We are in Leonard Bernstein’s centennial year, but London reserved his actual birthday—August 25—for its greatest homage: a semi-staged performance of his 1944 surprise hit, the musical comedy On the Town. Premiering when Bernstein was only twenty-six, the season after his unexpected New York Philharmonic conducting debut, it ran for more than a year and has remained a classic, with multiple Broadway revivals, occasional adoptions for the operatic stage, and celluloid immortalization in the 1949 musical, innovatively filmed on location and starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Inspired by the successful ballet Fancy Free, which was choreographed by the equally youthful Jerome Robbins to a score by Bernstein, it soon became a full-fledged Broadway musical collaboration, with a book and song lyrics by the only slightly older creative duo of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The score is one of Bernstein’s most vivid and exuberant, anticipating the lighter moments of West Side Story without any ponderous suggestion of its creator’s later, and rather pedantic, quests for social relevance.

Inspired by New York’s raw energy, the score is one of Bernstein’s most vivid and exuberant, anticipating the lighter moments of West Side Story without any ponderous suggestion of its creator’s later, and rather pedantic, quests for social relevance. The story is simple to the point of naivete. Three sailors—Gabey, Ozzie, and Chip—have the precious gift of twenty-four hours of shore leave in New York, a city they have never visited and whose unique mores they do not know. Gabey immediately becomes infatuated with a subway poster picture of that month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” a young ingénue called Ivy Smith, whom he mistakes for a celebrity and determines to meet before the day is out. His shipmates eagerly take up the challenge and spread out across Manhattan to help him find her. Chip promptly falls for the wiles of the preposterously named Brunnhilde (Hildy) Esterhazy, a female cab driver who has just been fired for sleeping on the job and who wants one last thrill before unemployment. In the Museum of Natural History, Ozzie succumbs to the insatiable anthropologist Claire de Loone, a specialist on “primitive man” who is engaged to a stuffy judge, one Pitkin W. Bridgework, who, she assures us, “understands” her romantic diversions. Gabey finds Ivy on his own in a visit to her Carnegie Hall singing lesson with the boozed-up Madame Dilly. A midnight turn through the city’s sultry nightclubs delivers the principals to Coney Island just as the sun is about to come up, leaving them to praise New York as a “wonderful town” as a new trio of sailors disembarks to take their turn for a day of adventure in Gotham.

Fra Fee as Chip and Louise Dearman as Hildy in “Come Up To My Place.” Photo: Mark Allan.

The John Wilson Orchestra, founded by its conductor in 1994, is arguably the most important ensemble dedicated to classic Broadway and classic Hollywood. The playing was rapturous, with all the intricacies explored in moving detail. Historical accuracy and curatorial preservation rule the day in classical music, but it was refreshing and uplifting to hear virtually all of the original songs performed without omission. In crafting the film version, the MGM producer Arthur Freed declared most of the songs “too avant-garde” and cut all but four from the final product, while much of the book’s unfettered sexuality fell by the wayside thanks to the Hays Code. Only Hildy’s “Come Up To My Place” survived, perhaps because it is so obvious that it had even then ceased to be risqué. Nathaniel Hackmann, Nadim Naaman, and Fra Fee formed a fine ensemble for the three naive sailors. Their trio “Gabey’s Comin’,” a rousing tune sung to buck up Gabey’s courage in his quest, commanded so much attention that its removal from the film—and the premiere production of the stage musical—seems incomprehensible. Louise Dearman’s Hildy was as earthy and coarse as Celinde Schoenmaker’s Claire was unbridled and seductive. Their respective cavatinas “Carried Away” and “I Can Cook, Too” captured the characters’ lustful natures in a way that would have made MGM higher-ups cringe. Claire Moore’s brassy Madame Dilly highlighted the shortcomings of pedagogues everywhere. Siena Kelly’s Ivy was by contrast gentle and lovely, trusting and kind. Barnaby Rea’s operatic bass gave gravitas to a Judge Pitkin who might not be so “understanding” after all. He also made a strong impression as the longshoreman who opens the work with the grave announcement that he feels like he is not out of bed yet.

Martin Duncan’s stage direction kept the action moving despite the lack of any sets beyond the stage architecture of the cavernous Royal Albert Hall. The only true misfortune was the absence of any dance sequence; when called for, the ballet music simply played over an inactive stage while Robbins’s choreography was left to the imagination.

The cast and orchestra after On the Town at the BBC Proms. Photo: Mark Allan.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.