At a panel discussion July 21, veteran lyricist/librettist Betty Comden was asked by an audience member whether a Broadway transfer was being considered for the New York Shakespeare Festival's upcoming Central Park, N.Y. production of On The Town. "Yes indeed," was Comden's reply, which was met with much applause.
A production spokesperson with the NYSF said that, as with all productions, there is the hope for a move to Broadway, but "at the moment it's a wait and see. If there was any movement it would have to be later in the season," due to On The Town director George C. Wolfe's busy schedule.
Comden and writing partner Adolph Green were on hand at Manhattan's Lincoln Centre Triangle Barnes & Noble to discuss their work on the original production of On The Town. Together the team is responsible for Wonderful Town, The Will Rogers Follies, On the Twentieth Century, and the film of Singin' in the Rain, among many others. Also present were six cast members from the new On the Town, which begins previews July 31 at the Delacorte Theatre. In the audience July 21 was original cast member Milton Taubman, who created the role of S. Uperman.
More than a hundred people crowded into the performing arts department of the bookstore to hear the discussion and have copies of Comden and Green's book, The New York Musicals of Comden and Green, autographed. The audience, filled mostly with seniors, made a striking contrast to the relatively young cast members. Shirley Fishman, a NYSF dramaturg, moderated the discussion.
"We started working and became an act at the Village Vanguard in 1938," an act that included Judy Holliday, Green began, "I ran into her on the street, I didn't even know Betty quite that well, and I said to her, 'Can you do a one-nighter at a place called the Village Vanguard?' We told her that we'd get five dollars a piece and best of all, none of her friends would ever have to know about it," Green said. "We couldn't afford to buy material," Comden added, "So we often say we chipped in and bought a pencil, and that's the way we started to write as well as act."
After choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein's success with their ballet Fancy Free, "two young producers said that they should do a full length show. Leonard said he knew just the people to do the book and lyrics -- us," Comden explained. "Well nobody had heard of us. We were reduced to being an act of two, playing at a place called the Blue Angel," said Comden, "And we had never written a show!" Green interjected.
Comden and Green got the job, "and wrote ourselves two fat parts," Comden said, "We thought, that show, we could get into because we knew the authors. Even so, we had to audition for George Abbott."
"Tell us all about the document that you drew up for us and we signed," Green told Comden.
"The first day that we met up in my apartment, Lenny [Bernstein] and Jerry [Robbins] and the two of us, I had a long yellow pad and wrote at the top 'credo' and we wrote down the principles that we were going to adhere to in writing this first show," said Comden, "We wanted everything to work as an integrated unit, songs and dancing and story all growing out of one and other. We didn't want to do anything pretentious, or anything false or anything blown-up." That document is now in the Library of Congress.
The creative team and company had only 10 days to work with director Abbott in Boston before opening in New York. "We wrote a song out of town called 'Some Other Time'," Comden remembered, "And on a very snowy night in December we looked for a place to rehearse it and we were in the window of a music store right on the Commons. Lenny was at the piano and taught us the harmonies," a song that Oscar Hammerstein later told Green he wished he had written.
As both writers and performers, Comden and Green had a very rushed and stressful time before opening. "We were unable to appreciate all the excitement and all the beauty of what had happened to us, we were worrying about losing a laugh, and that's what it is to be an actor," Comden said.
December 28, 1944: "It was a wonderful opening night at a theatre the Shuberts had got us into called the Adelphi, and had never had a hit play in it. 'House of Flops,' it was known as. It was terribly exciting," said Green.
"The day before, we were relatively unemployed night club performers, and the next morning we had a hit on Broadway," said Comden, "New Year's Eve of the year before, when we were reduced as an act, we got a job in Las Vegas. We opened, we did the first show, and we were fired. The following New Year's Eve On The Town was running. That was a terrific change in our lives."
For some of the 1997 cast members, appearing in On The Town is also "a terrific change" in their lives. Many acknowledged this production to be "a big break" and " a dream come true."
Green emphasized how excited he was about the new production -- enthusiasm echoed by cast member Jose Llana. "After rehearsing the work for seven or eight weeks now, I see the vitality and I see the excitement that they wanted to express about New York City, being the youths that they [Comden and Green] were when they wrote it," said Llana, who plays the sailor Gabey, "It's such a privilege being young and in New York City and it completely mirrors how we feel about life and about New York City," said Llana.
Cast members also praised director Wolfe. "What's exciting about it is being on Broadway with George Wolfe in a Comden and Green show," Lea DeLaria, the stand-up comic who plays Hildy told Playbill On-Line, "Comden and Green virtually define the American musical in the 20th century, they're legends, and so is George. C. Wolfe."
On The Town begins previews July 31 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. It opens Aug. 21 and runs through Aug. 31. Tickets are free and can be picked up at 1 PM the day of the performance at the theatre or between 1 and 3 PM at the Public Theatre in Greenwich Village. For information on all borough ticket distribution call (212) 539-8750.
--By Laura MacDonald