‘I Can Get It for You Wholesale’ launched Streisand. Now it’s gloriously revived
The Daily Beast
October 30, 2023
Barbra Streisand made her Broadway debut, and got her first Tony nom, for “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.” Now the show, which subverts so many expectations, is fabulously back.
One of the many delights of the revival of the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Classic Stage Company, to Dec. 17) is that it has an unhappy ending and a protagonist you end up loathing. Both things are so atypical, especially in the musical theater genre, you think, right up until the end, that the musical will hew close to what that protagonist, Harry Bogen (Santino Fontana), tells us in those closing seconds—that he knows what we’re thinking, surely he will be redeemed in the end. He isn’t.
The route to this upending of expectations and traditions— with a book by Jerome Weidman (based on his novel), music and lyrics by Harold Rome, and a book revisions by John Weidman—is full of sparkle and lively incident under Trip Cullman’s sharp and inventive direction.
So many expectations are challenged, including the character who becomes its star and center, thanks to one song. In 1962 when the show premiered on Broadway, Barbra Streisand played the put-upon secretary Miss Marmelstein, whose song of frustration, assertion, and wisdom—which takes her name (“the drab appellation with which I am persistently addressed”)—brings the show to a bravura standstill.
It is not just that in this revival Julia Lester inhabits this character, who because of her capability, practicality and vim somehow keeps everything on track; Lester also ensures that we know Miss Marmelstein immediately, or so many feel like her. People like Miss Marmelstein keep all manner of organizations afloat, yet—without the conventional good looks and flirtatious eyes of other showier people—do so unseen, un-thanked and unappreciated. Well, here the under-valued finally have their spirit animal, and she’s a marvelous, roaring lion.
Streisand, then 19, made her Broadway debut playing Miss Marmelstein, and scored her first Tony Award nomination. The rave reviews were her entrée to the fame and artistic mastery that followed. Here, the immensely talented Lester, who shone in the Encores production/Broadway revival of Into the Woods as Little Red Ridinghood—and, like Streisand scored a Tony nomination in her own Broadway debut—also brings the show to the best kind of standstill. Streisand can consider the torch well and truly passed. Later in the show, Lester/Miss Marmelstein leads the company in a stirring song of revolt, “What Are They Doing to Us Now?”
The show has other meaningful anchors to the present day. While set in the Depression-era Garment District of New York City, run by Jews, its emphasis on Jewish tradition and community feels piercing in the light of current events, especially as its first scene sees a young Harry (Victor De Paula Rocha) be assaulted, and return home with a bloody nose.
Judy Kuhn, playing his mother, is as fascinating a character as her son—she loves him, and lavishes many chicken blintzes on him (“Eat a Little Something”), but she also sees who he truly is, and all his failings, borne of ambition, vanity, and ruthlessness, brutally clearly. As he himself sings: “Life’s a cold cash situation. Bought and paid for—no obligation.”
We see Harry first blur a genuine love and attraction to childhood sweetheart Ruthie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) with a need for money, which Ruthie can supply in order for him to start a business. (Many times, you will feel like shouting, “Don’t do it,” or even swear-words, as we see his avarice and her goodwill collide.)
Then Harry begins a covert affair with glamorous Broadway star Martha Mills (the excellent Joy Woods), and see yet again his selfishness. Yet both women, as revealed in a clamorous duet of conflicting but complementary impulses of devotion and impatience with this cad, know exactly the disaster they are flirting with just by being in his vicinity. “Just to love is never enough,” both women unite in singing.
The same awareness goes for Harry’s mother who sings a song, delighting in all the gifts his all-too-temporary wealth brings (including a fur stole), but who makes it clear that she thinks her son is also a ne’er do well, capable of great hurt. Her immediate impulse is not to cosset him, but to protect Ruthie from it.
The staging of Harry’s soapy, multiplying betrayals is brisk and beautiful to watch. Mark Wendland’s set of wooden tables and chairs and Ellenore Scott’s choreography consistently signal the bustle of the city, crowded workrooms, and the intimacies of a homey kitchen. Ann Hould-Ward’s period-zinging costumes are just as precisely imagined. I Can Get It for You Wholesale is a generous show, too, with diversions such as a charming number, “Have I Told You Lately?,” in which Harry’s business partner Meyer Bushkin (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his wife Blanche (Sarah Steele) sing a toe-tapping ditty of love and devotion to each other.
It is Harry’s final betrayal of Meyer that cuts the cruelest and deepest, and consigns him to the sin-bin forever in the minds of both his loved ones and the audience. The last tableau of the musical shows the cost of what follows: a Jewish community of family and friends united around the Shabbat supper table, welcoming a much-wronged Meyer back, and Harry on the outside looking in. “What money makes, money takes away,” the company sings.
Again, Fontana and Cullman rightly don’t soften Harry in the last moment. His expression is not one of regret, seeking redemption, but wizened acceptance of the price of what his actions have wrought. What a unique, wonderful show, and with a non-hero at its apex. This writer thinks it should have a Broadway run—but, in case it doesn’t, book now and enjoy having all your musical theater co-ordinates both indulged and lushly subverted. And please, let’s dream up something—a statue, a silver stapler, a golden filing cabinet—for the iconic Miss Marmelstein.