On The Town
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[Interview w/ Kasha & Hirshorn 1984 in Notes on Broadway, pg. 18]
There's a popular misconception that, musically, On the Town was based on my ballet Fancy Free. There isn't a note of Fancy Free in On the Town. It was just the idea of the ballet that struck people as a great idea for a show – three sailors with twenty-four hours leave. So we decided to do a show with Jerry Robbins under the guidance of George Abbott, bless him. It was the first time out for Adolph, Jerry, Betty, and me. We were all in our mid-twenties. So, thanks to the great Mr. Abbott, we made it. We were absolutely just off the boat. But we were excited, and we had something to say.
Betty Comden: 10,000 Easy Ways to Get Into the Theater
Betty Comden, star and co-author of On the Town, wrote an article for Madamoiselle magazine in which she urged mothers to steer their daughters clear of careers in the theater. Titled "10,000 Easy Ways to Get Into the Theatre," the article was mostly autobiographical and entirely hilarious. Here are the opening paragraphs:
"Mothers--if your daughter shows signs of being stagestruck, just seize her firmly between the thumb and index finger, and marry her off to the nearest kindly butcher. This should be done, preferably, before the age of five, because once in kindergarten it may already be too late. The first thing you know, little Gloria will be playing a character called `The Spirit of Orange Juice' in her school's Vitamin Health Pageant. You will see her small face light up with an unholy glow, as she hears the cries of `Brava!' rolling through the auditorium, and from that time forth nothing will be able to stop her form toddling down the road to ruin.
"Since my mother never had a chance to read advice like this, my budding career was allowed to blossom unimpeded, and I now find myself collaborating with Adolph Green on the book and lyrics for the musical show On the Town, and preparing to be in it as well."
John Chapman reviewed On the Town for the New York News on December 29, 1944. He was not enthusiastic, though in the following year he went to see the show again and found it to be very enjoyable. This is the original review.
"On the Town" Is Not as Carefree and Gay as Its Title Hopes It Is
Not even the ministrations of the able George Abbott as director, nor the presence of such enjoyable players as Sono Osato and Nancy Walker, can make On the Town anything but a dullish musical comedy.
It is not without laughs, as when Miss Walker, a lady taxi driver, kidnaps a sailor, and when Betty Comden, being served a drink in a night club, says "Just what I needed--a jigger of solid glass."
A Night Club Drink
It is not without its scenic thrills, for one of the producers, Oliver Smith, is a top-flight stage designer. Mr. Smith's effects, even when they verge on the spectacular, are achieved with remarkable economy. I don't mean the economy of money-saving, but of effort. His settings seem to work without any trouble and in no time at all, and this is admirable in a business where your mind's eye often pictures forty $150-a-week stage hands running around like crazy behind a curtain, while in front of the curtain Boy and Girl are singing that they love each other.
But, directors, players and designers cannot alone make a musical. I hate to keep harping on this subject, but a musical needs some music with lyrics to match. Words which rhyme and have rhythm do not necessarily make a lyric, nor do thirty-two bars full of notes automatically make a song. The score of On the Town by Leonard Bernstein, and the lyrics by Miss Comden, Adolph Green and Mr. Bernstein, are almost always disappointing.
The story of the show is serviceable enough. Three sailors, unacquainted with our happy metropolis, find themselves with 24 hours' leave in New York. On the subway one of them sees a picture of the Miss Turnstiles of the month and decides this is for him, so the three gobs set out to find her.
Sono Branches Out
Miss Turnstiles is Miss Osato, the impish dancer who was so charming in One Touch of Venus that she got a whole layout for herself in a picture magazine--which in this country seems to be at least as good as being on the King's birthday list in Britain.
This time Miss Osato talks and even sings a bit, besides dancing, and performs all three accomplishments as nicely as you could wish. The three sailors finally catch up with her in Coney Island, where she works, and the next-to-closing scene, in which a subway train arrives at Coney and the whole wonderland of sky rides is suddenly revealed, is an example of stage designing at its best.
There are ballets of course.
Cripes, what I would give to see a good old hoofing chorus again!
Lewis Nichols wrote glowingly about On the Town for The New York Times following the show's Broadway opening on December 28, 1944.
There can be no mistake about it: On the Town is the freshest and most engaging musical show to come this way since the golden day of Oklahoma! Everything about it is right. It is fast and it is gay, it takes neither itself nor the world too seriously, it has wit. Its dances are well-paced, its players are a pleasure to see, and its music and backgrounds are both fitting and excellent. On the Town even has a literate book, which for once instead of stopping the action dead, speeds it merrily on its way. The Adelphi Theatre on West Fifty-fourth Street is the new Utopia.
On the Town is a perfect example of what a well-knit fusion of the respectable arts can provide for the theatre. Taking a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green as a base, Leonard Bernstein has composed all manner of songs--some in Tin Pan Alley's popular style, some a bit removed. Jerome Robbins, whose idea was the basis for the show--it came from his ballet Fancy Free--has supplied perfect dances and found Sono Osato and others to do them. Oliver Smith's simple settings are in keeping with the spirit of the book and times. And finally, since the other participants were not experienced theatre people, George Abbott was invited to put the whole thing together. Mr. Abbott has done one of his perfect jobs.
On the Town is the story of three sailors on a twenty-four hour pass from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In the subway they see a picture of Miss Turnstiles, and in the effort to find her in person, they give Miss Comden and Mr. Green a chance to roam through New York. As half of The Revuers, those two know their city. The book they have fashioned makes cheerful fun of Miss Turnstiles, the museums, night clubs and the upper floors of Carnegie Hall, where culture learns to cult. They are serious about nothing, and oftentimes they offer only suggestions of ideas, allowing the audience to fill in the thought. It has been a long time since a musical comedy audience has been allowed to enjoy a musical comedy book.
Only last spring, Mr. Bernstein was earning the Music Critics annual prize for the best new composition of the year; this morning he will start up the ladder of ASCAP. He has written ballet music and songs, background music and raucously tinny versions of the blues. It is possible that none of the individual numbers may spend a year on the Hit Parade, but "Lonely Town" is strict Broadway, "Lucky To Be Me" is strict torch. For a scene in Times Square he has provided the roar of that crossroads of the world. The music has humor and is unpedantic; Mr. Bernstein quite understands the spirit of On the Town.
So does the cast, of course. Miss Osata brought down the highest rafters when she appeared a year ago in One Touch of Venus, and there is no reason to replace any of those rafters now. Her dancing is easy and her face expressive. Any day now her picture will be in the trains as Miss Subway. Nancy Walker is also wonderful as a tough, firm, taxi driver who collects one of the sailors. She can shrill out a ballad like "Come Up to My Place" with all the harshness of a Coney Island barker and all the verve of--well, Nancy Walker. Miss Comden, in the role of another girl who likes the Navy, also is good at it; Adolph Green, Cris Alexander and John Battles are the sailors.
But the charm of On the Town is not so much in the individual performances as in the whole. The chorus and ballet numbers, many of them done with an edge of satire, are easy and graceful. Mr. Abbott permits no lags in his evening, and down in the pit and up on the stage everything always is in order. It is an adult musical show and a remarkably good one.
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