It is always exciting when fresh-faced talent with a new voice or sound shows up on Broadway. Truly inventive works that take musical theatre into new places seem to come along once or twice a decade, perhaps underscoring their specialness with their infrequency. Many of us know that Hair was a game-changer in the 1960s, A Chorus Line a life-altering experience in the 70s and Rent emerged as the great phenomenon of the 1990s. What we tend to forget is that many of the musicals of the Golden Age of Broadway, musicals that have become "classics" (a term that has unfortunately become interchangeable for "taken for granted"), were once vital, history-changing masterpieces of creativity, ingenuity and splendiferous melody. In 1944, coming on the heels of the revolutionary Oklahoma!, On the Town is one of these musicals that has become so commonplace that we have forgotten just how innovative this "classic" was in its day. In many ways, it still is.
Dancer-choreographer Jerome Robbins was relatively new to the Broadway scene when his ballet Fancy Free, about three sailors on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple, found success and became the basis for On the Town. Composer Leonard Bernstein had composed the music for Fancy Free and he would prove an innovative collaborator on this project, infusing the score with a pulsing insistence that captured both the ticking-clock of the story's premise and the ever-changing beat of the city. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a spunky writing duo, were invited to join the project as book writers and lyricists (they also played one of the romantic duos in the show). Their youthful exuberance and unyielding optimism would prove some of the most infectious components in On the Town. With director extraordinaire George Abbott in place to helm the project, On the Town was poised to be something special.
On the Town was a hit, running 462 performances. The cast, composed of Comden, Green, Nancy Walker, John Battles, Cris Alexander and Sono Osato would all continue to find work in "the biz," but the show's creators would prove to be some of the greatest movers and shakers of Broadway musicals. Herein lies the legacy of On the Town. Their clever integration of book, music and dance would become the guidebook for energetic, tightly woven, vibrant musicals for decades to come.
Revivals of On the Town have been a tricky thing, despite it being the musical that personifies what musical comedy has come to mean. A 1972 revival featuring Bernadette Peters and Donna McKechnie lasted for only 73 performances, and a 1998 revival with Lea Delaria and Jesse Tyler Ferguson held on for a mere 69. Now we have a new revival of On the Town currently playing at the Lyric Theatre. Directed by John Rando, with choreography by Joshua Bergasse, this production has received strong reviews and its new cast recording, courtesy of P.S. Classics may well prove to be the definitive recording of On the Town. It's so expertly played, sung, and produced, it will hopefully drive audiences into the Lyric and elevate this production to the hit status it so richly deserves. First and foremost, this revival has the audacity to employ an orchestra of 28 musicians and we are all the more grateful for that. In a time where the pits of Broadway houses echo with the thin sound of economy, it is refreshing to hear Bernstein's rich and textured orchestrations in all of their glory. That brassy fullness is captured on this album. There is also a completeness to this recording of On the Town, a two-disc set that includes all of the songs, most of the dance music, and even some dialogue dotting the 35 tracks.
This recording (and the revival itself) opens with a delicious nod to history. During World War II, many Broadway musicals dispensed with overtures and chose to substitute "The Star Spangled Banner." That 28-piece orchestra transports us to the time and place, invoking the powers of patriotism and nostalgia with their splendid rendition. This is followed by the gentle and lazy melody of "I Feel Like I'm Not Out of Bed Yet," sung by a quartet of workmen who help us register how early in the morning it is. Phillip Boykin, Michael Rosen, Stephen De Rosa and Jess Le Protto sing it as a morning lullaby, their voices blending in exquisite, tranquil harmonies. The muted sounds of dawn are quickly dashed, however, when our three central sailors, the poetic hayseed Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), the eager and nerdy Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and the libidinous Ozzie (Clyde Alves), burst onto the scene ready for 24 hours of shore leave in "New York, New York." This explosion of energy and melody gets our hearts beating along with the throbbing cadence of On the Town. From this point forward, we are on a musical rocket that propels us (and the boys) on a 24-hour whirlwind adventure.
Each sailor sets off on their own journey, and each finds a lady along the way. Of the three duos, the most fun are Chip and the lustful cabdriver Hildy (Alysha Umphress). His need to see every landmark in his guidebook is interpreted with dorky cluelessness and a charming earnestness by Jay Armstrong Johnson, who proves a comedic asset to both the production and this recording. He is equally matched with the zesty performance of Umphress in "Come Up to My Place," a tour-de-force comedy duet, one of the best ever written for the musical theatre. Chip climbs into her cab and proceeds to insist on seeing landmarks that no longer exist. She provides titillating alternatives, the destination: always her apartment. Umphress drips with both sexuality and comedic desperation, her smoky voice lending itself adeptly to humor in both this number, and her sassy raison d'etre "I Can Cook, Too," equivocating her skills in the kitchen with her talents in the boudoir. She has a one-track mind.
Gabey is off to find "Miss Turnstyles," known as Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild), the monthly winner of a city-wide beauty contest whose picture he has seen plastered on the subway walls. As Gabey, Tony Yazbeck has a lovely voice, especially when he wraps his vocal cords around Bernstein's haunting melody for "Lonely Town." It's a palpable longing that pours out of Yazbeck as he conveys Gabey's shy reticence and deeply felt ache where matters of the heart are concerned. You can almost buy that "love at first sight" is possible and has indeed infected this poor idealist.
Ozzie finds his heart is quickly won over by anthropologist Clare de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley) when they bump into each other at the Museum of Natural History in front of a caveman exhibit. The two are a peculiar matching, but somehow their worlds collide and their baser instincts ignite in the Neanderthal-inspired "Carried Away," a comic duet that is sung with verve and abandon. Stanley is at her apex toward the end of the album when she takes the lead on the show's best song "Some Other Time." There a touch of regret and resigned acceptance in her voice as she sums up the day's adventures as she is then joined by the other couples, each making their sad goodbyes.
In supporting roles, On the Town features some terrific highlights. The always-bulldozing humor of Jackie Hoffman is especially present in her performance as the sodden music teacher Madame Dilly. She is wonderfully wacky as she works her way up and down the scales, taking crazy to a stratosphere far beyond the realm of a "high C"." Michael Rupert takes a subtler tack as the perpetual doormat Judge Pitkin, Clare's permissive fiancée. Rupert's voice is a welcome addition to any recording, and he sounds great through several reprises of "I Understand." The recording features the entire 30-person cast. Once again, it's nice to hear this music given the treatment it deserves. When songs morph into large choral pieces, they are afforded the luxury of impact through the sheer number of voices. It's like painting with sound, lovely colors coming from all directions, combining into something heavenly that we seldom hear on Broadway anymore. There is plenty of dance and incidental music throughout this album, and there isn't a moment of it that becomes tedious or redundant. From the jaunty "Presentation of Miss Turnstyles," through the bluesy and evocative "Times Square Ballet," to the sweeping "Exit Music" this recording is as much a delight for its instrumentals as it is for vocal performances. There isn't a track you will want to skip.
The revival recording of On the Town that has been produced by P.S. Classics is a must-have for anyone who loves musical theatre. Collectors will need to have it for both its beauty and its completeness. Those new to the musical will marvel in just how many great melodies exist within the confines of this oft "taken for granted" musical. On the Town was a game-changer in 1944 and this new recording makes the most effective case for how this simple story and euphoric music will continue to live on and on.
(Mark Robinson in a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: The Disney Song Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs and the two-volume The World of Musicals.)