6 Marvelous Musicals Set in New York City, Recommended by Broadway’s Anna Uzele

Anna Uzele with four of her favorite musicals.
Anna Uzele with four of her favorite musicals. / (Anna) Momodu Mansaray/WireImage/Getty Images; (Rent) Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty Images; (A Chorus Line) Carlos Alvarez/Stringer/Getty Images; (West Side Story) FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images; (Hamilton) Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

On March 13, 2022, Anna Uzele took her final bow as Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, in Broadway’s campy, bedazzled pop musical SIX. At 6 a.m. the very next morning, she was sitting in a hair and makeup trailer on the set of her new gig: the Apple TV+ series Dear Edward, a grounded portrait of grief and healing that follows the families of people who died in a plane crash. Uzele played an idealistic and somewhat reluctant politician whose grandmother, a senator, was among the victims. 

Needless to say, the two experiences were different. “I came from a show that was a bunch of women … constantly in each other’s personal spaces,” Uzele tells Mental Floss. “And then suddenly you’re in a trailer by yourself, and people are asking you what you want for lunch and breakfast and dinner and helping you put your shoes on.”

Even more significant was the distance between her and the viewers. “I am so accustomed to being in the same room with my audience,” she explains. “I can see how my performance is affecting them, I can adjust accordingly to the temperature of the room, to the vibe of the room, as I’m giving my performance. If I’m not funny, I can tell—because you’re not laughing.”

Without a crowd’s contemporaneous feedback or the promise of a chance to tweak things for the next day’s show, Uzele quickly learned that acting for TV required “far more trust” than she’d expected. “You really just have to do the scene and then let it go, which is terrifying for an actor because we’re control freaks and we want to control our performances,” she says.

So it was especially satisfying for her to finally watch Dear Edward—not her first TV appearance, but her first one as a series regular—and feel like she “did a pretty good job!” “I’m really proud of myself, because I knew what it took to get there and I knew all of the fears in my head. But it’s such a beautiful feat and they edited it together in such a lovely way. I was so moved,” she says.

For the foreseeable future, however, Uzele will be basking once again in the familiar comfort of a live audience: She’s currently starring in New York, New York, a new Broadway musical very loosely based on Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name. Like the movie, the musical tells the story of two musicians—singer Francine Evans (played in the film by Liza Minnelli) and saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro)—who fall in love in New York City after World War II. But the musical introduces a number of fresh characters, from a Cuban drummer to a Black veteran-cum-trumpeter, all thematically united by dreams of making it big in the Big Apple.

In another key departure from the film, the musical’s central couple is interracial—an element that drove much of Uzele’s research in preparing for the role of Francine. “I myself am in an interracial relationship—I married a white man—but I live in 2023 and I live in New York, and that’s celebrated every single day, and not once in my life have I felt any sort of opposition,” she says. So she sought out sources that would help her understand what Francine and Jimmy, portrayed in the musical by Colton Ryan (Dear Evan Hansen) would have faced in the ’40s. 

One particularly illuminating book was Alexis Clark’s Enemies in Love, the incredible true story of a Black American nurse and a German POW who fell in love in Arizona during World War II. Uzele was less interested in their early romance—“because we get that, you just love who you love and you can’t control it”—than in the logistics of building a marriage and raising children in such a prejudicial environment. “It was fascinating to learn about how many times they had to move in order to just find a school for their mixed children to go to, how many times they had to move just to find a church that would accept them,” she says.

Another inspiration was stage legend Pearl Bailey, who made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman in 1946 and married white jazz drummer Louie Bellson in the early 1950s. The following decade, Bailey played the titular role in an all-Black production of Hello, Dolly! at the St. James Theater, where New York, New York is now staged. Uzele has a photo of Bailey taking her final bow that she’s planning to get framed.

Uzele also watched Scorsese’s New York, New York for the first time, although the show’s creators—director/choreographer Susan Stroman, and book writers Sharon Washington and David Thompson—had told her not to. “They don’t want you to feel swayed by what Liza did or feel daunted by filling any sort of shoes,” Uzele says. “But they did something spectacular and I have to know what it was, and I have to know why the [movie] was originally so special to begin with.”

The process of constructing her own version of Francine began before Uzele even booked the role. During her first callback, she improvised a lot. “No one gave me permission, it just felt correct in the room,” she says. “And I think that speaks to who these creators are and the energy they foster in audition rooms that makes people feel really free.” Then, when they sent her an updated script before her second callback, she realized they’d used some of her improvised lines. “I walked in and I wanted to be like, ‘So wait, I booked this, right?’ But I didn’t say anything.”

That spirit of collaboration continued after the role was officially hers, with revisions happening throughout the nearly two-month-long rehearsal period that kicked off at the end of January. And now, Broadway lovers are finally getting to enjoy the fruits of all that hard work. New York, New York began previews on March 24, and opening night is scheduled for April 26.

At its core, the show captures the energy of a place where nothing feels easy but everything feels possible—qualities reflected in the countless other musicals set in New York City. To celebrate its premiere, we asked Uzele to share some of her favorites.

