Monday, November 3, 2014

'New York, New York' Takes Center Stage Again

If I say "New York, New York, it's a helluva town," it's a safe bet that quite a few of you (particularly those of a certain age) will answer "the Bronx is up at the Battery's down."
Because you know the song. You've heard the song more than a few times.
But do you know where the song originated? And do you know who wrote it?
It debuted in 1944 on Broadway in the big wartime musical On The Town with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics and Book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of who also starred in the show) and direction by Broadway great George Abbott.
On The Town tells the story of three sailors let loose in Manhattan on 24-hour leave and their adventures (including a search for the current month's Miss Turnstile) from one end of of the island to the other.
But before it was a musical, On The Town was a ballet - a music told in the form of dance conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins who teamed up with Bernstein to create the music. Both Bernstein and Robbins were classically trained. Their roots were operatic and symphonic. When they decided to take this ballet (called Fancy Free) to Broadway, Bernstein called on his young friends Comden and Green who were both known primary for their nightclub work. Well, four Broadway novices desperately needed a seasoned director, and that's where George Abbott came in. So began On The Town.
But Abbott was so taken with Robbin's choreography that he encouraged him to incorporate all of it into On The Town and add more. So, the show features lots and lots of dancing and not one but two dream ballet sequences.
Now, On The Town is back on Broadway at the big, elegant Lyric Theatre right on 42nd Street in a production that originated at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. And just as in 1944, before the curtain goes up on the show the orchestra plays The Star Spangled Banner. It's wartime again and we're in Manhattan and the town is teeming with servicemen -- not surprising since half of the men and half of the cargo of WWII shipped out from either the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the West Side. Three million women entered the workforce during the war and every available man left on the home front (and those soldiers and sailors on leave) each had two-and-a-half women competing for their attention. So, the women characters in this show are appropriately very aggressive and not at all shy about what they want and how they mean to go about getting it.
But here's what you really need to remember about On The Town: It's still largely a ballet. In fact, the show is one-half ballet, one-quarter cartoon and (thanks largely to Comden and Green) one-quarter musical comedy. So, if you don't like dancing (and we're talking traditional, pre-Fosse dancing) this is not the show for you. Because the truth is that a cartoon with ballet numbers that's wrapped in a musical comedy form can get a bit awkward at times. And it's hard to genuinely update a show that is, at its core really all about World War II.
But let's give this new production this much credit: The six principals are fantastic, the dancing is breathtaking and the songs are top-notch. You'll hear New York, New York, Carried Away, Lonely Town, Lucky To Be Me and Some Other Time - all classics. Beyond that, Jackie Hoffman as Maude P. Dilly is an hilarious scene-stealer who's bound to grab a supporting-actress Tony nomination. And you can pretty much bet that the show will win best choreography.
This is a big, polished production with a full orchestra, 30-member cast and huge, inventive sets and staging.
Still, it's been reported that George Abbott really gave choreographer Robbins free reign on On The Town and it shows. Because at times it seems that the dancing drives the story and the songs rather than the other way around.

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