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.
Jesse Tyler Fergusen and Lea DeLaria as Chip and Hildy (1998 production)
Then in 2013, another summer production of On the Town, this time in the Berkshires at the Barrington Stage Company, made some noise. A team of novice producers fell in love with it and pumped a fortune into an elaborate revival they brought to Broadway a year later. But even with an eleven-month run, playing the Lyric on 42nd Street (the largest theatre in town) made it difficult to sell enough seats and it failed to return little of its $8.5 million investment. It was directed by John Rando, who had also staged a well-received 2008 Encores! version at City Center that coincided with Bernstein's 90th birthday year. Rando brought back the terrific Tony Yazbeck from that production, who received a Tony nomination when he reprised his performance as Gabey. What the production had going in its favor was that every cent spent was up on that stage. It looked incredible, and a large orchestra was engaged, unheard of with today's economics for a commercial theatre on Broadway. It made Bernstein's music soar.
Happily, and unlike the 1998 one, this On the Town yielded a recording. It's significant because when it first opened on Broadway in 1944, the original cast didn't get to do a complete album (though a few songs were put down individually). It was the early days of full shows being preserved in this way (having started a year earlier with Oklahoma!), and it wasn't until 1960 that most of On the Town's first team finally reunited for what was then considered the definitive recording. John Reardon, then a popular leading man, replaced John Battles as Gabey, and the marvelous George Gaynes stood in for a few supporting roles. Since then, there have been a number of other recordings, among them one from its belated London premiere in 1963 (where it promptly flopped). It's worth checking out for a young Elliott Gould, who scores as Ozzie, the role created by Adolph Green. Three of these subsquent recordings are double-CDs that feature most, if not all, the dance and orchestral music. All are worth a listen.
I’ll give the last word on On the Town to Oliver Smith. As the scenic designer of Fancy Free, it was he who immediately recognized there was more to Robbins’s twenty-five minute ballet than me the eye; that something special pulsated beneath its surface that could effectively turn it into a Broadway musical: “It wasn’t about three sailors, it was about the enormous love each of us felt for New York City. It was a valentine to New York.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.