1. West Side Story

“I think I will always have a soft spot for West Side Story because that entire journey of, you know, ‘Puerto Rican girl falls in love with white guy’—that is my family. My grandmother moved from Puerto Rico to Washington Heights and she fell in love with a white boy and some people had some opinions about it. And they had a whole family and lived a beautiful, long life. So any time I see that, whether it’s film or onstage, I’m a mess. Because that’s part of why I’m here, and there is something about interracial relationships in general that just gets me. My parents are that, my grandparents are that, I’m participating in that, I’m acting that out onstage. So any time that’s in a show I’m like, ‘Yep, that’s why I’m here and thank you for allowing that kind of love in New York City.’

“I didn’t know what [my grandmother’s] address was, and when I moved to the city my first apartment was, upon speaking with my grandfather, a block away from where she grew up, and I had no idea. So I got to spend my first few years in New York City stomping around her neighborhood, exactly like her, which was really special. She had actually just passed away the year that I moved to New York City, and so it was like she was with me the entire time, and I was getting to grieve her and walk around her neighborhood and be like, ‘I love it here, I see why you love it here, I’m so glad you lived here, I love you, and I hope you well wherever you are.’”

2. In the Heights

“The In the Heights movie: bawled my eyes out. … Anthony Ramos’s performance was incredible, yeah, that was amazing. And of course as a young musical theater girl who’s a ‘quarter Rican,’ you grow up singing ‘Breathe’ all the time, for every singing competition and audition. So [the musical] harkened back to falling love with this art form to begin with. And, of course, we’re back in the Heights.”

3. Rent

“I think I kind of love Rent in the same way I love [New York, New York]. Because there’s something so alluring about watching a bunch of people struggle to make it. That is so relatable, and we all know what it feels like to have grand plans for your life and to have them go terribly wrong, and then have to regroup and figure it out. Especially because we now know what it’s like to live through a pandemic in New York City—and in Rent they’re fighting the AIDS epidemic for the first time ... and they’re losing loved ones. So I feel like the parallels between that and today are so many.”

4. Annie

“I love Annie. … I will sing [‘I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here’] to myself any time a good thing happens to me in my life. I had my first premiere of a TV show ever, and I flew to LA and I was just checking into my hotel, and it was really fancy and they had pulled out all the stops, and I just twirled around the hotel singing ‘I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.’ And I have been singing that on and off for the past few months, because life has gotten really exciting, and there’s been a whole lot of positivity and blessings just being dumped on me, and I can’t believe it’s real … so that’s kind of been an anthem of sorts. I was singing before I could talk—I’m better at that. 

“Also, these moments are fleeting, and you don’t know how long they’re gonna last, and a lot of people would love to be in this position, and a lot of actors have worked their asses off and are still not getting recognition, and yet here you are on this stage playing this role. So the best thing I can do in this moment is enjoy it and have the time of my life, because I’m gonna look back on this and be sorry if I didn’t.”

5. Hamilton

“[Hamilton] changed the industry; that completely changed the game. It didn’t just include people of color, it brought them an intense amount of dignity to the stage. They’re playing our Founding Fathers … that’s wild. That changed everything. [Lin-Manuel Miranda] showed and allowed and gave space for people of color to be and do absolutely anything they wanted onstage. And that happened as I was finishing up my time in college, so I got to come into an industry that had just received Hamilton and I’m so glad that that happened before I got here.

“Angelica [is my favorite Schuyler sister.] I think that’s just the oldest daughter in me: I’m the oldest of three, so I completely resonate with that feeling of needing to take care of everybody, and needing to make sure everyone else is fine, and to think of yourself last. … Angelica breaks my heart way more than Eliza does. … She holds her cards close and she’s gotta keep it all together for the fam—yeah, that gets me. … But to actually play eight shows a week, give me that Peggy/Maria track, that sounds nice. To hop in, hop out, that sounds sustainable. That I could actually do, realistically.”

6. A Chorus Line

“Because we all know what it’s like to want to get a job and not get the job—and do things that you wish you didn’t have to do in order to get that job. There’s something very, very tragic about A Chorus Line, to have all these desperate actors all standing in a line while this man just makes them jump through hoops to get this job that they don’t even know if they want. There’s something really beautiful about that, to dive into the individual stories of these people that are just numbers at first.

“I played [Diana] Morales in college, and that was a very specific experience, because I was sort of waking up to my Latina identity—that was something that I hadn’t really dove into yet. I am perceived as Black and so I’m probably just going to be playing Black roles, and I remember when I got that role there was weird backlash from some of my peers at the time, because I didn’t look Latina enough, and because I looked Black. So it was really interesting for me to, for the first time, get to be like, ‘Yeah, I am darker-skinned and I am Black, and I still am Latina and I still can play Latina roles. 

“So that was tricky, but I’m really grateful for that experience because it forced me to own it for the first time. I was really scared to own it, because I didn’t think I deserved to. Which is a whole other thing about being mixed race: You’re not really sure which one to latch onto, and which one you’re supposed to be at which given time for which role, especially in this industry. And it was also my senior year, so I was saying goodbye to four years with a lot of people I loved. So I got to sing ‘What I Did for Love,’ and I got to look all of my friends in the eyes. So it was special for a lot of different specific things that were personal to me.

“If I could dance it, which I can’t, I would play Cassie. But yeah, that’s not my ministry, and that’s OK! I’m really thankful I got to play Morales and have that experience; it was an awakening of sorts.”