The London Coliseum used to be one of the major theatres for American musicals in the 1950s and 1960s. Some people think the English National Opera is slumming by staging On the Town. But there is nothing wrong with the ENO staging a classic musical and the show has done for them what My Fair Lady and Anything Goes did for the National Theatre. It has brought some muchneeded full houses.
61 years ago the Ballet Theatre in New York commissioned a young choreographer/dancer, Jerome Robbins, and an equally young composer/ conductor, Leonard Bernstein, to create a ballet for them. The result was the seminal Fancy Free, premiered in April 1944, an immensely likeable 20minute dance piece about three sailors let loose in New York on a 24-hour wartime shore leave. Danced with engaging charm and throwaway humour, it was an innovative and witty mix of classical and vernacular dance.
Convinced the ballet could be turned into a full-scale musical, Bernstein and Robbins took the idea to two friends, cabaret writers and performers Betty Comden and Adolphe Green. The four of them were all agreed that they wanted perfect integration between song, dance and dialogue. On the Town, directed by George Abbott, the great veteran Broadway director, opened in New York in December 1944. It was the first Broadway musical to have modern ballet as its conceptual base rather than a libretto, songs or play. The show was an instant hit and its nationalism and patriotism gave it an additional wartime appeal. It ran for 463 performances.
Five years later a landmark stage musical became a landmark movie and the first Hollywood musical to be filmed on location in New York. (“New York, New York, it’s a helluva town!”) It had a new book and new songs. The cast included Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munchin, Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller and Betty Garrett. The film, much loved, was a hard act to follow and the stage musical didn’t come to London until 1963 when it folded after 53 performances. Since then there has been only a semi-staged version in 1992 at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. The production at the Coliseum, with Simon Lee conducting 48 members of ENO’s orchestra, is the first time Bernstein’s score has been fully realised. The score, a fusion of jazz and symphony, was so decimated in the movie that he asked for his name to be removed from the billing.
Three sailors want to see all the New York sights and lose their virginity. One sailor (Adam Garcia) meets an anthropology student (Lucy Shaufer) in the Museum of Natural History. Another sailor (the amusing Tim Howar) is picked up by a sexually voracious female cabbie. (Caroline O’Connor’s performance captures the 1940s period perfectly.) The third sailor (a somewhat bland Aaron Azar), a naïve country boy, falls in love with a picture of a girl (Helen Anker) on a poster on the subway. Azar sings “Lonely Town,” a lovely ballad, which was dropped from the movie. Andrew Shore plays a very understanding fiancé who gets a round of applause from the audience when he ceases to be understanding. Sylvia Syms is a boozy singing teacher. Willard White puts in a brief appearance and a very familiar figure in the ENO chorus is happily cast in an unexpected role.
Director Jude Kelly – who had a big success with Comden and Green’s Singin’ in the Rain at the National – sets the production within a World War II context, opening with gunfire and sailors lined up on deck saluting the dead. There is no mention of the war in the actual musical, but the war was very much on the audience’s minds in 1944. Defeat was possible and casualties were high. This is implicit in the bitter-sweet song, “We’ll Catch Up Some Other Time”, the best number in the show, which was also dropped from the movie. Its poignancy comes from the knowledge that for many sailors there wasn’t another time.
On the Town is very enjoyable. But, sadly, it’s only running at the London Coliseum until May 24. If you enjoy musicals, don’t wait, book now on 020 7632 8300.