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Eugene O’Neill had much trouble with the ending of his play Anna Christie (1921). The producer of an early version, titled Chris Christophersen (1920), which folded in pre-Broadway tryout, ragged at him for making the final scene too grim. When O’Neill reworked the piece, shifting its central focus from the old barge captain to the daughter he had sent away in childhood, the critics ragged at him because the ending was now too facilely happy. The show became a hit, winning O’Neill his second consecutive Pulitzer Prize, but the criticisms still rankled. He grew so irritable on the subject that he contemplated omitting the play from his collected works.
O’Neill’s complex discontent with Anna Christie probably wouldn’t have been soothed by its renewed success, a few years after his death, in the form of Bob Merrill and George Abbott’s 1957 musical version, New Girl in Town (Irish Repertory Theatre). Still, you never know: The musical’s sprightly charms might have shown him more clearly the material he was wrestling with. Merrill and Abbott—an eager young songwriter and a seasoned showman—treat O’Neill’s story openly as what it is: a familiar piece of theatrical sentiment, spiced with a light dash of daring and plenty of diverting opportunities for local color.
O’Neill’s Anna Christie has held up well enough to need no defense. If it creaks slightly in revival, it’s still, audibly, the play in which, Eric Bentley said, “the American language is heard onstage for the first time.” The 1930 movie, encasing Greta Garbo’s talking-picture debut, guarantees its survival as a historical icon. But its core story remains a 1920s update of the can-you-forgive-her dramas, so beloved of the pre-1900 theater, in which a “bad” woman struggles to prove her innate goodness. Anna is an ex-prostitute, initially mistaken for a “decent” girl by both the sentimentally deluded father who hasn’t seen her since childhood and the sailor whose love ultimately redeems her. Dumas’s lady of the camellias and Pinero’s Paula Tanqueray loom large in her theatrical ancestry
Having chosen to make Anna a “bad” girl, O’Neill showed his modernity by laying the blame for her past firmly on the male-dominated world’s shoulders. He also tried, defensively, to insist to the press that the “happy” ending was only a temporary cease-fire to the hostilities between her and men. There was no need: Everybody, barring grumpy critics, loves a happy ending.
Abbott and Merrill took full advantage of the one O’Neill reluctantly left for them. Keeping Anna’s sordid backstory to a minimum—mainly in the eyebrow-raising number “On the Farm,” which describes her sexual victimization by the relatives to whom her father entrusted her—New Girl in Town constantly urges its characters toward good cheer and high jinks, set in a period that, by the late ’50s, had become sweetly nostalgic ancient history, all handlebar mustaches and barbershop quartets. Dark moods (caught very attractively in Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting for the current revival) may occasionally intrude, but the prevailing tone is bright even when the story veers toward melodrama.
O’Neill’s writing at its most light-hearted is death-haunted; the musical’s theme song, in contrast, is “It’s Good to Be Alive.” Merrill and Abbott counterbalanced Anna’s romance with Matt, the sailor her father distrusts, by expanding the role of Marthy, the frowzy barfly who makes trouble by spilling the beans about Anna’s past. Given two actresses no audience could help loving, Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter, as Anna and Marthy, plus a showy parade of Bob Fosse dances, few 1957 theatergoers really fretted much about Anna’s traumatic history.
Nor do theatergoers today, though the Irish Rep’s pocket-size production keeps its dancing, resourcefully choreographed by Barry McNabb, to an un-Fosse-ish minimum. Charlotte Moore’s direction flirts with the dark: Margaret Loesser Robinson, as Anna, sometimes spits out her lyrics harshly, oblivious to their musical setting—a shame, given her attractive singing voice. Patrick Cummings does better as Matt, stalwart and nuanced in both singing and acting. Danielle Ferland makes a proficiently brash Marthy. James Morgan’s minimal set solves the theater’s maddening L-shaped space cannily. Neither great O’Neill nor great musical theater, New Girl in Town is nonetheless an appealing oddity—a bonbon with unexpected sour flavors that give it an extra resonance.