Skip to page content

The first batch of lyrics for the musical On the Town, for all their effervescent glamorizing of New York City life, were actually penned from a hospital room shared by Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Adolph Green. The two were both due for minor surgery in June 1944, but, eager to start work on the new show, they decided to go in at the same time and work on the musical while recovering.

Very little of the show was created during that stay, but work on the musical progressed rapidly. By December 1944, Bernstein, Green, and lyricist Betty Comden had finished writing and were planning a premiere later that month. It was the second appearance that year of a Bernstein stage production (the first was his ballet Fancy Free, a collaboration with Jerome Robbins), and both shows followed the exploits of sailors on Navy shore leave in New York City.

Yet Bernstein insisted that “there was not a note of Fancy Free music in On the Town” and that the similarities were merely variations on a theme that resounded particularly well with audiences immersed in the end of World War II. Still, the resemblance runs deep. Both shows follow the adventures of three sailors spending their leave scouring the city for available women. And although On the Town is not formally a ballet, the action is heavily dependent upon dance (Bernstein said that the move was intentional, since the show’s genesis “arose from the success of the ballet”).

More noticeably, both productions profess a boisterous love for New York in the ’40s. The city (depicted in the original production in sets by Oliver Smith) breathes in On the Town, and the story is not so much a picture of Chip, Gabey, and Ozzie chasing after girls as it is a tale of the three chasing after the town itself. When condensed into the Three Dance Episodes, the story loses its lyrics but keeps its characteristic spunk.

The first sketch, “The Great Lover,” is an ecstatic dream scene: Gabey, who has fallen in love with subway poster girl “Miss Turnstiles,” falls asleep on the train while searching the city for the object of his affections. In his dream, shy Gabey wins over his girl with pure romantic fury (and Bernstein responds with strutting, jazz-influenced woodwinds and witty dance flavor).

“Lonely Town,” the second episode, finds Gabey in Central Park watching another sailor who flirts with a young girl and then abandons her for her naïveté. The score is lush and sensual, a prime example of Bernstein’s characteristic string writing, and tinged throughout with a bittersweet melancholy.

Bernstein saves what is probably the best-known theme of the show, “New York, New York” for the final sketch, “Times Square, 1944.” Rough, rugged, and harmonically dense, the music shapes the famous theme in canon, interrupted repetitions, and an assortment of voicings. The result is a cityscape that conveys the sailors’ (and Bernstein’s) youthful enthusiasm and affection for the New York of yesteryear.

— Jessica Schilling