Over the last 18 months, the world has been honoring the Bernstein centennial, which, by and large, has been a re-evaluation of Bernstein the composer. That has meant abundant performances of his symphonies, choral works, chamber works, song cycles, ballets and the like.
Bernstein’s Broadway shows, however, are in no need of reassessment, because works such as West Side Story and Candide have never fallen fully out of fashion. (Conductor David Newman leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 12 a live-to-picture presentation of the 1961 Oscar-winning movie, while The Knights, led by Eric Jacobsen, and guest vocalists will perform a full production of Candide on Aug. 28 at Ravinia.)
Those works did the reassessing, breaking the boundaries of the form, particularly in terms of how elaborate and through-composed much of the music was and the extraordinary demands they made on the artists performing them.
Given that West Side Story is often considered the greatest musical ever written, it’s curious that its 1944 predecessor On the Town, the first show to unite choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, is performed so infrequently.
Part of the reason is that the seamless line between music and drama achieved in West Side Story was still a work in progress when Bernstein was creating On the Town, the concept of which originated from the ballet Fancy Free. (That work was conceived by Robbins, who was so unhappy with its original composer that he simply showed up unannounced at Bernstein’s dressing-room door in 1943 and managed to persuade him to compose the music.) That pedigree is never far from the surface of the show, as dance tends to intrude on the narrative, such as it is, and often for its own sake.
The score is meticulously well-crafted, but Bernstein was still in search of his own stage style, with the music often coming off as Gershwin-meets-Shostakovich. When MGM made the film version, most of Bernstein’s score was gutted as being too “operatic” and replaced with new material by the studio’s house tunesmiths. Given the popular success of that film with its Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly pairing, people often expect to hear the non-Bernstein movie tunes in stage productions.
On the Town, as it was originally conceived 75 years ago, was a wartime view of how to cram a lifetime of experiences into a 24-hour shore leave. Three sailors meet three women in “New York, New York,” of course, but time is the enemy as everyone knows that the guys will all be sailing off to God knows where, perhaps never to return, in less than a day. Instead of that being dealt with in a serious manner, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — whom Bernstein insisted be involved with the show — give us vaudeville-like comedy in the book and lyrics that were quite risqué for 1944: women flirting with men quite openly and sailors who have barely left home trying to grow up in a hurry while experiencing the Big Apple, all with the clock ticking. It was remarkably contemporary and effective in its day as a diversion from World War II, but it instantly became a period piece at the end of the war; sailors were still on leave, to be sure, but they were no longer heading off into a life and death struggle.
Wonderful Town followed a similar theme nine years later, as two sisters from “Oh, why oh, why oh, did I leave Ohio” decamp to New York in search of fame and fortune. As in On the Town, dance is a central element in Wonderful Town, with Bernstein’s music increasingly eclectic, adaptable and central to the drama. There is even an explicit Latin jaunt that foreshadows West Side Story in “Conga” in a dance with Brazilian cadets.
Note: This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the full version, click here.
Award-winning journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator Dennis Polkow has been covering Chicago-based cultural institutions across local, national, and international media for more than 35 years.