On The Town
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The following article was written in the summer of 1997, before the opening of On The Town at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
This August the Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare festival presents a revival of Leonard Bernstein's 1944 musical comedy On the Town. Performed outdoors in Central Park's Delacorte theatre, George C. Wolfe's production of this quintessential New York musical celebrates the city's past and present in a unique way. We take the opportunity to celebrate the show itself.
In the autumn of 1943, just around the time of Leonard Bernstein's stunning conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, a young choreographer named Jerome Robbins approached him with an idea for a ballet: three sailors on 24-hour shore-leave in New York City. The result was Fancy Free, a ballet that launched Bernstein's composing career and spawned the musical comedy On the Town.
Oliver Smith, who had designed the sets for Fancy Free, loved the ballet and suggested that it be turned into a full-length show. Together with his friend Paul Feigay, he proceeded to produce the show. Bernstein would write the score, Robbins would choreograph--but who would write the book and lyrics? Bernstein suggested his friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose work as part of the comedy troupe The Revuers he had long admired. Smith and Feigay had never heard of this writing team so Bernstein took them to see the Revuers at the Blue Angel nightclub; and the rest, as they say, is history. With the esteemed George Abbott directing and with Oliver Smith's magnificent sets, the show was a sure winner.
Like Fancy Free, On the Town tells the story of three sailors during World War II and their amorous adventures on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City. The parameters of a full-length musical piece, however, permitted the development of complete characters, comic situations, and a distinct theatrical personality. This personality, a rare combination of wacky and poignant, derived from the dramatic demands of time juxtaposed against the ominous background of the war. Surely the personalities of its authors also influenced the show's singular identity. Furthermore, Comden and Green insured that the spirit of their writing would come to life by playing Claire and Ozzie themselves.
On the Town was an instant hit upon opening on Broadway in 1944. MGM acquired the film rights and made a movie starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Louis B. Mayer, sadly, disliked Bernstein's score so much that almost all of was replaced. For those familiar only with the film version, you have an exuberant, beautiful score to discover. Two recodings of note: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the complete score, featuring soloists Thomas Hampson, Kurt Ollmann, Frederica von Stade, and Tyne Daly. And the composer conducts the New York Philharmonic in the Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town."
If you plan to be in the New York area this August, a trip to the Delacorte will be well worth your while. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see On the Town surrounded by New York's actual spectacular skyline. But if you're stuck at the beach, you can console yourself with the CD.