In 1938, George Balanchine choreographed the musical “I Married An Angel” for his soon-to-be-bride, ballerina Vera Zorina. He had recently worked with Zorina on the Ben Hecht film “The Goldwyn Follies,” and for this new Rodgers and Hart production, Balanchine plucked the star from the silver screen and made her an angel.
The musical is now seeing a revival run at New York City Center as part of “Encores!”, a series that resurfaces rarely seen or forgotten American musicals. Directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, the production stars New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns, who just so happens to be married to Bergasse — a particular biographical note that conjures up a bit of charming historical symmetry.
City Center approached Mearns and Bergasse with the idea to mount the show, which is presented as part of the theater’s 75th anniversary season. Breathing life into the project, however, was not without challenges. While the musical opened to rave reviews in its original iteration, very little documentation of the work remains.
“There’s no record of the choreography at all,” Mearns told ALL ARTS in a recent interview. “And so we really had to start from scratch and just think about what they would do at that time with this music that they were given.”
A seasoned veteran of New York City Ballet (founded by Balanchine in 1948), Mearns is particularly suited for carrying on the legacy of the lost choreography. “The dancing part is really great; very angelic, and I feel like I sort of have that from all the years of doing ‘Swan Lake’ and doing all these ballets,” said Mearns. “I have to be very angelic with my arms, and I’m constantly bourrée-ing on pointe.”
As her first speaking role on stage, Mearns’s ease with Balanchine’s style of movement also helps with her acting. “I’m actually more comfortable on pointe doing a lot of the scenes than I am on flat,” said Mearns. “And my acting coach — and even Rob Fischer, who is the music director — says my voice is better when I’m on pointe because I’m more comfortable standing up there, so everything drops down.”
For Mark Evans, who stars opposite Mearns, the musical’s relative obscurity presents a unique opportunity to experiment. “No one knows, really, what right is,” said Evans. “And so it almost gives us more permission to just claim that as our own and do whatever we can with it, pay respect to it and homage to it. Being in an ‘Encores!’ show is like being a living museum when we bring these productions back to life.”
Well-documented is the musical’s premise, which centers on the relationship between Count Willy Palaffi, a jilted banker (played by Evans), and an angel (embodied by Mearns) who miraculously drops down from heaven to marry the love-lost Willy. But while the heavenly meet cute answers Willy’s prayers for an angelic woman, the nuptial bond between mortal and celestial being rips the angel of her wings and forces her to leave her naiveté and innocence behind in order to adapt to the social norms of earthly society.
For its new staging, the creative team kept the romantic storyline largely the same, but playwrights Sarah Saltzberg and Sandy Rustin worked to bring the dialogue forward into a new era. “There are certain things that we didn’t want to be said that was maybe in the script that would insinuate talking down to women in a way,” said Mearns. “We just sort of cut some things, changed some things, and also updated the jokes, too, to have the people of today understand them and laugh at them.”
In its original form, which was full of several “fantasy” ballets and dance numbers, Mearns estimated that the musical would have ran three hours or more. Factoring in time constraints, the revival clocks in at an hour and a half.
Even still, the new version retains some of what Evans described as “in-jokes,” such as a riotous number called “At the Roxy Music Hall,” which riffs on what it would be like to perform at Radio City Music Hall. These numbers, while absurdist, offer valuable insight into the creative environment that Balanchine, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart and the original production’s stars, including Zorina, Dennis King, Vivienne Segal and Walter Slezak, worked within.
“They were a group of buddies who threw this show together,” said Evans, explaining how the “At the Roxy Music Hall” showcase format fits into the larger production. “And you start looking at them as human artists who are just collaborating on something you are passionate about.”
“I Married An Angel” runs at New York City Center through March 24.
Top Image: Sara Mearns and Mark Evans in Rodgers & Hart's "I Married an Angel," directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. Photo: Joan Marcus.