Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Who was Fiorello LaGuardia and why did they write a musical about him? And why am I raising this strange question? Well, last night we went to the New York Historical Society to enjoy the first of four presentations in a series on past American musicals with important historical implications. Last night's featured show was...Fiorello!

First, it should be noted that Fiorello LaGuardia was one of the truly great mayors of New York City who gave people hope at the most difficult of times and somehow actually kept New York City on the move despite the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. Officially, he was mayor from 1933-1945 and before that served bravely and progressively as a New York Congressman. As Mayor, with the expert help of Robert Moses, LaGuardia committed the City to massive public works projects that almost certainly alleviated some of the worst effects of the Depression.

Just as important, LaGuardia was colorful. He seemed to be everywhere in New York City, showing up at five-alarm fires and happily conducting the New York Philharmonic. Moreover, he could speak Italian flawlessly and Yiddish competently (his mother was Jewish), as well as five other languages. He was only 5 foot 2 inches tall, the shortest mayor in New York's history, but he fought organized crime valiantly and publicly challenged any Wall Street patrician whom he feared threatened economic recovery. In other words, he was the perfect subject for an American musical.

But here's an amazing fact about the musical Fiorello! that I bet you didn't know. It was one of only seven musicals to win the Pultizer Prize for drama. Can you name the other six? I'm going to give you "A Chorus Line" and "Of Thee I Sing," because those are the only ones I can think of. The other four are what? (Answers in tomorrow's post).

LaGuardia is probably best known for reading the Sunday comics over the radio during a long newspaper strike in 1945, and sure enough, the first scene in Fiorello! shows the Mayor in his element using a variety of funny, expressive voices to make that most beloved of Sunday features come to life. He was a character to be sure, but more than that, a mayor of great substance and accomplishment who refused to be demoralized by the worst economic crisis in American history.

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