As much as I admire West Side Story (1957), Leonard Bernstein's much earlier On the Town of 1944 has always been closer to my heart. Written in the latter stages of the Second World War, it deals with three soldiers on ‘shore leave' for a day, and their adventures with the three girls they meet on their visit to New York. The combination of the young Bernstein as composer, expert lyricists in Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also appeared in the show), choreographer and ballet legend Jerome Robbins and experienced director George Abbott was predictably unstoppable, and what they went on to create was a clever and surprisingly poignant portrait of life during the war, both for those at sea and those at home. The show's moment of genius comes during the final scene when, having depicted the inner thoughts and emotions of the three soldiers, the camera pans out, so to speak, and illustrates another three soldiers about to come ashore for the day. They, too, sing the optimistic title song that we heard at the beginning, and we suddenly realise that the characters we've come to care about are typical of the many millions who go off to war and may never return. Mortality and the troubled affairs of the heart were never so vividly juxtaposed as here.
In 1944, it still wasn't the custom to record Broadway musicals in any sort of shape resembling the actual stage show, so all that was put on record by Decca at the time were a couple of songs with original cast members Nancy Walker (‘Ya Got Me' and ‘I Can Cook Too'), Comden and Green (‘I Get Carried Away'), while the leading musical comedy star Mary Martin was brought in to sing the male lead Gabey's two songs (‘Lonely Town' and ‘Lucky to be Me'). The opening was also recorded, but that was it.
On the Town is the latest in a series of musicals being put on CD by Naxos. (They're only available outside the USA because they're still under copyright laws over there.) Sadly, the sound quality here is more like the poorly-produced transfer My Fair Lady from last year rather than the more recent Aladdin. Granted, the recordings are very old, but I believe this could have been done with greater clarity.
And it's a shame that nothing from the 1960 studio recording was included, since it brought together several of the original cast under Bernstein's baton for a more complete rendition of the score. Nevertheless, there are some interesting bonus items here – in fact, the CD is more useful for its extras than for its core content. Firstly, there's a 1956 recording of the elegiac ‘Some Other Time' sung by Nancy Walker with David Baker on piano. As always, Walker's performance is insightful and highly characterised. A real curiosity comes in the form of a short medley of ‘New York, New York' and ‘Lucky to be Me' for piano duo, played by ‘Eadie and Rack' (Howard ‘Rack' Godwin and Eadie Griffith) – very cute, and worth listening to.
Perhaps the finest performance on the disc is Bernstein's 1945 recording of the ballet music from the show – the best bits, in my opinion, especially when it comes down to the second-act ballet. By contrast, there are two very rare tracks from The Revuers – Comden and Green's Greenwich Village nightclub act, which also included Judy Holliday (later of Bells Are Ringing fame), plus Bernstein on the piano. ‘The Girl with the Two Left Feet' is, at 22 minutes in length, a generous and excellent addition to the catalogue, and ‘Joan Crawford Fan Club' with Betty Comden is also loads of fun.
The set finishes with Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops Orchestra recording of three dances from Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free, which had a similar scenario to On the Town and was the inspiration for the musical. It was this piece that brought the composer together with Robbins for the first time – and the rest, as they say, is history.
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Book Review: A new study of West Side Story by Nigel Simeone