Great musicals can and have been inspired by books, plays, movies, and even paintings. New York, New York’s inspiration is a vamp. “Nobody writes a vamp like John Kander,” says five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman, who’s directing and choreographing the new Kander and Fred Ebb musical. New York, New York is set to begin performances March 24 at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. Opening night is April 26.
For the musically uninclined, a vamp is a short, introductory musical phrase, often repeated until the singer is ready to start. When Kander is involved, that definition falls short of the true brilliance, of the excitement and anticipation a vamp can create. Think of the iconic openings to “All That Jazz,” “Willkommen,” and, of course, the song from which this new musical draws its title, “Theme From New York, New York.” Stroman calls this number, known virtually around the world and played at every New Year’s Eve ball drop, the “heartbeat of New York City.”
That heartbeat—and the city itself—serves as the primary inspiration for this new musical, which is not a direct adaptation of the 1977 film starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. Don’t worry; the four songs Kander and Ebb wrote for the film—“But the World Goes ‘Round,” “There Goes the Ball Game,” “Happy Endings,” and the iconic title theme—haven’t gone anywhere. But jettisoned is the rest of the film’s soundtrack, a collection of standards by other songwriters. Kander has teamed up with Tony-winning Hamilton and In the Heights writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda to pen 13 completely new songs for the stage score.
Both the movie and stage show follow a pair of young musicians falling in love while trying to make it in 1946 New York. The musical shifts its focus to the world around them: the diverse group of fellow young artists with which they cross paths, and the city that seems to simultaneously serve as a cheerleader and an unpassable roadblock.
And the timing couldn’t be better. New York City has never been in more need of a love letter than right now, as it’s still struggling to pull itself out of a pandemic that rocked nearly every industry and person that makes Manhattan thrive.
According to Stroman, that timing is coincidental. Though much of the work on the musical did happen once the pandemic was underway, the initial idea came pre-2020. Even still, the musical feels especially timely, particularly being set in the weeks after World War II finally comes to an end. “We’re in a time now where the city is hopeful and wanting to come back, and all New Yorkers are willing it to come back as they did in ’46,” explains Stroman. “It was the same situation. They were pulling plywood off store windows and giving out smallpox vaccinations.”
Stroman isn’t worried for the city she loves. And for many of the same reasons, that make New York the perfect subject matter for a Broadway musical. “New York is resilient. It has to be—we live our lives in the extremes,” she reflects. “We have the biggest snowstorm, the biggest terrorist attack, the biggest plague problem. Yet we also have the greatest culture. We have the greatest people—the greatest characters. And we’re the most tolerant of all the cities. We fight to live on top of each other, to live. It sounds crazy to people who live in the Midwest, but we do. We just love it so much. We love the energy of it. We love the people that we meet. And that the people that we meet are from everywhere.”
For Stroman, the story of New York, New York is uniquely personal, and one she’s been preparing to tell since childhood. “My father was a wonderful piano player, so I would be that kid that would dance around the living room to her father playing the piano and creating stories,” she remembers. “I wanted to come to New York to create for the theatre. I wanted to come be somebody who created her own story.”
When she finally did get to The Big Apple in the late 1970s, Stroman started out as a performer. But she never lost sight of getting to the other side of the table to create stories, rather than just perform in them. In many ways, New York, New York is the culmination of everything that’s happened to Stroman since those early days.
At the very least, it’s the product of decades of professional connections. From her earliest gigs, like performing in the national tour of Chicago, Stroman’s been collecting people for the journey ahead. That early performance gig meant she was not an unfamiliar face to Kander and Ebb when she choreographed an Off-Broadway revival of their musical Flora the Red Menace in 1987. That production featured a new book by playwright and now-New York, New York co-writer David Thompson. A few years later, both Stroman and Thompson strengthened their ties to Kander and Ebb by co-creating And the World Goes ‘Round, an Off-Broadway revue of their songs that takes its title from one of the songs from New York, New York. In 2010, the entire group debuted a wholly original musical they’d created together, The Scottsboro Boys. That musical added Sharon Washington to the mix; she starred as The Lady in Scottsboro and is now Thompson’s co-book writer on New York, New York.
According to Stroman, that long creative journey is all thanks to Kander and Ebb. “They taught me and many of my colleagues how to collaborate,” Stroman reflects. “They are the king of ‘nobody has a bad idea.’ If you have an idea, throw it on the table and someone else might pick that idea up and turn it into gold.”
Kander is also the one who “collected” Miranda for the project. The two struck up a friendship after finding they lived near each other in upstate New York. Kander attended Miranda’s 2010 wedding, and the pair frequently have dinner dates. Now they’re writing partners.
Unfortunately, there will be one important face missing when the team behind New York, New York walks the red carpet on opening night. Ebb died of a heart attack at the age of 76 in 2004. But according to Stroman, his spirit lives on in this new show.
“I feel him every minute. We all do,” says Stroman. “We channel him all the time—especially if we need a joke.” More than his lyrics to the four film songs being interpolated into the stage score, the project is uniquely connected to Ebb because the lyricist was uniquely connected to New York City; Stroman says his song “City Lights,” written for the 1977 musical The Act, was indicative of Ebb’s love of Manhattan. Whereas Kander continues to value his peace and quiet in the country, Ebb loved “those City Lights, those sparkling City Lights.” Stroman says he was also one of those unique characters NYC is so skilled at creating, or at least offering a home to. “He was ornery, and very bright,” she says fondly. “He was an incredible wordsmith and had an unbelievable command of the language.”
All the more fitting that after Ebb took audiences to Weimar-era Berlin, 1920s Chicago, and Alabama in the Depression, Stroman is bringing Ebb and his vagabond shoes back to where the late lyricist was happiest. Start spreading the news!