Musical That Launched Barbra Streisand on Broadway Gets a Soulful, Devastating New Re-Imagining

The additions and revisions to ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’ reflect the rather grittier tone of the source material. As it turns out, the tweaks have also brought the musical fully, and chillingly, into the present.

Julieta Cervantes
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Santino Fontana in 'I Can Get It For You Wholesale.' Julieta Cervantes

The very first word uttered in director Trip Cullman’s soulful, devastating new re-imagining of the 1962 musical “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” is a detestable slur that, sadly, has carried particular resonance in recent weeks. The term, which begins with a K and rhymes, ironically, with “like,” is hurled at a boy named Heshie, a menial worker at New York City’s Garment District in the 1920s, as he is beaten and robbed of his meager pay.

Young Heshie is a creation of John Weidman, a noted Sondheim collaborator and the son of Jerome Weidman, the “Wholesale” librettist and author of the novel that inspired it. The new prologue, which borrows only a song from the original show, serves to shed light on — if certainly not to justify — the unscrupulous and callous behavior Heshie will exhibit once he grows up and turns into budding entrepreneur Harry Bogen, the musical’s anti-hero protagonist.

Like other additions and revisions Mr. Weidman has made to “Wholesale,” best remembered as the show that gave Barbra Streisand her start on Broadway, the sequence is intended to reflect the rather grittier tone of the source material. But as it turns out, Messrs. Weidman and Cullman’s tweaks have also brought the musical fully, and chillingly, into the present.

Two years before “Fiddler on the Roof” had its premiere, “Wholesale” brought a collection of characters with Jewish names and customs to Broadway, in a morality tale filled with alternately romantic and acerbic music and lyrics by Harold Rome, who was described by one critic as “a Noel Coward with a social conscience.” Clearly, a song title like “Ballad of the Garment Trade” suggests the influence of progressive artists who flourished during Rome’s younger years, many of them Jews, and musical arrangements provided by David Chase for this staging underline the score’s jazz accents and notes of klezmer.

Joy Woods and Santino Fontana in ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale.’ Julieta Cervantes

Mark Wendland’s stark scenic design — primarily tables and chairs, pushed around to suggest a wide range of settings — and Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes nod, likewise, to Brecht and Odets, and choreographer Ellenore Scott draws on traditional Jewish dance to buoyant and sometimes ominous effect. But Harry’s journey carries a lot of contemporary resonance here, for reasons both political and cultural.

The conflict between spiritual and material ambition has always been especially fraught for the Jewish people, whose mixed legacy of oppression and success has given rise to seemingly inexorable stereotypes branding us as covetous and duplicitous. Both adjectives, to be sure, suit Harry, who repeatedly betrays those who love and trust him as he swindles his way to the top of the garment industry.

Played here by a characteristically charming Santino Fontana, Harry’s the sort of guy who gets caricatured in antisemitic tropes, like some that have metastasized on social media since Hamas’s murderous rampage on October 7 spurred a new wave of violent conflict in the Middle East. And what this revival makes freshly plain is that he and others of his ilk don’t merely fail to represent their tribe; they are actually, for more faith-driven or socially minded Jews, traitors.

That’s not to say that Harry is completely vilified, or that no context is provided for his agenda. One of Mr. Weidman’s most poignant contributions to his father’s show is a new monologue, delivered by one Maurice Pulvermacher, the wealthy dress manufacturer who gives Harry his break. 

Disclosing that his boyhood dream was to be an architect, Maurice imparts the advice his father gave him: “He said that in America there were a lot of things Jews weren’t allowed to do and a list, a short list, of things they were,” the older businessman, a gruff, weary figure in Adam Grupper’s astute performance, recalls. “And then he wrote me out that list and told me to pick something, which I did,” Maurice continues. “And I have been doing that thing I picked my whole life with two ideas in mind. To get rich and to get even, which I realized at some point were actually the same thing.”

In this process, of course, those who answer to higher principles can get pushed aside, or crushed, and “Wholesale” offers them vivid representation. There’s the gentle designer Meyer Bushkin, played with great tenderness by Adam Chanler-Berat, who makes the mistake of devoting himself to Harry and his vision; or Harry’s former neighbor, Ruthie Rivkin — portrayed by Rebecca Naomi Jones with her usual warmth and pluck, albeit a very inconsistent Bronx accent — who pines for him.

Judy Kuhn is predictably moving as Mrs. Bogen, Harry’s mother, who has his number from the start — and who doesn’t, in this production, seem inclined to absolve him of a final, especially heinous betrayal. Mr. Weidman has written a shattering epilogue, in which she and others gather for an outpouring of love and faith, from which Harry is conspicuously excluded.

The audience is reminded of a refrain in “The Gift,” the haunting number that opens Act Two, at the bar mitzvah of Meyer’s son: “What money makes/Money takes away.” I doubt that those lyrics, so relevant for people of all backgrounds, have ever resonated more piercingly than they do here. 

The New York Sun

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