Sunday, December 21, 2014

A cluster of explosive young talents explode in "On the Town"

For the 1960 recording, Betty and Adolph reprised their
1944 roles, anthropologist Claire de Loon and sailor Ozzie

Act I, "Carried Away"

Betty Comden, Claire; Adolph Green, Ozzie; 1960 studio cast recording, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony

by Ken

On a daily basis we're assaulted by so much slop and slime that I worry about insufficient attention being paid when we're given worthwhile stuff. So it has been on my mind to call your attention, as I mentioned last night, to a really outstanding piece in the November issue of Vanity Fair called "Innocents on Broadway," in which Adam Green gives us a richly and beautifully detailed portrait of the early life and early career of his father, the great lyricist (and sometime actor) Adolph Green, which also includes similarly rich portraits of a band of remarkably talented people whose rising careers were intertwined with his -- notably his eventual writing partner of 60 years, Betty Comden; his best friend, Leonard Bernstein; and the amazing actress Judy Holiday.

"This year would have been my father’s 100th birthday," Adam G writes early on,
and it would have made him indecently proud to see it marked by productions of so many of the musicals that he and his partner, Betty Comden, wrote in their 60-year collaboration: a stage adaptation of their 1953 MGM movie, The Band Wagon, as part of the Encores! series at New York’s City Center; a live broadcast on NBC of their 1954 version of Peter Pan; the first Broadway revival of their 1978 screwball operetta, On the Twentieth Century. Most of all, though, he would have been thrilled to see the ebullient revival, also on Broadway, of On the Town, their 1944 musical, about the amorous exploits of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in the big city, which introduced the phrase “New York, New York, a helluva town” into the American lexicon and announced the arrival of a new generation in the American musical theater.


Among other things, the piece gives us an intimate account of the creation of On the Town, through the unexpectedly historic night of its premiere in 1944, which changed the face of Broadway and the musical theater, not to mention the careers of many of the people responsible for the show.

"On the Town was a landmark," Adam writes, "the first show by a bunch of bright upstarts -- Bernstein, Comden and Green, and Jerome Robbins, all still in their 20s -- who would go on, together and apart, to help shape the cultural landscape of the 20th century." Written while Oklahoma! was still running on Broadway, On the Town was, he says,
among the first musicals that aimed to integrate story, song, and dance into a unified whole. The result was a fresh, contemporary hybrid—the genre-mixing, slapstick book and nimble, heartfelt lyrics; the ravishing, jazz-inflected symphonic score; the startlingly modern ballet-to-boogie-woogie choreography, pulsing with erotic urban energy—held together by the shared vision and sensibility of its New York-besotted creators. It’s a boisterous romp about looking for love in a city of strangers, one that makes no bones about what red-blooded navy lads and healthy young career girls have on their minds, with a rueful awareness beneath its antic surface of how precious and fleeting each moment becomes for lovers in a time of war. “The subject matter was light,” Bernstein said in an interview many years later, “but the show was serious.”
What's really special about Adam's piece is the portrait of that group of striving, about-to-explode talents, radiating out from his father, tracing for us --
a trajectory from a childhood of almost Dickensian privation in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan to a series of life-changing friendships that set him, in an ongoing act of self-invention, on a course through the worlds of summer-camp theatricals and Greenwich Village nightclubs to the triumphant opening night of his first Broadway show.

Near-lifelong wordsmithing partners Betty Comden (1917-2006) and Adolph Green (1914-2002) are seen here in 1998.

Like so many show-biz worthies, young Adolph had been saturated with the entertainment world almost from infancy -- first movies, then school plays and music, then serious theater. Adam tells us of the jolt produced when one of his two older brothers, Louis, took him to a Broadway production of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma. Adolph recalled:
It made a big impression on me. “It was a world I knew nothing about, in which living people exchanged ideas and had passions and outlooks that were, in the case of this particular play, sort of upper-class. And even though it felt, in a way, like a foreign language to me, this world of the theater, I sensed that I had stumbled onto something very valuable.
As I mentioned last night, it took Adolph six years to graduate from high school, where he had "stopped making even a token effort."
“I was really headed into the toilet, and I became, at my worst, a kind of clown,” he said. In 1934, after six years in high school, he finally graduated, sent on his way with an admonition from a teacher who had seen him perform in the class show, which he’d also written and directed: “I hope you’ve got enough talent to make a living at that, because otherwise you’re in big trouble.”
It took awhile for him to begin to find ways to channel all that creative energy bubbling within him. His Hungarian-immigrant father was blunt: "You're not a human being. You’re a piece of meat taking up space on the earth."
Starting in the summer of 1937, Adam tells us, "in the course of a single year, he would meet three remarkable people who would change his life: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Judy Holliday."

I hadn't realizedhow close Adolph and Lenny were, or how far back the link went. They met that summer at, of all places, summer camp.
My father’s high-school friend Robert Weil, who had gotten a job as the drama counselor at Camp Onota, in the Berkshire Hills, invited him to come up to play the Pirate King in a production of The Pirates of Penzance. Lenny, fresh from his sophomore year at Harvard, was the music counselor. Moments after they had been introduced, Lenny, who had been told about my father’s almost freakish knowledge of classical music, dragged him into the dining hall and challenged him to identify a Shostakovich tune, which he played for my father on an upright piano.

