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On The Town - Three Dance Episodes

About the Work

Leonard Bernstein
Quick Look Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; KEIGWIN + COMPANY / From Schuman to Bernstein May 7 - 8, 2014
© Thomas May

On August 25, 1978, the National Symphony found itself in the international spotlight as Leonard Bernstein's 60th-birthday celebration was telecast live from Wolf Trap; then-music director Mstislav Rostropovich served as master of ceremonies and William Schuman was the host. Schuman introduced the guest of honor by recalling his first meeting with Bernstein some 40 years before, when Bernstein was still a Harvard undergrad: "What is now wise was then precocious, what now is erudition was then promise, what now is mastery was then technique, and what now is wit, charm, brilliance was then wit, charm, brilliance."

Meanwhile, the father of the phenomenon widely known as Lenny once quipped: "How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?" As a 25- year-old musician, Lenny was catapulted to international fame in 1943 thanks to a pair of career-changing events that occurred within a few months of each other. One was his dramatically unexpected debut conducting the New York Philharmonic (filling in last minute for an ailing Bruno Walter). The second was an invitation by up-and-coming choreographer Jerome Robbins to write the score for a new one-act ballet, Fancy Free. When it premiered in April 1944 at the old Metropolitan Opera House, the ballet was an instant critical and commercial hit. (Fragments of the score would even make an appearance in the soundtrack to Hitchcock's Rear Window a decade later.) All of this success helped pave the way for the emergence of "Leonard Bernstein."

Fancy Free was the proving ground for a revolutionary type of musical theater in which dance took its place as an integral part of the narrative. Bernstein and Robbins soon decided to expand the ballet's scenario into a Broadway musical called On the Town. The composer teamed up with his friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who supplied a book and lyrics based on Robbins's straightforward plot of three sailors during war time. The sailors are spending their 24-hour shore leave searching for love and adventure in the Big Apple. While they fleshed out the story, Bernstein composed an entirely new score. His enthralling mélange of jazz-fueled dance, boogie-woogie, tender ballads, and energetic ensembles-all of course a valentine to New York-hit just the right note and launched his brilliant career as a composer of Broadway shows.

Bernstein distilled the essence of On the Town, which was centered around dance, into a compact concert suite. The first episode ("The Great Lover Displays Himself") occurs as part of a dream sequence in which the sailor Gabey indulges in a fantasy about his ideal woman inspired by a subway poster ("Miss Turnstiles"). This brief, snappy number, with its prominent trombone part, gives a flavor of Bernstein's idiosyncratic approach to jazz idioms, spiced with a touch or two of Stravinsky.

Gabey's romantic side comes to the fore in the bluesy shades of "Lonely Town" as he despairs of finding his true love in the anonymous, cold-hearted city. It's a great example of a basic dualism found in much of Bernstein's music: Complex passages of nervous energy are typically set against disarmingly spellbinding melodies that evoke a lost American innocence. In the final episode ("Times Square: 1944")-from the finale to the musical's first act Bernstein spells out the infectious tune subliminally heard in the first episode: "New York, New York," the signature hit of On the Town. A brilliant series of variations on the tune's up-and-down shape sound out a metaphor for the untiring, sexy energy of the American city.