When the original stage production of On the Town opened on December 28, 1944, its biggest financial backer was MGM. So it should be no surprise that the studio would make a film of it, utilizing their sizable stable of talents such as Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller. It wasn’t released until 1949, five years after the show’s opening night on Broadway. And with it set four years after the war ended, it was far less moving, particularly at its finish. When the men have to return to their ship, gone was the knowledge that they were going back to war, leaving behind the women they’ve fallen in love with. The fears of never seeing each other again was palpable; not so much in peace time.
Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin and Gene Kelly in the film of On the Town (1949).
Successful as the movie was, it didn’t thrill the original creative team—not at all, in fact. It jettisoned all but a handful of the songs by Bernstein, Comden and Green, though it still kept a good deal of the orchestral music for background and for the dances. As Betty Comden put it, “MGM was afraid of the music.” As Bernstein said years later, "When I finally discovered what had happened, I asked them to take my name off the full-frame credit, and credit me only for the songs I wrote—because I really don't want anybody to think I wrote a title song called "On the Town," which I certainly didn't."
When I first saw the film as a kid, I loved it. What was not to love? It's melodic, funny and bursting with energy. When the show was revived on Broadway in 1971, and I was fourteen years old, that was the first time I heard the bulk of the original score. That production was helmed by Ron Field, who was just coming off a pair of Tonys for directing and choreographing Applause. Its book was written by Comden and Green, so bringing back On the Town, featuring Green's wife Phyllis Newman in Comden's role, made sense. The thing I remember the most about the entire show was Bernadette Peters performing “I Can Cook Too” in front of the curtain—sexy, funny and totally irresistible.
But audiences resisted this revival. It had troubles out of town; actors were fired, etc., and by the time it came to the Imperial Theatre, it had been hobbled. And many commented on missing the Jerome Robbins choreography (which actually couldn't be duplicated as it was never notated). It only ran for seventy-three performances, but it left behind a knock-out poster by David Edward Byrd (who would in that same Broadway season design a rather iconic poster for a little show called Follies).
David Edward Byrd's design for the 1971 Broadway revival of On the Town.
In 1989, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, a compendium of choreographing credits, fifteen numbers featuring sixty-two performers, directed by the master himself, opened to great acclaim and six Tony Awards, including that season's Best Musical. On the Town's "New York, New York," bookended the evening. As Frank Rich, in his rave New York Times review wrote about the finale, "The three sailors come upon a dazzling, crowded skyscape of twinkling signs heralding the smash musicals Mr. Robbins staged between 1944 and his withdrawal from Broadway in 1964. Some of the theaters (the Adelphi, the New Century) are gone now; some of the shows are forgotten. But the awe that seizes those innocent young sailors of 1944 overwhelms the jaded Broadway audience of 1989, too."
Jerome Robbins' Broadway (1989) with Michael Kubala, Mary Ellen Stewart,
Scott Wise, Debbie Gravitte and Robert La Fosse.
In the summer of 1997, when the writer and director George C. Wolfe was still running downtown’s Public Theatre, he chose On the Town as one of the two shows for that summer’s free season uptown in Central Park.. He directed it himself, with a cast that included Jesse Tyler Fergusen as Chip and Lea DeLaria as Hildy, and chose (at great expense) to bring it to Broadway the following season. Booked into the cavernous Gershwin Theatre, it was swallowed up whole and it closed in the same number of weeks as the 1971 revival did; a significant financial failure.