter Jesse (John Clay III) as he is in Latin grooves with the percussionist Cuban Mateo (Angel Sigala), whose own stories are described in broad strokes. For Jimmy to end up as a human bridge between Harlem and Spanish Harlem musical styles is quite the feat for a white bread Irish kid. (A Jewish violinist played by Oliver Prose exists mostly on the fingerboard.)
Meanwhile, Francine emerges as a brave, self-reliant free spirit plugged into a 21st century outlet. A black woman, she navigates the treacherous waters of the music scene with relative ease, and setbacks seem to glide over her.
Ryan (“Girl From the North Country”, Connor in the movie “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Uzele (“Once on This Island”, Catherine Parr in “Six”) are technically good, but they don’t fulfill the characters drawn under sketch form. They never find the pain that animates both Francine and Jimmy, nor the sexual attraction between them.
This creates a central void that further holds the overly polished book together – the friction fuels the fiction.
And if anyone knows it, it’s John Kander. An effective blend of sleazy syncopation, unabashed romanticism and biting sarcasm has long distinguished Kander and Ebb on Broadway, from “Cabaret” to “Chicago” to their brilliant earlier collaboration with Stroman, “The Scottsboro Boys.”
The score for “New York, New York” juxtaposes new songs Kander wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda, such as the propulsive “Music, Money, Love”, with older songs set to lyrics by Ebb. Of these, the best known (You-Know-What and “But the World Goes ‘Round”) were taken from the Scorsese film, while others were repurposed, such as “A Quiet Thing” from the show from 1965’s “Flora the Red Menace”. and “Marry Me” from “The Rink” (1984).
But no matter when or with whom they were written, too many songs lack Kander and Ebb’s signature jagged edge. Part of it has to do with Sam Davis’ arrangements and musical direction, which lack punch, and thus further reinforce the show’s lack of sex – there’s no pulse when there’s no has no swing. (Kander and Ebb were capable of this more than most Broadway creators: just listen to, say, the fantastic “Gimme Love” from “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”)
The rah-rah tone of the new show ends up becoming numbing. It’s all the more frustrating because the ambivalence is rooted in the title track, which alludes to the city’s mercurial temper. “If I can make it / I’ll do it anywhere” — we’re in a tough city — is followed by “It’s up to you / New York, New York,” which robs the singer of agency. But the show follows the triumphant model set by Frank Sinatra rather than the more ambiguous Minnelli one. In this rosy vision, hardships are temporary, everyone gets along, and no one comes up against the bad side of New York.
Stroman has a rare affinity for classic Broadway directing, as exemplified by his work on “Crazy for You” and “The Producers,” but it can also veer into radical stylization, as in “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Here, flashes of inspiration are rare. A highlight is a staged tap number on high beams, with a couple inscribed with “JK 3181927” and “FE 481928” – Kander and Ebb’s birthdates, and two Easter eggs hidden in the vibrant decor by Beowulf Boritt, dominated by towering fire escapes. The magical moment known as Manhattanhenge is conjured up with tremendous help from lighting designer Ken Billington. And there’s, as always, the visceral thrill of seeing a big band take the stage, when Jimmy’s combo kicks off the title track at the end.
There’s not much to take away from a show that lasts nearly three hours and had such tremendous potential. “You can be anybody here,” Jesse says at one point, “do anything here.”
If only “New York, New York” had interpreted that line not as comfort, but as a challenge to dare.
New York, New York
At the St. James Theatre, Manhattan; newyorknewyorkbroadway.com. Duration: 2h40.