When Carnegie Hall approached New York City Center Encores! about participating in its Autumn celebration of Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday, we were eager to join with them and their partner, the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein was master of so many different forms and styles that it seemed essential to include his theatre work, and not just as part of a concert program. Quickly we concluded that it would be most satisfying to present his first act of daring in the American theatre, On The Town. And since this year also marks the 90th birthday and tenth anniversary of the passing of the show's conceiver and choreographer, Jerome Robbins, it seemed doubly appropriate.
On The Town stands at a crossroads in Broadway's history‹the crossroads of Innocence and Maturity. Written and produced in 1944, it was the first important musical after Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the rules with 1943's Oklahoma! But while Oklahoma!'s success may have given Bernstein and his collaborators the courage to continue adventuring into unknown territory, On The Town also contains many elements of the old-fashioned, pre-Oklahoma! musical. It bristles with the fearlessness and the innocence of youth, with the abandon of Bernstein's hyper-kinetic score and the adventurous, extended dance sequences of his most important collaborator, Robbins. But it also celebrates the sketch comedy style and specialty routines that were fodder of dozens of Gershwin, Porter and Rodgers-and-Hart musicals of the previous decades. It stands firmly in both camps, neither ashamed of the past nor afraid of the future, happily making up its own rules.
Part of this unique quality is no doubt attributable to the various interests and experiences of the collaborators who created the show, and its unusual source material. Robbins had had a hit in early 1944 with the ballet Fancy Free (score also by Bernstein), and the set designer Oliver Smith suggested that its sketched-out plot‹about three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City‹might be developed into a Broadway show. The team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were young writer-performers specializing in "smart" revues in Greenwich Village, were eager to participate, and filled out the plot, inventing a series of zany characters much more redolent of the earlier era than of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Robbins was determined to fulfill the audience's expectation that the show would take dance seriously, given that it was based on a ballet. And Bernstein wanted to prove that he could write a rousing Broadway score. These four relative pups turned to a Broadway veteran, George Abbott, to pull all of the strands together as director. Abbott had been working on Broadway since the teens (and continued well into the 1980s), and had a hand in many of Rodgers and Hart's biggest hits. He was an old-fashioned theatre man, and interested in popular entertainment above all.
Abbott signed on, took charge, and the work went quickly. It was early 1944 when Fancy Free made its debut; On The Town was on the boards before the end of the same year. And the work was not only quick, it was informally brash. Everyone working on the show except Abbott was young and assumed that Broadway was there for the taking‹bring your friends, bring yourselves, let's have a party. Robbins created the most extraordinary and extended set of dances ever seen on Broadway‹several major ballets, including two contrasting visions of Coney Island at night. No one told him you couldn't do a show that way. Bernstein began the show with a bass-baritone intoning something that sounds very much like the beginning of a folk opera and then leap-frogged into one of the world's great sophisticated show tunes, "New York, New York." Comden and Green wrote themselves into the show, with Adolph as one of the three sailors and Betty as a man-crazy anthropologist hard at work on a thesis called "Modern Man: What Is It?" Betty decides it's Adolph. The two book writers then created a juicy part for their friend Nancy Walker as a man-crazy cab driver. Women in On The Town are mostly man-crazy. Why?
Most of the men were overseas, and for all of the innocent, celebratory fun that informed the spirit of the show, no audience member in 1944 could fail to understand that what was on display was an antidote to the reality that Americans were living with. The men were gone, many never to return. The news was solemn and often sad, frightening and not at all reassuring. Three sailors on leave in New York might very well conduct themselves as if this were their last 24 hours on earth because, in terms of fun and satisfaction, it just might be. This, too, is why the show feels today like a marriage of innocence and maturity. The innocence is, to some degree, insisted upon despite the reality of wartime New York. And the maturity will be hard-won; the post-war generation will be returning to a different America than the one they went to fight for in 1941.
Somehow, with its various collaborators pulling in all directions at once, and Abbott pulling them together, On The Town managed to catch that spirit of a world in transition. When its principal characters pause, a few hours before the ship sails back out to war, and breathe the collective sigh that Bernstein, Comden and Green wrote for them, the song weaves together the strands of hope and gentle irony that the men overseas and the women who waited for them at home knew was the best way to put up a brave front:
Where has the time all gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to.
Oh well, we'll catch up
Some other time.
Would some other time ever come? Audiences hoped so fervently, little understanding that, from Broadway's point of view, On The Town was actually the beginning of that other, new time. The world of Frank Loesser and Sondheim, of West Side Story and My Fair Lady had begun as unpretentiously as possible, with a romp about three gobs spending a day and a night in the greatest city in the world. What better way to give Bernstein his theatrical due in this celebratory year, than to have a fresh look at the first theatrical bloom of his youth?
Jack Viertel is Artistic Director of New York City Center Encores!