Public transportation in New York City has become such a comedy of errors that it’s hard to imagine any work of fiction capturing its full absurdity. The big-hearted a cappella showcase In Transit, in which New Yorkers of disparate backgrounds bonded while riding the subway, ended a five-month run on Broadway last April, by which time the notion of the MTA as a vehicle for harmony seemed truly farcical.
Nearly a year later, as part of its “Musicals in Mufti” series celebrating Jule Styne, the York Theatre Company is staging a concert production of a show with an even more laughable premise: that a group of mostly privileged urbanities could survive and thrive living, literally, underground. In fact, Subways Are for Sleeping was adapted from a book by Edmund G. Love, published in the late Fifties, featuring profiles of people living on the streets or on the margins of society. The musical, which teamed its composer with fellow golden age legends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, opened on Broadway in late 1961, not long after the original staging of Styne’s masterwork Gypsy had closed and while his Do Re Mi was still on the boards.
Subways ran for more than half a year, and delivered songs that were covered by Judy Garland (“Comes Once in a Lifetime”) and Doris Day (“Who Knows What Might Have Been”). But given the bounty of talent involved — leading lady Carol Lawrence (fresh from originating Maria in West Side Story), co-stars Phyllis Newman and Orson Beane — the musical was a disappointment, and is best remembered for producer David Merrick’s publicity stunt of harvesting rave reviews from locals who happened to share their names with marquee theater critics.
The York’s bare-bones staging, which runs through March 4 — following similar productions of Styne’s Hallelujah, Baby! and Bar Mitzvah Boy — should do little to encourage latter-day impresarios to revisit Subways, but it goes a long way on enthusiasm and charm. Newman, Green’s widow, has worked with director Stuart Ross to tweak the book, which remains as pleasingly quaint as the promise of getting some shut-eye on the 2 line in between the nonstop announcements of traffic and signal problems.
The plot involves a young magazine reporter, Angie McKay, who learns about a clique of homeless but nattily dressed and apparently productive city-dwellers and decides to go undercover among them, hoping for a big scoop on their covert community. In the process, naturally, Angie falls in love — with both the group’s relatively low-stress lifestyle and its ringmaster, one Tom Bailey, a reformed financial shark who now doles out odd jobs to his fellow subway sleepers. There’s also another fledgling couple: Tom’s pal Charlie Smith (“a rich man’s son till his father lost everything,” as Tom describes him) and the richly named Martha Vail, a displaced Southern girl holed up in a seedy hotel room, with only a large towel draped around her. “If I bundle up in wool and furs, I break out in Pytoriases [sic] Rosea,” she explains breathlessly.
There are bumps in the road: The publicity-shy Tom discovers Angie’s professional identity, and Charlie struggles to rescue Martha from a mountain of debt. But the performers, guided by Ross with a light touch and palpable affection, march nimbly toward the inevitable happy ending, carrying Comden and Green’s libretto and lyrics in hand (or reading from stands scattered across the stage) while accompanied heartily by pianist–music director David Hancock Turner and bassist George Farmer.
Tom and Angie are played here by real-life newlyweds Eric William Morris and Alyse Alan Louis, both cute as buttons and effortlessly likable, even when Tom recounts his past life as a budding Bernie Madoff in a deceptively jaunty tune called “Swing Your Projects.” Louis’s warm, tangy vocals are period-perfect for the score, caressing melodies that, while not among Styne’s best, need none of the overselling too often favored in contemporary musicals. David Josefsberg’s sweetly hapless Charlie and Gina Milo’s slinky but sincere Martha each get their own standout numbers; at a recent matinee, Josefsberg’s hilariously earnest take on the winking serenade “I Just Can’t Wait” was a particular crowd favorite. Beth Glover lends mature piquancy as Angie’s editor, who drily warns her colleague about the “corporate boys’ club upstairs” and initially frets that “a story about bums who dress nice” might be a dud.
The editor is, of course, won over in the end by the sheer pluck of Angie’s endeavor and the whole operation traced in Subways. Anyone who catches this production during its short run will be similarly disarmed.