THE BOOK SHELF: The History Behind On the Town and Oliver's Journey to the Stage

News   THE BOOK SHELF: The History Behind On the Town and Oliver's Journey to the Stage
 
This month's column visits a few academic works written about Bernstein's On the Town, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Lionel Bart's Oliver!

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Oxford University Press has recently released three musical theatre-related books, each of which are very much in the academic studies category. The strongest — and most timely — is Carol J. Oja's "Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War." The title is rather indistinct; this is truly an in-depth and comprehensively analyzed tale of the birth of the 1944 musical comedy, On the Town. Since the ground-breaking Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Jerome Robbins musical has been more or less overlooked (compared to other important musicals of its time), and since it is presently back on Broadway in a production that successfully honors the original material (unlike the two prior Broadway revivals), "Bernstein Meets Broadway" is of special interest just now.

Oja, a professor of music at Harvard, has done an admirable amount of research. She gives us a full background, starting with the show's twin roots. On the one hand, the coming of age of both Bernstein and Robbins, culminating in their 1944 ballet "Fancy Free"; on the other hand, Comden and Green's career in topical comedy as the guiding talents of the nightclub act, The Revuers — which was occasionally accompanied at the piano, indeed, by Green's pal Bernstein. The success of the ballet (which opened at the old Met April 18, 1944) directly inspired and provided the departure point for the musical (which opened at the Adelphi on West 54th Street, on December 28 of that year). While Bernstein and Robbins had a free hand in creating the latter, none of the music or choreography were carried over from the former; in part, perhaps, because "Fancy Free" was wholly owned by Ballet Theatre.

"Bernstein Meets Broadway" is a not inconsequential achievement. We have read several 'biography of the musical' books recently and found them woefully short on fresh information or insight. Oja has diligently combed existing sources and located survivors of the production; as a result, we learn plenty about On the Town which we didn't before know. Given the importance of the show in the development of what came to be known as the well-made American musical comedy, the discussion is very much constructive.

However, Oja also seems to have been guided by a couple of social-historical notions. These might well be relevant, but they seem to be more about her research than about the actual aims of the creators. Oja celebrates On the Town as a pioneering beacon of desegregation, making much of the interracial mix of the cast. "On the Town eschewed blackface, and it steered clear of bandanas, maids and butlers," she tells us. (I, personally, don't recall blackface, maids or butlers in the 1935 Porgy and Bess, but let's not quibble.) She also spends significant space discussing the presence in the cast of ballerina Sono Osato, whose Japanese-American father was just then in a W.W. II internment camp. (Osato was born in Omaha, like Fred Astaire, to an Irish-Canadian mother.) A courageous strike for freedom by the creators, eager to mold a brave new world free of prejudice? I think not. Rather, Osato must have been the obvious choice for the role of Ivy Smith. She had pretty much stolen Broadway's heart the season before as the lead ballerina in the Kurt Weill-Agnes de Mille musical One Touch of Venus, winning a Donaldson Award (the precursor to the Tony) and being featured in magazine and newspaper spreads and covers. I don't imagine there was anyone else on the list of established Broadway "names" capable of handling the show's ballet requirements other than Joan McCracken, who was already signed for de Mille's Bloomer Girl. Osato's Japanese heritage didn't seem to bother anyone when she did Venus, and her name value to On the Town was such that she received top billing among the six principal actors.

So was this a racial breakthrough and a brave statement by the authors? Or was it simply a question of casting the best person they could find? Oja makes much of Osato's father's internment, but her brother — at the same time — was serving with the U.S. Army in Italy. We also hear a lot about her political troubles after the opening of On the Town and later blacklisting, but these seem to have had more to do with her embrace of progressive causes. Oja goes so far as to criticize Al Hirschfeld for "unambiguously racializing Osato" in his New York Times caricatures. You see what you want to see, I guess.

In light of all of this racial talk about the original On the Town, I refer you to George Abbott's plain-spoken three-page discussion of the show in his autobiography, "Mister Abbott." He actually does discuss race and prejudice in this passage — but not in connection with the creation of the show or the choice of the performers. He certainly doesn't reveal any hidden humanitarian impulses in his selection and staging of a mixed cast.

Oja also delves, at length, into the homosexual undertones of the show. Maybe so, but I suggest that Broadway newcomers Bernstein, Comden, Green and Robbins were struggling to develop a hit, with neither the time, aim or inclination to make statements about race, segregation, prejudice or the like. Anyway, Abbott would have been the first to say, "Fellas, let us just try to make a good show."

