Rosalind Russell: “Swing!”

The hit musical Wonderful Town had a pre-production period that was anything but. Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov were in the process of adapting their play My Sister Eileen (itself based on Ruth McKenney‘s collection of short stories) into a musical when they landed Rosalind Russell for the lead. The actress had already scored a success with the film adaptation of the play, and as it turned out, could deliver a song (in her limited range bass). However, there was some trouble with the score by Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt, which was rejected by the star and director George Abbott. There would be some friction when choreographer Jerome Robbins testified at HUAC naming names, including that of librettist Chodorov. (Awkward…)

Abbott contacted Comden and Green about taking over, and they insisted that Leonard Bernstein (all four, plus Robbins, had successfully collaborated on On the Town in 1944) were enlisted to write the score with a five week deadline. They took on the challenge and created what must be the best score written on such short notice. (Can you imagine a major Broadway musical being written and put into rehearsals in five weeks today?) The show ended up the big hit of 1953, with critics delivering raves. The musical, which starred Russell and Edith Adams as two sisters from Ohio looking to make it big in New York, won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Russell.

The original Broadway production ran 559 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre. Carol Channing replaced Russell and took the show on tour. Negotiations for a screen adaptation fell apart causing Columbia (who owned the screen rights) to create their own musical of My Sister Eileen with Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh. In 1958, Russell was given the opportunity to recreate her stage performance for CBS television and make a second cast album of the score (this time in stereo). Even in an abridged telecast, Russell delivers a dynamite performance.

Here is the second act showstopper “Swing!” from the show’s kinescope:


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