He defended strikers and labor unions. He worked as a translator at Ellis Island in Italian, Yiddish and Croatian. He helped and represented newcomers in the city, and against the corrupt political machine of Tammany Hall they supported him when he ran for the House of Representatives — as a Republican.
Times have changed since 1916.
Without television debates, he was campaigning on the corner of Mulberry Street, calling to the crowds on their way home:
And you can change it all.
Just use the ballot box,
and cast your vote come next election day:
The name’s LaGuardia —
Fiorello La Guardia became famous as the mayor of New York, the 5-foot-2 Jewish Italian powerhouse who overcame the entrenched system that had run the city for more than a century. But as a young man he was a lawyer protecting immigrants, and he was a congressional candidate in Greenwich Village, an upstart who upset expectations on all sides.
In this election year, Berkshire Theater Group will present “Fiorello!” — the musical that follows his rise — through July 23 in Stockbridge.
In 1916, World War I was tearing through Europe. Congress was debating child labor, and not long before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in the Village had caught fire in one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the country.
And Tammany Hall was controlling New York politics in a mix of public works, patronage and corruption.
“Taxpayers’ money was going to steam rooms for the mayor,” said Austin Lombardi, who plays Fiorello.
The Tammany machine could rig elections with barefaced ease. Kate Maguire, artistic director at Berkshire Theatre Group, recalled an old friend who lived years ago in New York, who remembered days when politicians would walk around and pay people to vote for big-deal candidates.
La Guardia changed that.
Maguire brought him to her stage, she said, because she kept hearing about the play from people who saw it growing up; it opened in 1959 and won the Pulitzer and Tony awards in 1960, and they remember it.
“Great government leaders come to mind at times like this,” she said. “And it’s such a good piece. It has stature, and it speaks to a period not unlike the one we’re in.”
In a climate of political extremes, it can help to be reminded that government can play a role for the betterment of people: “I believe that,” she said.
To fill the cast of young political activists, she has enlisted young actors who are discovering the show for the first time. Katie Birenboim said she has enjoyed coming into the role of Marie Fischer, the leading lady, as something wholly new.
Marie has worked with Fiorello from the time she was 17 and is evolving into a forceful political mover in her own right.
“She’s pulling strings all along, setting him up for potential victories,” Birenboim said.
The play tracks him through victories and defeats, love and loss across more than 10 years, beginning his early campaigns and his air force service.
“World War I was hideous,” Maguire said. “My grandfather fought in World War I and my father in World War II. They were bloody, ugly.”
Condensed on stage, Fiorello’s life can move from grim to triumphant to hilarious. The music is often comic and warm, as he sweeps the people around him into his political and personal battles: Ben, the Republican political boss who backs him; Jimmy Walker, the slick Tammany-supported mayor who opposes him; Thea, the leader of the factory strike Fiorello champions; Floyd, the Irish policeman assigned to handle the protest, who finds himself offered Tammany support.
Maguire finds Floyd hard-working, self-made and endearing.
“We can see what he wants so badly,” she said.
Her father and many of her relatives were Irish cops from Lowell, she said, and she hears their echo.
But director Bob Moss finds a troubling side in him.
“Floyd is a catspaw,” he said. “He gets these jobs because they can handle him. He’s put in place by powerful forces, and he can be manipulated. That’s how patronage worked. He was loyal.”
LaGuardia risked his life against that manipulation. And he had help.
More than a comedy, a crusade or a campaign, more than a love story, “Fiorello!” is about the people he reached out to and moved to make a change.
“It’s about the diversity of New York City,” Maguire said.
LaGuardia pulled together many groups of people and helped them to rise, and the urban landscape changed with him.
New York was drawing and draws newcomers from all parts of the world, Moss said.
“It’s the whole point of ‘Hamilton,’ ” he said, quoting Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award-winning play: “Immigrants — getting things done!”
Variation is good for the country, he said: “It makes us unique in the world … New York City is the real America.”
And the fiery small dark man who asked the city for its trust seems to have earned it.
“The first thing he did as mayor was to cut his own salary by half,” Lombardi said. “He wasn’t all talk — he performed true to his word.”
Photo at the top: Austin Lombardi performs as Fiorello LaGuardia. Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware, courtesy of Berkshire Theatre Group. This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle — my thanks to A&E editor Jeffrey Borak.
On Stage …
What: Berkshire Theatre Group presents ‘Fiorello!’ the musical with music by Jerry Boch and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
When: Mondays to Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. through July 23; 2 p.m. matinees July 12, 14 and 21
Where: Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge
Admission: $50 to $60
Information: 413-997-4444, berkshiretheatregroup.org