Just in time for the new Broadway revival of On the Town, the WWII-era musical about three sailors on a one-day shore leave in New York City, comes Carol J. Oja’s book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War to demonstrate how the groundbreaking show, with music by Leonard Bernstein, was as groundbreaking socially and politically as it was artistically.
The creators of On the Town (not counting director George Abbott) were mere twenty-somethings when their show opened in 1944. In her detailed but compact and highly readable book, Oja explores how Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green created an entertainment that was truly new by fusing “high” and “low” art – symphonic music with blues and popular song, ballet with vaudeville.
But she spends a good portion of the extensively annotated book unveiling the equally interesting racial mix, not just of influences but of performing talent, that made of On the Town not just a hit Broadway show with a lasting artistic legacy but a quiet challenge to the segregationist practices that prevailed in entertainment.
Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato didn’t just display her balletic talents in the show, she played all-American girl (and “Miss Subways”) Ivy Smith. A cast that was several dozen strong included a number of African-American men and women who played everyday New Yorkers right beside their white counterparts, the show posing “the intermingling of races as being so commonplace that it did not need to be ‘mentioned,’ as dancer Billie Allen,” one of the surviving members of the production, told Oja.
Not that the integrated cast, and the participation of violinist Everett Lee first in the orchestra and then as the first African-American conductor of a Broadway show, didn’t get plenty of notice in the black press of the time, as Oja demonstrates. But the “mainstream” white press mostly ignored it, a big reason why the information in the book will come as such a revelation to most readers, as it will to the great many people who know the show only from the 1949 movie version with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, which not only didn’t feature an integrated cast but dropped most of Bernstein’s music.
“No racially attuned tradition of performance resulted from the inaugural production of On the Town,” Oja writes. “That is, the focus on race in its debut was so thoroughly enacted rather than scripted – so thoroughly downplayed – that it ultimately proved to be ephemeral.” In tracing the pre- and post-On the Town careers of the show’s black performers, Oja demonstrates how difficult things remained for black performers, even those with Broadway-class talent. Like many midcentury blues and jazz musicians, some of these artists, including Lee, went on to pursue careers in Europe where their race didn’t post a big obstacle.
With admirable clarity Oja describes Fancy Free, the Robbins-Bernstein ballet that inspired the musical; Bernstein’s simultaneous development as a composer of symphonic music and a conductor; and the musical comedy skits of The Revuers, the club act where Comden and Green honed their comedic and lyrical talents (occasionally with Bernstein at the piano). She also delves into the music itself, covering the ballads, comic songs, dance music, and orchestral interludes in chapters that will be enlightening to readers with musical knowledge and skimmable to others.
Oja quotes contemporary critic Henry Simon in PM: New York Daily, who wrote of On the Town‘s original production, “Bernstein bridges the gap between [the] Tin Pan Alley idiom and Copland-Stravinsky so successfully that the highly expert ballet music and the smart Broadway songs seem to be all of a piece.” In making the case for On the Town‘s significance both as artistic innovation and social statement, Bernstein Meets Broadway itself bridges a gap between scholarship and enthusiasm. A good read, it is also and will remain a valuable source of information on the artistic culture of a transformative era on and around Broadway.