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June 6, 2014

The Return of RUGANTINO!

May 26, 1985. Rome. I’d just finished seeing TAXI A DUE PIAZZE.

That may not translate to RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, but that was the title given to Ray Cooney’s farce about bigamy.

Now I was off to a restaurant for a big dinner. I happened into a nice place with linen on the tables and most officious waiters. There was even a pianist playing softly in the corner.

And oh, was I stunned when I heard him play “Roma Nun Fa La Stupida Stasera.”

That’s when I knew for certain what a hit RUGANTINO had been in Italy.

Yes, I’d heard for decades that the musical by bookwriter-lyricists Pietro Garinei and Sandro Giovannini and composer Armando Trovaioli had taken Rome by storm when it opened in late 1962. A run of 627 performances may not seem like much to us these days, but by the time RUGANTINO had closed in Rome, only 31 book musicals could boast of having had longer runs on Broadway.

RUGANTINO’s “ORC” -- Original Roman Cast – album was picked up for American release by Warner Brothers (its first-ever cast album) in early 1964. I’ll admit that I wound up playing that season’s FUNNY GIRL, 110 IN THE SHADE and HELLO, DOLLY! more, but RUGANTINO was on my turntable more than many of the season’s other musicals.

Sure, you say, because a person with your last name knows Italian. Actually, I don’t; the only words I recognize are the profanities that everyone knows, although I suspect that I heard them earlier and more often than most, considering how endlessly my father – well, that’s another story. I never learned the language because my parents kept their knowledge of fluent Italian from me so that they could have their own secret code whenever they didn’t want me to know something.

So RUGANTINO’s beautiful music is what seduced me. When I got home from my trip, I immediately put the cast album on my then-still-operable turntable. I again relished the atmospheric “Tirollalero,” the dynamic “Anvedi Si Che Paciocca” and the sly “E Berllo Ave Na Donna Dentro Casa.” But when I heard “Roma Nun Fa La Stupida Stasera,” I knew why that song had stuck in my head – and probably in the pianist’s as well.

First the entire company sang the song’s ten-line lyric of that song that loosely translates to “Rome at Night Makes You Make a Fool of Yourself.” Then the men’s chorus repeated it word-for-word. Then the women’s chorus did. Then both groups sang it together. Our leading man then did the same, followed by our leading lady who did the same, too. This was followed by the supporting male lead taking it before the supporting female lead sang it word-for-word as well. And then everyone joined in to sing it a capella. Trovaioli apparently believed that this song was so beautiful that it didn’t even need any musical accompaniment – but it did need nine distinct hearings.

This had to have been quite the production number, and one wonders if it’ll be done to this degree when RUGANTINO makes it way to New York next week. At City Center, where we regularly see Encores!, we’ll get an encore of RUGANTINO more than 50 full years after its American premiere.

RUGANTINO’s Broadway fate was much different from its Roman one. Alas, when RUGANTINO closed on Leap Year Day, 1964, 1,275 book musicals had had longer Broadway runs. Twenty-eight performances were all that RUGANTINO could muster at the Mark Hellinger. For the previous eight years, people had been stopping by the house to see MY FAIR LADY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but the sound of money was not to be heard by producer Alexander H. Cohen.

Cohen can legitimately be called Broadway’s most successful unsuccessful producer. From the autumn of 1941 through the winter of 1999, he produced more than five dozen shows, but the vast majority of them lost their entire investments. His few hits were mostly low-cost efforts thanks to a celebrity (AN EVENING WITH MAURICE CHEVALIER) or two (AN EVENING WITH MIKE NICHOLS AND ELAINE MAY). Richard Burton’s HAMLET paid off, but remember it didn’t have the added expense of paying the playwright.

Yes, Cohen was also connected with ANGEL STREET, which was so well-known that Comden and Green even mentioned it in an ON THE TOWN song. (Today, the play is much better identified by its movie title: GASLIGHT). ANGEL was good to its angels, thanks to a three-year run from 1941 to 1944, when it finished as the seventh-longest non-musical and the longest-running thriller in Broadway history. In the ensuing 70 years, only seven other non-musicals have surpassed it. But even there, the credit ran “produced in association with Alexander H. Cohen.” His name was on GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and MY 3 ANGELS, but respectively as company manager and general manager.

Give Cohen credit for always thinking big, though. He’ll always have a great place in our hearts and heads for getting the Tony Awards on network TV. Yes, Broadway art has sometimes suffered for that, but would you really not want them on TV?

Old-timers are still talking about the marvelous multi-story display Cohen put outside the Broadway Theatre when his Sherlock Holmes musical BAKER STREET played there in 1965. And because he’d produced the Burton HAMLET less than a year before, he got the star – still infamous for his affair and marriage with superstar Elizabeth Taylor – to record “A Married Man” from the show.

“The World’s Fair Musical” is how Cohen billed RUGANTINO. That was partly to ride on the coattails of that big attraction that was about to open in Flushing Meadows. But Cohen also wanted to establish that he was creating his own Italian pavilion 10.2 miles west of the Unisphere.

While some producers might have demanded that RUGANTINO be performed in English, Cohen decided to keep it in the original Italian. He’d fly over the original Roman cast of 46 – and fly over the proscenium what we now call supertitles. This was such an innovation that that term was still in the future; many arts reporters used “subtitles” as their word of choice, but that was literally far off the mark.

The translator was a surprise to many: Alfred Drake, the Tony-winning actor for KISMET, had a triple crown that season. He performed in a play (Burton’s HAMLET), a musical (ZENDA, as in THE PRISONER OF, which closed out of town) and wrote the fodder for those supertitles. If he seems an unlikely choice, be apprised that Drake’s real name was Alfred Capurro.

Doctors who treated neck pain must have licked their lips at the prospect of those in rows A-E at RUGANTINO struggling with supertitles. Cohen, aware that those in the best seats might not be able to read everything – and that plenty of others who could read every word might miss them while understandably looking at the stage -- filled the Playbill with seven columns of dense synopsis. Those who didn’t want that much detailed information only had to go a little deeper in the program to find a two-page condensation.

Rugantino was the title character and a scoundrel who pestered much of early 19th century Rome – although the local ladies were attracted to this bad boy. Single women, married women, young women and old women were all susceptible to Rugantino’s immense charm and good looks. (He was juggling many of them the way that Guido Contini would 150 years later in the same country.) Then one woman comes to Rome who particularly catches Rugantino’s eye, heart and private parts.

When he discovers that she’s married, he simply views seducing as more of a challenge that he wants to meet. And just as Nathan wagered Sky that he couldn’t seduce Sarah, Rugantino’s roguish friends bet that he can’t bed Rosetta.

Also on the scene is Mastro Titta, the local innkeeper who doubles as Rome’s executioner. That’s a strange second job, to be sure, but its inclusion suggests that he’ll be called away from his guesthouse to man the guillotine. Guess who’ll be a prime candidate for decapitation?

RUGANTINO will be at City Center from only June 12-14 and for just three performances. ( Visit ) Now that we’re used to supertitles, perhaps it will be a smash and extend – not just to best its original Broadway run, but also so that every pianist in an American restaurant will be learn “Roma Nun Fa La Stupida Stasera.”

         — Peter Filichia

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