No one wants to see a mediocre town. That’s why “Wonderful Town” will run April 12-20 at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre.
Written in 1953, the musical follows sisters Ruth and Eileen who move to New York City to accomplish their dreams. Ruth wants to be a famous writer, and Eileen wants to become a successful actor.
The sisters struggle with work, romance and being subjected to patriarchal definitions and expectations of their gender.
“It’s easy to categorize ‘Wonderful Town’ as this light-hearted, golden-age musical, but it’s ahead of its time,” Director Richard Roland said. “The women are dismissed and mistaken for being what women were supposed to be in the 1930s, if you can define that. They throw it in the face of everybody and make themselves noticed and heard.”
IU’s production highlights and empowers women in ways other productions haven’t. In most productions of “Wonderful Town,” Eileen gets acting work from men of higher power by relying on her beauty.
“In our production, she never falls to any man,” said Cassia Scagnoli, the actress playing Ruth. “We’ve been able to finagle the words without changing the script to tell the story we really want to tell and focus on.”
Still, the sisters struggle with how men view and treat them as subordinates. Ruth is not taken seriously in comparison to male writers. Eileen struggles with being objectified and not considered as a strong, intelligent person. Throughout the play, the sisters support and love each other while struggling with their own wants and goals.
“This is Elsa and Anna from Frozen, just set in 1935,” Roland said. “It’s that female sister bond that is the real romance of the story.”
After landing a job as a reporter, Ruth goes to a Brooklyn navy yard to report on a story. However, the international sailors won’t speak to her — they don’t even speak English — and instead focus solely on learning how to conga.
“Everyone is dancing the conga, while Ruth is trying to ask questions but is consistently getting cut off by the sailors wanting to dance,” Scagnoli said.
In another job, Ruth tries to promote a nightclub by wearing a sign and dancing around in it. A group of kids laugh at her for how uncool she is. The song “Swing!” follows, where the kids help her learn how to be cool.
“Don’t be square, rock right out of that rockin’ chair, c’mon down and let down your hair, breath that barrel house air,” the company sings.
The production features music by composer Leonard Bernstein, who also wrote for the musicals “West Side Story,” “Candide” and “Peter Pan.” His work for “Wonderful Town” won him a 1953 Tony Award for Best Musical.
“Bernstein's music in general has some crazy rhythms things happening, really interesting intervals,” Scagnoli said. “It’s the lowest thing I’ve ever sang. I think I’m a tenor now.”
Through the wacky situations and the sisters' love, Roland said the production is a reminder about the importance of strong women and how they navigate new territories.
“The show is a love letter to New York that doesn’t exist anymore — this bright, cheery place full of interesting characters,” Roland said. “It’s sort of saying that everyone who wants to come to New York is welcome here. It’s a wonderful town.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled director Richard Roland's name. The IDS regrets this error.
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The IU Auditorium, the Jacobs School of Music and MidWay Music Speaks were all awarded funds.
Performances will take place on Zoom.
The concert airs at 9:30 p.m. on July 25.