Filichia Features: Up goes Fiorello! and Everybody Cheers!

Filichia Features: Up goes Fiorello! and Everybody Cheers!

By Peter Filichia on September 30, 2016

“But he’s not short or roly-poly!”

So said the theatergoer next to me as Austin Scott Lombardi entered as Fiorello H. LaGuardia (1882-1947) in the musical that uses his first name as its title.

Well, bookwriters Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick really couldn’t have used Fiorello’s last name; that would have suggested a musical version of Airport.

True, the real Fiorello was chunky and five-foot two. Did his parents know he was going to be diminutive? After all, the word “Fiorello” is Italian for “little flower.”

And yet, one reason given for Fiorello’s rarely being revived is that few Americans know or remember LaGuardia; only New Yorkers who enjoyed him as mayor from 1934 to 1945 actually do. So does it spoil some vast eternal plan to have a tall and svelte actor play him?

No, the real reason to revive Fiorello! today – it’s now at New York’s East 13th Street Theatre through Oct. 7 – is to recall a politician who avoided controversy the old-fashioned way: by being honest and incorruptible. Considering the office-bearers and candidates we’ve endured in recent times, a paraphrase of the ol’ All in the Family theme song comes to mind: “Mister, we could use a man like Fiorello again!”

Even if LaGuardia were a fictitious character, the show would work: a scrappy guy joins the Republican party in 1917 when the Democratic machine and Tammany Hall seem unbeatable. A grass-roots campaign and his native charisma are antidotes in getting Fiorello into the House of Representatives.

The cast of Fiorello! at the East 13th Street Theatre (Photo by Alexander Hill).

The book wisely doesn’t show one LaGuardia triumph after another; political and personal setbacks are there, too. The musical stops even before his successful run for mayor, although we can feel by show’s end that he’s going to win.

In this new revival, director Bob Moss uses the spirited overture as background music. English-as-a-Second-Language immigrants run around holding crumpled pieces of papers and asking passers-by where they can find LaGuardia. The lawyer has made a reputation of helping not-yet-citizens in desperate need.

In 1917, Congressman LaGuardia supports the military draft. To show that he’s not above the boys going off to war, he enlists. Moss had a nice idea for the going-away party; each soldier, when leaving to report for duty, gives his fiancée a brave farewell salute – but Fiorello instead blows a tender kiss to his beloved Thea.

Yes, Fiorello! has a love story, too – two in fact. (Three if you count a totally fictitious subplot.) LaGuardia’s secretary Marie loves him from afar, but must endure his opting for Thea, a seamstress who turned into a strike leader during a labor dispute which Fiorello helped solve. Alas, Thea dies young and Marie hopes that LaGuardia will finally notice her.

But he doesn’t. So Marie sings that she’ll marry “The Very Next Man” who asks her. In fact, she will – but the man indeed will be LaGuardia who finally comes around.

If you only know the cast album, you may be unnerved by Marie’s being so desperate for a man that she states she’d even accept one who’d physically abuse her. As time went on, Harnick didn’t like the lyric any more than the rest of us. Now what you’ll get in the licensed version is:

“When he proposes
I'll have him send me tons of roses
Sweet-scented blossoms I'll enjoy by the hour
Why should I wait around for one little flower?”


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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at