NEW YORK – A revival of the 70-year-old “On the Town” hit Broadway this fall, and it seemed a lot fresher and more entertaining than a slew of tired, long-running musicals that have been populating the Great White Way for years and years. This classic musical, with a large, first-rate cast, full orchestra and lively staging, will charm its way into your heart. It is at the Lyric Theater on West 42nd Street.
When “On the Town” debuted in 1944, it was a breakthrough show that went on to be a hit MGM musical movie in 1949, with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Ann Miller.
The initial Broadway troupe of “On the Town” had a remarkable roster of young creators, all in their 20s. The show began as an idea by Jerome Robbins, who would become a renowned choreographer-director. He had come up with the “idea,” as he put it, of a ballet called “Fancy Free” about three World War II sailors on a day’s leave, searching for girls in New York City.
Mr. Robbins got the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein to create the ballet’s music. A year before, Mr. Bernstein had brilliantly replaced the ill conductor Bruno Walter at a New York Philharmonic concert, and had become an instant music celebrity. “Fancy Free” was a ballet success, and still is today at ballet companies around the world.
Mr. Robbins thought his “idea” could be turned into a musical comedy. He got Mr. Bernstein to write a full score and asked two nightclub performers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to write the musical’s book and lyrics. Ms. Comden and Mr. Green would go on to write movies like “Singin’ in the Rain” and Broadway shows like “Wonderful Town,” again with Mr. Bernstein.
Later, the group convinced the legendary director George Abbott, who, at 57, was the elder in the group, to stage the show. These rookies knew that they needed an extraordinary hand to settle their battles and give the show a sense of theatricality. Off-stage, Mr. Abbott did say that the show appealed to him because the creators were “so eager, emotional and enthusiastic.” He also wondered if they were all a little nutty, gambling their large talents on the cruel wilderness of a musical theater venture. Of course, it turned out to be a landmark career winner for all those involved.
A couple of summers ago, some new theater smarties, director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse, decided to try their hand at “On the Town” at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. This turned out to be the genesis of the current production. Mr. Rando captured the show’s youthful exuberance and channeled it to the young actors, and Mr. Bergasse grafted the dances and ballet sequences in the spirit of Mr. Robbins.
If the show has a leading man, it is Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), the romantic sailor of the trio. Ozzie (Clyde Alves) is the clown, somewhat irresponsible, and Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is the sensitive one. They are out on a 24-hour venture. On the subway, Gabey sees a picture of Ivy Smith as “Miss Turnstiles” and decides he wants to meet her. His two pals offer to help him out, and each one goes in a different direction on his search.
At the Museum of Natural History, Chip meets up with Claire (Elizabeth Stanley), who seems like a “serious” anthropology student until she gets emotional with the song “I Get Carried Away” and almost destroys the museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit. Ozzie meets a hilarious woman taxi driver, Hildy (Alysha Umphress), who seems like a nice, wacky match for him, and who gets to sing the comic song, “I Can Cook Too.”
Finally, Gabey finds his “Miss Turnstiles,” Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild), on his own at Carnegie Hall, where she is taking a singing lesson from gin-guzzling coach Maude P. Dilly (Jackie Hoffman). Ms. Fairchild, who is a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, turns out to be not only a good dancer, but also a fine comedienne and actress. She shines in her dances choreographed by Mr. Bergasse, which thread ballet sequences with Broadway dances; she handles them with great flair.
The big treat is getting to listen to Mr. Bernstein’s music being played by the large orchestra. His music turns out to be so superior to most of the Broadway scores we have heard over the past decades. As one critic said, Bernstein’s music IS music, not just imitation or pastiche.
Here, he combines the music with the lyrics of Ms. Comden and Mr. Green. He translates their lyrics into fresh new sounds. This is an amazing feat when you think that this was Mr. Bernstein’s first Broadway score.
You will hear some of the richness that will later appear in his “West Side Story.” You will hear it in the raucous sounds of the city in “New York, New York.” But he also shows a skill for writing haunting and melodious ballads in two of Gabey’s songs, “Lucky to Be Me” and “Lonely Town.”
“On the Town” is an effulgent and dazzling reminder of what Broadway musicals used to be like.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.