Back in November, Encores! presented a rare revival of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. In effect, the experience was more like a history lesson to musical aficionados and scholars as the book and construction don’t quite hold up to the more sophisticated standards that have come our way. When there was an attempt to revive the show in the late 80s/early 90s, it became clear to the powers that be that the original show couldn’t work in an politically era of Broadway. That’s when Crazy for You was born.
The new musical was loosely based on the basic plot outline of the original: rich NYC playboy goes west, falls in love with local girl. Hijinks ensue. However, Ken Ludwig wrote a brand new story with new characters and situations, using five songs from the Girl Crazy score and interpolating thirteen other Gershwin songs. The new show was something of a backstage musical farce, with the young playboy putting on a Ziegfeld-esque show in the middle-of-nowhere Deadrock, Nevada just to impress that town’s only girl. Direction was provided by Mike Ockrent, the British director who had similarly resuscitated Me and My Girl in the mid 80s and the choreography was supplied by newcomer Susan Stroman. The show would mark Stroman’s first significant Broadway achievement and launched her career as one of the most important choreographers of the decade.
Starring as the two lovers were Harry Groener and Jodi Benson. The original Broadway cast also included the late, great Bruce Adler, Beth Leavel, Michelle Pawk, John Hillner, Jane Connell, Jessica Molaskey, Casey Nicholaw, and Stephen Temperley (who would go on to write Souvenir). After 10 previews, the show opened at the Shubert Theatre to rave reviews, with a particularly ecstatic Frank Rich proclaiming that Broadway had reached out and snatched the musical back from the British. The musical comedy won three Tonys: Best Musical, Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long) and Best Choreography. The show ran 1,622 performances on Broadway; a London company starring Ruthie Henshall opened a year later and ran for almost three years. A PaperMill Playhouse production recreated the Broadway staging, even featuring original cast members and was aired on PBS Great Performances.
I first saw Crazy for You at my high school when I was 14 years old. It was the school’s spring musical, and I was completely blown away. The script was funny, the music and lyrics were from the Gershwins and utterly sublime (my first real introduction to their work). It was enough to get me involved with the high school’s drama club, where I spent two glorious years. I also wore out a videotape of the PaperMill telecast. Our senior year, the high school took a trip (a field trip down memory lane, really) to see the show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. Once again, they were recreating much of the original staging (and there were cast members from the PaperMill staging, too). The show starred Shonn Wiley and Meredith Patterson, who would both go onto starring in various Broadway roles and also get married along the way.
For what it’s worth, Stroman may have made a lot of waves with her direction and choreography of The Producers, but I don’t think she’s ever topped her breakthrough work in Crazy For You.
First up: Act One Finale. Ethel Merman became a star in Girl Crazy because of her delivery of “I Got Rhythm” late in that show’s first act. For Crazy for You, Stroman turns the number into a raucous, jubilant celebration lasting eight minutes. It’s a tap-heavy show (and this number especially), but it also exemplifies what would become her trademark: the use of props as part of the dance. Here is a rare video (found thanks to Robert Bullen of Confessions of a Chicago Theatre Addict) of the original Broadway cast performing “I Got Rhythm” onstage at the Shubert:
When the plot of Crazy For You is all wrapped up, and the inevitable happy ending is upon us, Stroman goes all out for a very Astaire-Rogers moment with the lovers rising while showgirls in folly girl headdresses appear. But wait – Stroman isn’t finished. There’s still the choreographed curtain call, with another boisterous reprise of “I Got Rhythm” (with all those tappers doing all those wings) leading to a company bow. Again, taped at the Shubert Theatre on 44th Street, here is the original cast. And yes, that’s Beth Leavel singing first.