“Sorry,” my father said. “I’ve never heard it before. But it’s not Shostakovich.”
Lenny leapt up, threw his arms around him, and confessed that he’d tried to trick him by improvising a piece in the style of Shostakovich. Late into the night, they walked the grounds of the camp, singing, laughing, and weaving the strands of their mutual passions—Stravinsky, Sibelius, Gershwin, Auden, Spender, Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Chaplin, and more, including a moronic novelty song called “I Wish That I’d Been Born in Borneo,” which they’d both known word for word since childhood—into a bond of almost romantic intensity that would connect them, personally and professionally, for the rest of their lives. “All those seemingly hopeless years that I had wandered around New York in all my sloppy shabbiness,” my father wrote to Lenny many years later, “were not hopeless, were not wandering at all. I had always been on the road, leading straight to these hills, this night.”
I'll leave it to Adam to tell you about the meetings with Betty and Judy, and what developed from them. Eventually, obviously, Adolph, Betty, and Lenny were joined by Jerry Robbins, who choreographed Lenny's ballet Fancy Free, "about three sailors on shore leave," which the composer dedicated to Adolph, and which became the seed of On the Town, prodded by two new partners: Oliver Smith, who had designed the sets for Fancy Free, and Paul Feigay, "a dance aficionado with plenty of hustle."
Variety announced the show in June of 1944, informing its readers that “a group of youngsters have gotten together to stage a musical production.” First, though, those youngsters got together at Betty’s apartment and came up with a set of artistic principles, which Betty set down in longhand on a yellow legal pad. They declared that all the elements of the show would work as an integrated unit, with story, songs, and dancing all growing out of one another. There would be nothing pretentious, false, or self-important, but “as much humor as possible—satire—slapstick—with corn.”
The script developed around designer Smith's thoughts about which New York City locales he would want to design sets for (the answers: Times Square, Coney Island, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Natural History), and once they had a show, these very young people had to find a director, eventually managing to interest the veteran George Abbott, but Abbott wasn't thrilled with the book, and was already talking to Arthur Laurents about writing a replacement.
Panicked, they asked for a few more days to finish a new version.

For the next six days, my father and Betty worked around the clock, creating a new spine for the story and fresh motivations for the characters, and, for good measure, tossing off a pair of new songs, including the gorgeously melancholy ballad “Lonely Town.” By the time they finished, my father said, “we discovered that desperation and imminent catastrophe seemed to give us a certain laserlike focus and a kind of what-the-fuck freedom.”
With reservations, Abbott loved the new book, and from that point he became the team's "grown-up in charge." When rehearsal began in November,
Abbott quickly established himself as the father figure, giving the young novices a crash course in the practicalities of constructing and staging a Broadway musical. On the first day, Jerry froze while working on the opening number, so Abbott strode onto the stage, arranged the actors and dancers into a plausible tableau, and told Jerry, “Now, you just add the dance stuff.” My father recalled, “George was all business—‘Move over there’; ‘Speak up!’—but he didn’t miss a detail, and everything was about what was going to work onstage. We wouldn’t have had a show without him.”
Abbott shepherded the show through its unusually short out-of-town tryouts, in Boston.
Most significantly, Abbott took a rapturous, frenetic two-part ballet that ended the second act (filled with some of Lenny’s best, as Abbott put it, “Prokofiev stuff”) and, against Jerry’s strenuous objections, split it in half, calling for a quiet scene and a song to go in the middle. The song that my father, Betty, and Lenny came up with, the exquisitely plaintive “Some Other Time,” turned out to be the heart of the show, capturing with utter simplicity the aching sense that “when you’re in love, time is precious stuff.” With no other piano available, Lenny taught the song’s intricate harmonies to my father, Betty, Cris Alexander, and Nancy Walker late at night in the window of a music store as snow fell on the Boston Commons outside.

On the Town: Act II, Ballet: Imaginary Coney Island: Subway Ride; Dance of the Great Lover; Pas de Deux
Some Other Time (Claire, Hildy, Ozzie, Chip)
Dance: The Real Coney Island: Finale

Betty Comden, Claire; Nancy Walker, Hildy; Adolph Green, Ozzie; Cris Alexander, Chip; Randel Striboneen, Coney Island barker; John Reardon, Gabey; 1960 studio cast recording, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony

As rehearsals proceeded, and the show had no choice but to settle for the Adelphi Theater in New York ("a cavernous, 1,400-seat house on the undesirable fringe of the theater district," best known "as the place where long-running shows wound up when they'd reached the end of the line," earning it the nickname "House of Horrors"), everyone except Abbott saw a disaster in the making, not least after "an unmitigated disaster" of a first New York preview, to which his verdict was: "It'll iron itself out. We're exactly where we should be."

On opening night Abbott delivered final pre0-curtain words of encouragement to the six young collaborators, Adolph, Betty, Lenny, Jerry, Oliver, and Paul:
No matter what happens out there tonight, I want you to know one thing: as far as I'm concerned, you're a very polite group of young people.
It doesn't sound as if even Abbott guessed how different that polite group of young people's lives would be changed by the time the evening was over.

The verdict was close to unanimous, though there was at least one naysayer. Adolph's father remained unpersuaded. "My son is riding high now, but you’ll see -- he's going to wind up a bum in the street, begging for nickels." (This verdict was delivered to
Allyn Ann McLerie, a 17-year-old dancer who would shortly become the second of Adolph's three wives. "He married my mother, the actress Phyllis Newman, in 1960, and the third time proved to be the charm.")


In the December 1989 Barbican Centre concert performance of Candide, Leonard Bernstein enlisted his old friend Adolph Green as Dr. Pangloss. Here he's joined by Jerry Hadley as Candide, June Anderson as Cunegonde, Kurt Ollmann as Maximilian, Della Jones as Paquette, and the London Symphony Orchestra under the composer.

BERNSTEIN et al.: Candide:
Act I, "The Best of All Possible Worlds"


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