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Goodman tapping into the youthful optimism of ‘Wonderful Town’

Lauren Molina (left) stars as Eileen and Bria Sudia plays Ruth in the Goodman Theatre production of "Wonderful Town." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Mary Zimmerman, the Tony Award-winning director and MacArthur Fellow whose work has been seen on the stages of the Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre, New York’s Metropolitan Opera House (where her production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” will open in February 2017) and beyond, still vividly recalls the moment, about 10 years ago, when she finally acquired an apartment in New York.

‘WONDERFUL TOWN’

When: Previews begin Sept. 10; opens Sept. 18 and runs through Oct. 16

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25 – $93

Info: www.goodmantheatre.org

“It was about 102 degrees on the day my mattress was delivered,” she said during a recent chat. “And I remember thinking: ‘Within a circumference of just about two miles, probably 100 people are going through the same thing today.’ And even though I was in my 40s by that point, I remember feeling really young again. It brought back all the feelings of being out of the parental nest, and out of school — full of creative ambitions, but with no idea of how or if they’d ever be realized — and at once super-exhilarated and terrified. And it’s that moment in life that also deeply connects me to the two sisters in ‘Wonderful Town’.”

That musical, which debuted in 1953 — with a score by composer Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a book by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov based on their 1940 play, “My Sister Eileen” (which in turn originated from autobiographical short stories by Ruth McKenney first published in The New Yorker in the late 1930s) — is now receiving a revival at the Goodman Theatre, with Zimmerman directing a cast of 26, and music director Doug Peck leading a 17-piece orchestra (as required by the Bernstein estate).

At the show’s center are aspiring writer Ruth Sherwood (played by Bri Sudia), and her younger sister, Eileen (Lauren Molina), an aspiring actress. Newly arrived in New York City from Columbus, Ohio, they take up residence in a basement apartment in Greenwich Village recently vacated by a hooker, and now frequently shaken by dynamite from the construction of a subway underneath their building. Homesick but determined, the sisters test their luck in Gotham, and along the way meet with a variety of suitors, much disappointment and more adventures than they could ever have imagined.

Director Mary Zimmerman, in rehearsal for the Goodman Theatre production of “Wonderful Town.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Director Mary Zimmerman, in rehearsal for the Goodman Theatre production of “Wonderful Town.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although Bernstein yearned for recognition of his classical scores, it was his four Broadway shows (in addition to his brilliant conducting and teaching) that gained him the most attention: “On the Town” (1944); the 1953 Tony Award-winning “Wonderful Town”; the operetta-like “Candide” (1956), and the landmark “West Side Story” (1957).

In 2010, Zimmerman directed an acclaimed revival of “Candide” at the Goodman, and she and the Leonard Bernstein Office have been in touch about other projects ever since (2018 will mark the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, and celebrations are being planned throughout the world).

Leaonbard Bernstein (Photo: Joe McNally/Getty Images)
Leaonbard Bernstein (Photo: Joe McNally/Getty Images)

“There was some talk of reviving Bernstein’s “Peter Pan” — which is the widely known 1954 musical [by “Moose” Charlap], but rather, a 1950 Broadway edition of the story that is fantastic, but contained just six songs and a lot of incidental music,” said Zimmerman. “But that was viewed as a longer-term project. So we decided to do ‘Wonderful Town’.”

Zimmerman admits that the one thing that gave her pause was the show’s title.

As she explained: “I was worried the show would be confused with ‘On the Town’ and audiences would start asking ‘Where are the three sailors?’ [referring to the trio of American sailors in that musical who embark on a wild and crazy shore leave in New York during World War II]. I really do wish the shows’ titles were not so similar.”

Although the original musical is set in the 1930s — the heart of the Great Depression — Zimmerman has shifted the setting to the early 1950s, which is in synch with the time in which it was composed.

“I wanted to capture the complete light-heartedness of this story — its sunniness and youthfulness — as well as the rollicking, artful chaos of New York, and the spirit and drive of that period in these young women’s lives,” said Zimmerman. “The script is full of one liners and wacky physical comedy, with Eileen having a sort of Gracie Allen quality. And while there is romance here, too, the real emotion comes when Ruth manages to get a press pass and is so thrilled that she has a job and can work. In that way the show is quite forward-thinking. I also love the fact that Ruth is rewarded for not changing herself. She sticks to her roots and understands how important it is to remain authentic and work with what you know.”

Though the show’s score is not as widely known as those for other Bernstein musicals, according to Zimmerman: “It is filled with beautiful ballads, and charming novelty numbers, and the Latin beat that was in vogue, including a big swing number and a rhumba, so there are lots of dance sequences [with choreography by the Chicago-bred Broadway veteran Alex Sanchez].

“Bernstein and his collaborators wrote the score for ‘Wonderful Town’ in six weeks, which might be some kind of a record,” said Garth Edwin Sunderland, vice pesident of project development and senior music editor for the Leonard Bernstein Office. “There was an earlier version by others, but Rosalind Russell was booked to star as Ruth, and it was just a happy coincidence that Bernstein and Comden and Green were all free to take the project on. … And while for some reason the show got a little lost until its 2003 Broadway revival, I think it speaks to everyone’s experience of going out into the world and trying to find their way.”

NOTE: “Wonderful Town’ is the centerpiece of a week-long Bernstein Celebration that kicks off Sept. 27. For details visit www.goodmantheatre.org/Bernstein.

A dance rehearsal for the Goodman Theatre production of “Wonderful Town.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
A dance rehearsal for the Goodman Theatre production of “Wonderful Town.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)