"Bernstein Meets Broadway" has plenty to recommend it, and gives us a clear understanding of the creation of On the Town. My guess, though, is that Oja's subcultural social history would not only surprise the creators; it would positively startle them.

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Another curious hypothesis is the basis of Oxford's "Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon" by Ryan Raul Bañagale. Said hypothesis, more or less, is that George simply wrote the thing; it was the "considerable intervention" of arranger Ferde Grofé that made the "Rhapsody" what it was. Mr. Bañagle — an assistant professor at Colorado College — spends 200 pages explaining why we must place "significantly greater emphasis on the role of the arranger in the life of the piece from its point of origin."

He also promises to show us how Leonard Bernstein's "arrangement of the "Rhapsody" in print and in performance became an outlet for profound personal and professional anxieties." I didn't bother to read far enough to find out the how and why, but my guess is that if you asked Bernstein what he thought of Bañagle's theory that "Rhapsody in Blue" owes its enduring fame and iconic status to Ferde Grofé, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and harmonica player Larry Adler, Lenny would simply roll his eyes and leave the room shaking his head.

That's not to say that "Arranging Gershwin" is not full of interesting information, at least to those who are musicologically oriented. There are score quotations galore, orchestration samples, charts of varying sorts, royalty sheets and even young Bernstein's copy of the Rhapsody sheet music (upon which his sister has penciled in, "Shirley B. has a crush on Clark Gable.") Much of this is intriguing and interesting, for me. However, I am not convinced that Ferde (short for Ferdinand) is responsible for the success — or the form, anyway — of the "Rhapsody." Grofé was, obviously, a talented orchestrator; his "Grand Canyon Suite" and "Mississippi Suite" remain effective concert pieces. But as arranger Hans Spialek, who orchestrated Richard Rodgers' ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," but never claimed credit for creating it, would say, if Grofé were capable of writing "Rhapsody in Blue," then he would have turned around and written his own masterpiece.

For what it's worth, Grofé did boast of helping compose the piece, and Gershwin on at least two occasions disputed the claim (while acknowledging Grofé's "very fine orchestration"). Bañagle seems to side with Grofé, which is his prerogative, but that makes a slender thread upon which to hang a treatise. The author also tells us that the "Rhapsody" is now best known not from the 1924 jazz band version (for Paul Whiteman) but from the symphonic arrangement that Grofé did in 1942. My guess is that if Gershwin had been alive when the publishers asked for the latter, George would have said, "That's okay, Ferdie, I'll take it from here."

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Also on the Oxford bookshelf is Oliver! A Dickensian Musical by Marc Napolitano. This tells us about Lionel Bart's legendary musical, naturally; but it is not as light and breezy as the On the Town book above. Napolitano gives us a fair picture of the mercurial Bart, and discusses the various stages in the history of Oliver!, from Dickens to David Lean's 1948 film to Bart's 1960 West End production to Carol Reed's 1968 film and more. He also recounts Bart's claim that his inspiration came not from reading the novel, but from a candy bar wrapper. (Terry's Oliver Twist, "a chocolate of exceptional quality at a popular price.")

There is plenty of interest here, although there is also quite a bit of material that is less than enlightening. Napolitano also offers little discussion of the Broadway production, which enhanced the value of the property and arguably changed the handling of some elements (including the characterization of the leading character Fagin, as well as providing new orchestrations which were subsequently used elsewhere). Napolitano's chapter on overseas productions begins with Sweden (1961), followed by Israel (1966) and Japan (1968), and only then gets to the 1963 Broadway production. While the author mentions that producer Donald Albery consulted with New York producer David Merrick on the show prior to the 1960 opening, he doesn't seem to realize that Albery and Merrick were at the time partners on three hit shows (namely Albery's London production of Merrick's The World of Suzie Wong, and Merrick's New York productions of Albery's Irma La Douce and A Taste of Honey). The Broadway section is made up mostly of incidental recollections from Broadway conductor Don Pippin, which tell us little about Bart or the actual show. Even so, "Oliver! A Dickensian Musical" does cover a great deal of ground. For years, I've been searching for an authoritative discussion of the authorship of the musical, and Napolitano helpfully describes what happened. Bart was generous to a fault; his overwhelming generosity, while under the spell of various addictions, played a considerable part in his ultimate bankruptcy. But it turns out that he was not generous in sharing credit.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations"; "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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