About this Recording
8.120889 - BERNSTEIN, L.: On the Town (Original Cast Recording) (1940-1956)

On The Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Original Cast plus Mary Martin 1945 & 1956 • Ballet Music & Medley 1945
The Revuers Music and Lyrics by The Revuers
Original Cast 1940
Fancy Free Music by Leonard Bernstein
Three Dances 1946


“We’ll catch up some other time,” sing the lovers in the touching finale to On the Town, but the irony is that this show, perhaps more than any other in musical comedy history couldn’t have happened at any other time than exactly when it did.

Not only is this musical the perfect reflection of just what America was like in those closing days of 1944 when, although the tide had turned in World War II, an Allied victory was still thousands of lives away, but it’s also a magic instance of a wildly disparate group of people coming together at the precisely right moment to create something unique.

A satirical comedy duo, a classical composer, a ballet choreographer, a high-society designer and a veteran theatre director all found themselves flung together in a creative crucible that proved musical theatre makes much stranger bedfellows than politics ever dreamed of.

Many people hail Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 Oklahoma! as the show that changed the face of modern musical theatre but, in truth, that work only polished and deepened what had been begun by other productions, most notably, Showboat.

But when you look at the brassy, sassy, song-and-dance explosion that was to characterize many musicals of the second half of the Twentieth Century, you have to hail On the Town as the flashy parent of this popular form.

It all began in 1943 with a ballet called Fancy Free. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, searching for his next creative project for the New York company then called ‘Ballet Theatre’ (later ‘American Ballet Theatre’), found himself plugging into the energy of the thousands of soldiers and sailors who would descend on Manhattan during their few days leave before going off (or returning to) the European and Pacific theatres of World War II.

At that point, nearly a third of all Hollywood movies were war-related, and even the top pop songs bore titles such as “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”, or “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”.

Robbins also was influenced by the raw, erotic energy in the sailors-on-leave paintings of Paul Cadmus and wanted to bring that to the world of ballet. He constructed a scenario and started shopping it around to established composers, all of whom turned him down.

At that point, Robbins fortunately ran into Oliver Smith, prominent set designer, society millionaire and friend of the ballet. He volunteered to design Fancy Free, and immediately introduced Robbins to the 25-year-old wunderkind of the symphonic conducting world, Leonard Bernstein.

The composer and choreographer instantly clicked and they were off. Their breezy story of three sailors and the girls they try to connect with on their one night in Manhattan before they go overseas was not only filled with the raw energy that was coursing through the streets of New York in those days, but also managed to capture the emotional fragility and longing for a world at peace where young men and women would be free to couple without thinking of the shadow of death.

It opened on 18 April 1944 and became an instant, volcanic hit, attracting balletomanes as well as ordinary audiences, making both Bernstein and Robbins household names.

Any other hit ballet would have simply rested there, on its considerable laurels, and stayed in the company’s repertoire (as indeed Fancy Free does to this day), but Oliver Smith saw more in its future.

He convinced Bernstein and Robbins that the one-act ballet contained inside it the seeds of a hit Broadway musical and the two men agreed.

Robbins, dreaming of a classy kind of show, wanted dramatic playwright Arthur Laurents to do the book and poet John Latouche to provide the lyrics, but fortunately Bernstein had a better idea.

He saw the free-and-easy structure of the show as being right up the street of two young writer-performers who were near the end of their ropes: Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Back in 1937, Bernstein and Green had met up at a summer camp where the former was musical directing and the latter came in to play The Pirate King in their production of The Pirates of Penzance.

The two became fast friends and Bernstein would later be a faithful member of the audience at The Village Vanguard when Green, Comden and a young girl named Judith Tuvim (later to achieve stardom as Judy Holliday) worked on their wacky comedy sketches as a group called The Revuers.

But Tuvim had left the group, Green had a brief, unsuccessful career in Hollywood and 1944 found Comden and Green working week to week at The Blue Angel.

They had been enthusiastic audience members on the opening night of Fancy Free and when Bernstein brought Robbins and Smith along to see them perform one night, all the parties involved got along well enough that the duo agreed to write the book and lyrics of the show—as long as they got to play two of the leads as well.

In the whole madcap, inventive spirit of the thing, Robbins agreed. But Smith soon realized that with composer, choreographer, librettist and lyricist all under the age of thirty, he needed some seniority on board.

And so he approached George Abbott. Already 57, and with over four dozen productions to his credit, ‘Mr Abbott’ (as he was universally called) seemed just the right man to rein in all this fresh, relatively untried talent.

“I like the kids connected with the show,” was Abbott’s only comment when asked why he had joined the team, but when the project started falling apart out of nerves and after a shaky try-out in Boston, he was the one who cracked the whip and brought it onto Broadway in top-notch condition.

It opened to rave reviews on 28 December 1944, slightly more than eight months after the premiere of Fancy Free. Such a rapid turnaround was impressive even back then, but nowadays, with musicals taking years of workshops and tryouts to get to New York, it seems absolutely phenomenal.

The show ran a solid, but not overwhelming 462 performances, undoubtedly due to the lack in topicality felt once World War II ended. It later became a hit 1949 MGM movie, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, which—strangely enough—cut out most of the songs from the original version.

But more importantly, it launched the impressive musical theatre careers of Bernstein, Robbins, Comden and Green, which would continue for decades to come.

This recording is the kind of strange hybrid one would often find in those days. Only a handful of songs were recorded and the only original artists heard were Comden, Green and comedienne Nancy Walker, while musical comedy star Mary Martin was imported to sing the two big ballads done by the male romantic lead in the show! (A complete recording of the score would not be made until 1960.)

The rest of the present disc gives a real feel for the work as a whole, containing Bernstein conducting the show’s considerable ballet music, cabaret favourites Eadie and Rack offering a stylish period rendition of two tunes, a few selections from The Revuers original material and, to finish things off, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra with a 1946 recording of three selections from Fancy Free, the revolutionary ballet that gave birth to an equally trend-setting musical comedy.

Richard Ouzounian

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