STEPPIN' OUT AT 54 BELOW: Julia Riew
I went back to 54 Below last week for an unexpected treat involving a very up-and-coming young theater composer-lyricist, not even a full year out of college, named Julia Riew. I came away also recollecting unexpectedly the best film I’ve ever seen on the inner life of a NYC nightclub, a relatively little-known gem called This Could Be the Night.
I’ll tell you why.
Ms. Riew is an extraordinarily talented and self-possessed songwriter who is Korean-American and invested proudly in her roots. Born in St. Louis, she graduated Harvard last year and has already won a bushelful of musical theater awards.
This Could Be the Night, conversely, is a very old movie (released in 1957) that follows a fresh-faced young public school teacher (Jean Simmons) as she picks up some after-hours pocket-money at a nightclub, working in the back-office as secretary to the ex-bootlegger owner. Directed by the great Robert Wise (before West Side Story and The Sound of Music) and written by the unfairly neglected screenwriter Isobel Lennart (today remembered, if at all, for the libretto she wrote for Funny Girl), the film manages to give revealing screen time to everyone in the joint — from the chef in the kitchen, the bartenders, the maître d’, the chorus girls, the bandleader (played by real-life bandleader Ray Anthony), even the teenaged busboy, who gets beaten up outside simply because his name is Hussein Mohammed. Though the club’s queen is the statuesque and smart-as-a-whip girl singer, “Ivy Corlane,” portrayed by future cabaret legend Julie Wilson in heart-stopping fashion, the most indelible character, for me, is “Patsy St. Clair,” the club’s marquee hoofer, played by Neile Adams — then a 25-year-old Broadway Fosse dancer, newly-arrived in Hollywood, whose real name was Ruby Neilam Salvador.
Manila-born, a survivor of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines (in fact, a teenaged heroine of the wartime Filipino Underground Resistance), Adams is a joy in the film; effervescent, sprite-like and gawky all at once, dancing up a storm, sexy as can be without being in the least bit lewd, chaperoned throughout by her screen mom… Joan Blondell? Yeah, blonde and brassy Joan Blondell — because Adams’ Asian Pacific Island heritage is entirely erased as Patsy St. Clair. Despite fleeting flashes of her Filipina-accented English, she is presented as an All-American girl.
And why not? She is. An Asian Pacific All-American girl (who less than a year before this flick was made, married a then-barely-known Steve McQueen, with whom she would have two children and a tempestuous marriage. I believe Ms. Adams is still kicking today, at 90).
Could she have been cast in This Could Be the Night as a character closer to her heritage, with a mother who… resembled her? Well, sure, but not without being saddled with a passel of stereotypical Asian tropes most likely. Adams had little choice in 1957 either way, but at least she got to play a person and not a caricature.
This brings us back to Julia Riew’s evening of music, sung by the composer herself and a cast of Asian and Pacific American Broadway performers — Emily Borromeo, Natalie Choo, Marina Kondo, Claire Kwon, Juliet Lee, Kevin Trinio Perdido (plus Rachel Share-Sapolsky as the show’s token Joan Blondell). Though her beautifully crafted lyrics at times gesture toward Korean-American themes, Ms. Riew’s melodies are, to my ears, All-American show tunes, and decidedly Disney-esque. (I say this uncritically. Her Disney-esque melodies are first-rate Disney-esque.) A hard-driving, syncopated pulse infers a kind of Asian Pacific Island rhythmic subtext to some songs, but, for the moment (she is still so young), Ms. Riew — playing violin or electric guitar, fronting a band of piano, bass, drums, another guitar and another violin — seems little concerned with making overt Korean-American cultural statements either musically or even instrumentally.
And why not? It’s her choice. Her songs this night came from three sources: her senior thesis musical at Harvard (if I understood correctly), a new project, collaborating with a favorite graphic novelist, and her one-act musical Shimcheong, derived from a Korean folk tale, which has made her a TikTok celebrity, accumulating over 120,000 online followers and 3 million likes worldwide. Ms. Riew readily concedes that Disney lacked a Korean-American princess, so, with Shimcheong, she just wrote one. It is now being developed by Tony-Award winning director Diana Paulus and award winning playwright Diana Son for Paulus’s American Repertory Theater under a new title: Dive (probably what This Could Be the Night would have been called had it been made today).
The sold-out house at 54 Below for Ms. Riew’s Thursday night show was a revelation, a virtually 100% sea of delighted Asian faces; still an anomaly in Broadway nightlife. And so, I found myself thinking how far nightclubs have come, from the rough-and- This Could Be the Night-tumble of gangster management in the 1950s, to the newly non-profit, enlightened status of 54 Below, where a creative voice like Julia Riew deservedly gets a stage of her own to sing however and whatever she wants. We have come a long way.