It was back in 1961 when “Subways Are for Sleeping” hit Broadway, and now we are getting a refreshed look at that show, courtesy of the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series, with this season celebrating the late composer Jule Styne. The result is a lively treat, thanks to an excellent, larger-than-usual cast and the entertaining qualities of the show itself. It adds up to a a welcome experience of rediscovery and pure fun.
The book and lyrics are by the wonderful team of Betty Comden & Adolph Green, suggested by the same-titled book by Edmund G. Love. This concert-form revival, with various alterations, has been directed with plentiful spirit by Stuart Ross, with musical direction by David Hancock Turner, who is also at the piano along with George Farmer on bass. Turner and Farmer sub for an orchestra in playing the appealing Styne score. Projected sheets of the music were flashed on screen to accompany the overture, and during the staging there is an assortment of projections suggesting Manhattan’s subways and major buildings.
The book is a socially-conscious, romanticized view of the homeless who in searching for places to spend nights find refuge in New York’s subways. Some of the book is a stretch, but that is redeemed by plenty of funny lines, appealing romance and the smart array of songs that Styne and his lyricists provided. As usual, The York has assembled a superb cast to bring the show to new life.
The number that was a show-stopper in the original is now handled by Gina Milo as Martha Vail, who is in danger of being forced out of her apartment for owing back rent. She spends most of the show only wrapped in a towel, and her big number “I Was a Shoo-In” is still a show-stopper, thanks to Milo’s perky, sexy and enticing rendition. Years were bridged in the York offering on opening night with Phyllis Newman, who won a Tony as best supporting actress in the original, sitting in the audience and applauding Milo.
The chief romantic lead is played by Alyse Alan Louis as Angie, a reporter who works for the publication edited by tough Myra, played convincingly by Beth Glover. Angie goes undercover to write about the homeless and falls for handsome nice-guy Tom, portrayed with special charm by Eric William Morris, who spends his time attempting to find solutions for the group of homeless men who look to him for daily assistance. One of the best songs is the title one, which expresses the reality of countless homeless existing under our eyes. Angie is eventually exposed, causing Tom to be furious. They express their romantic feelings in the number “Who Knows What Might Have Been.”
Another romance is under way between Tom’s pal Charlie, amusingly played by David Josefsberg, and Martha, who excel together in the song “Strange Duet.” One of the show’s funniest situations occurs when Charlie can’t wait to see Martha with her clothes on instead of the towels that show off her sexy figure.
This production spends more time on the book than other Mufti stagings in order to hold the story together so that the numbers make sense. But the highlights come from this very engaged cast interpreting the musical numbers that are the key strength of “Subways Are for Sleeping.” The cast also includes David Engel, Kilty Reidy, Karl Josef Co, Gerry McIntyre and Kathryn McCreary.
One event that overshadowed the original at the time was the theater’s most famous stunt by producer David Merrick and publicist Harvey Sabinson. People with the same names as New York critics were found and their photos appeared alongside of their quotes with lavish praise for the musical. The Herald Trbune fell for the stunt and published the ad, but the New York Times didn’t.
Another note: As Charles Wright reports in his historical account in the program, competing in the same supporting actress category as Phyllis Newman was Barbra Streisand for her portrayal of the secretary Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It for You Wholssale.” While Streisand’s performance was an attention-grabber that opened doors for her, Newman had the juicier, more demanding role.
“Subways Are for Sleeping” continues through March 4, and it would be great if here could be a continued life in some venue. At the York Theatre Company at Saint Peters, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed February 26, 2018.