When Barbra Streisand made her Broadway debut in 1962, her musical of choice, “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” by Jerome Weidman and Harold Rome, did not include the anti-Jewish slur “k–e!” being spit out at the top of the show. It is a masterstroke on the part of the book writer’s son John Weidman (“Pacific Overtures,” “Assassins”) to make that addition, plus a few others changes, to the totally engaging new revival that opened Monday at the Classic Stage Company.
Streisand’s future ex-husband Elliott Gould introduced the Garment District’s ultimate con artist Harry Bogen to the stage in the original “Wholesale,” and as bad-guy heroes go in the musical theater, Bogen makes Pal Joey and Billy Bigelow look like a couple of altar boys. Only Sweeney Todd tops him when it comes to singing and sinning simultaneously.
“Wholesale” with Gould and Streisand played a respectable but unprofitable 300 performances. At the time, it was said that theatergoers weren’t into rooting for such an unlikable lead character — Bogen charges bar mitzvah gifts, as well as weekly payments to a mistress, to the dress manufacturing company that he owns and operates — and before the evening is over, he has lied in court to frame his best friend for fraud while he gets off scot free. “K–e!” at the top of the show goes a long way toward explaining what makes this Harry run in all the wrong directions.
In the original Broadway production, Streisand literally coasted around the edges of the show on a moving office chair, playing Bogen’s harried, overworked and dedicated secretary. Despite playing a very supporting role, she stopped the show nightly when she sang “Miss Marmelstein.”
That’s the other thing about “Wholesale” that probably shortened its run. Set during the Depression, the musical is proudly Jewish to the core at a time when the much more exotic “Fiddler on the Roof,” set in old Russia, was still waiting in the wings. In 1962, New York City was the most Jewish city in the world, but even a few hundred thousand Jews couldn’t keep the show running for a full year.
Jews invented the Broadway musical, but knew not to write about themselves so much if they wanted to achieve popular success. As John Weidman’s newly revised book for his father’s musical makes clear, Jews could find success in America, but they were forced to be selective. Ladies’ dresses were one thing, architecture and other high-tone careers quite another — and musicals about Jews somehow fit into the latter category.
Rome’s score is much more than “Miss Marmelstein,” although in this production, Julia Lester performs the comic number thrillingly without the benefit of an office chair on wheels. More impressive, however, is the character’s “What Are They Doing to Us Now,” a call-to-action anthem that rarely gets written about regarding Streisand’s Broadway debut.
Rome, who wrote the haunting lyrics for the song “Lisa” in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” could apparently do it all, as evidenced in “Wholesale.” In addition to the two aforementioned songs, the conditional love song “Who Knows,” sung by Bogen’s long-suffering girlfriend Ruth (Rebecca Naomi Jones in stupendous voice), is the low-key but heartfelt number that stopped the first act for me.
Elliott Gould went on to have a fine career, but not in musical theater. His vocals, captured on the cast album, in no way compare to what Santino Fontana brings to the lead role. When he sings, Fontana thrills while his character repels, which sums up the kind of character complexity that can be achieved only in the musical theater. (It is also a reminder why the callow Franklin character, and not his first wife, needs to sing “Not a Day Goes By” in the first act of the current Broadway revival of “Merrily We Roll Along.”)
This revival of “Wholesale” follows last week’s premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s final musical, “Here We Are.” The two shows are wonderfully different, but they share one important ingredient: a great ensemble working at the top of their game. Both shows are being presented Off Broadway, which leads one to wonder if there is any musical talent left for all the shows now running on Broadway. Boy, the talent pool in New York City has rarely run this deep!
In addition to Fontana, Jones and Lester in “Wholesale,” there’s Judy Kuhn, who lets us know that even great mothers can sometimes raise a real creep, and Joy Woods, who brings genuine glamor and star power to the role of the showbiz mistress. Woods and Jones singing “On My Way to Love” is pure musical theater heaven. It is not so much a duet as two very different songs sung simultaneously and alternately by a couple of rivals in love with the same man.
Trip Cullman directs, and there’s no arguing with the tremendous cohesion he brings to a superb cast. Sometimes, however, the look of the show is downright messy. The CSC stage is a deep thrust, and he has chosen to populate it with a lot of chairs and tables (set design by Mark Wendland) that the actors move into all sorts of configurations. More often than not, the stage resembles an obstacle course that the actors must navigate.
But they more than survive it. They score big time at the finish line.