Three Dance Episodes from On the Town

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            Almost twenty years after Leonard Bernstein’s death, the critics are still arguing over the meaning and impact of his legacy.  What is clear, however, is that the world rarely enjoys the genius of someone who excels supremely in so many artistic endeavors.  Pianist, conductor, television personality, teacher, mentor, social gadfly, and composer of both popular musical theatre and “serious works,” Bernstein wore all hats with avidity.   And he enjoyed stunning success in most.  He had a passion about everything that he essayed, whether conducting the Mahler that he loved so well, or in his many teaching roles, helping audiences “peel” apart the mysteries of music.  He knew so much, and could do so much, that he genuinely thought that he could do it all.  His leadership of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and other orchestras is legendary, but everyone knows there were some concerts that, frankly, got away from him in his self-indulgence.  He worked assiduously as a composer of “serious” music, but those works—from youthful successes to his late efforts--have enjoyed only mixed success.  All that says is simply that he was human.  Other than his epochal conducting, there is one field in which he garnered almost universal acclaim, and that is musical theatre.   When all is said and done, he possessed a talent and a facility for the stage that was as deep as it was prolific.  He understood the genre and its demands well. 

            He plunged in early, writing for student productions at Harvard, and working with a cabaret group (that included Judy Holiday) while a student at the Curtis Institute.  When he was twenty-six, his ballet Fancy Free was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera and On the Town opened on Broadway.  Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Facsimile, Candide, and, of course, West Side Story, followed in succession.   But, the music that Bernstein provided for Fancy Free was the beginning.   The ballet is by the giant of choreography, Jerome Robbins, and went on to be reincarnated that same year (1944) as the Broadway musical On the Town.   The Broadway show subsequently was made into a film in 1949; however, most of Bernstein’s music was thrown out by Hollywood as too “complex and operatic.”  Those who have seen the show in any of its versions will easily remember the simple premise of the plot:  three sailors on liberty in New York City, looking for female companionship, engage in a series of ritual dances of courtship, competing for the affections of the girls, all the while romping through the remarkably diverse cityscape of the “Big Apple.”

            Bernstein extracted the three subject dances from the musical, and the concert piece was given its première by the San Francisco Symphony early in 1946. Taken together, the three dances are a marvelous period piece of New York urban musical culture circa 1944.   The young Bernstein, totally smitten with the energy of his adopted city—especially the swing, blues, and bebop jazz of the time—put it all into the show.  Stir into this a completely obvious and conscious adoption of the musical style of the young Bernstein’s musical idol and mentor, Aaron Copland, and you have accounted for most of what you hear.  All cities constantly change, and there’s not a lot of the present New York City of today in On the Town—of course.  Jazz has changed and not many composers write like Copland, today, but it’s all well done, and infectiously appealing.  Upon the occasion of its revival in 1971, the drama critic of the New York Times snarkily wrote:  “The music...has worn less well, too many of the nostalgic ballads sound like sub-Puccini filtered through Glenn Miller.”  But, never mind.  It’s New York!  It’s Leonard Bernstein! And memorably, it’s “New York, New York, it’s a helluva town!”

             The first dance, “The Great Lover,” is the Act I scene with our hero, the sailor, Gabey, early in the day (the whole show is set in a single day) asleep on a subway car, after having seen a poster of the beauty queen of the rails, “Miss Turnstile,” and dreaming of wooing her.  The punchy, dissonant accents over a jazzy, frantic tempo perfectly depict the sleepy sailor valiantly trying to get forty winks on the lurching, noisy New York subway.  A variety of short, melodic “licks” punctuate the relentless tempo.  Some are jazzy, and some are just plain banal—all reflective of the kaleidoscopic thoughts of the sailor. And, of course, throughout, the familiar metrical displacements and accents of Copland inform the young composer’s score.  Each of the dances is dedicated to someone from the production, and the first dance is dedicated to none other than the ballerina, Sono Osata, who was “Miss Turnstiles.”

            The second dance, “Lonely Town,” is a short little pas de deux between a worldly sailor and a young high-school girl encountered Central Park.  While surely occurring in the daytime, it has an almost nocturnal, melancholic mood.  In Bernstein’s words: it’s “both tender and sinister” as the sailor woos her, and then callously casts her off.  It adroitly evokes the almost desperate, hopelessness under the circumstances of the two souls having anything but a fleeting relationship.  It is dedicated to one of the immortals of American musical theatre, Betty Comden, who wrote the show, along with Bernstein, and her long-term professional partner, Adolf Green.  And—while Bernstein wrote the great tune in the dance, any informed music lover who was unfamiliar with the show, would understandably think it was composed by Aaron Copland, so perfect is the evocation of the latter’s musical style.

            The last dance is dedicated to the great Nancy Walker, a member of the original cast—you know her from a thousand appearances on fifties and sixties TV, not to mention her indelible performance as the waitress in the Bounty paper towel commercials.  It’s called “Times Square Ballet,” and a better depiction of that mad, tourist-crammed, light show cannot be imagined.  Our sailors meet to embark on a night on the town, go to the famous Roseland Dance Palace, and, well—do what sailors do.    Opening with a jazzy, solo clarinet, the dance quickly segues to the evergreen, “New York, New York,” and after a slow down and a rhythmic change to swing time, a solo saxophone contributes its own transformation of the famous tune.  Anything goes in the city, and apparently anything goes in the music, too, so, we hear a rather stylized rendition of what seems to be a chicken-clucking fiddle tune, in the best vaudeville style.  A growling trumpet leads to what appears to be the aftermath of a bit too much to drink, followed by a crashing, rhythmically-layered conclusion, in the best Bernstein style.  Not a bad way to start a fantastic career.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan