Tom Bosley in Fiorello! - The Broadway Cast Album

Yesterday, Tom Bosley passed away at the age of 83. Though Bosley is best known and celebrated as the TV actor who played Mr. Cunningham on the show Happy Days in the 70s and 80s, he was also a celebrated stage actor, and in 1960, he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the title character of Fiorello!, a musical based on the life and loves of New York governor Fiorello “The Little Flower” LaGuardia.

Debuting in the same season as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, Fiorello! managed to tie with that musical for Tony Awards in four categories including Best Musical. Written by the team of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (the team who would go on to write Fiddler on the Roof) with a book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, the show was also awarded the Pulitzer prize for drama, one of only a handful of Pulitzer Prize winning musicals. It ran for nearly two years, closing in October of 1961, and in those two years, Tom Bosley never missed a single performance (sucked to be his understudy).

50 years on, the show enjoys more a cult following than actual popularity. It’s rarely produced and it’s been overshadowed by Harnick & Bock’s later successes – Fiddler on the Roof, of course, which, when it closed, was the longest running musical in Broadway history, and later She Loves Me, which actually preceded Fiddler as a Broadway disappointment in 1963, but received a celebrated Broadway revival in the 90s. Despite its relative obscurity, Capitol Records’ cast album of the show has been reissued on CD a couple of times, and it’s well worth seeking out. Not so much for Bosley’s performance: Fiorello doesn’t really sing all that much, and when he does Bosley delivers the part with the kind of gung-ho salesman’s pitch shout-singing Robert Preston brought to the part of Professor Hill in The Music Man. Here he is on the stump as a mayoral candidate with a pitch he delivers in multiple languages and dialects in the song “The Name’s LaGuardia”.

The Name’s La Guardia snippet

But the score itself is a lot of fun, translating the colorful goings on of a corrupt political party in peril into the language of musical comedy via songs like the barbershop style waltz “Politics and Poker” and the second act showstopper “Little Tin Box”, both of which featured Howard Da Silva in a role that delivered him and his career out of McCarthy-era blacklist hell. The opening number “On the Side of the Angels” follows LaGuardia’s idealistic campaign team through the trials of working for that rarest of beasts – the upstanding politician. But one my favorite moments is Bosley’s fiery delivery of “Unfair” in which he helps a group of mild-mannered labor ladies on strike get in touch with their outrage.

Unfair snippet

Anyone with a thing for classic Broadway who doesn’t already have this cast album should go out and have a look for it. It really is a great score, and it’s especially fun to listen to in the midst of a vicious off-year election cycle, especially this year’s elections which seems to have brought us enough characters to populate several great musical comedies – and that’s just the New York gubernatorial debate. (“The Rent is Too Damn High” would make a great song title.)