A stunning new production of On the Town, directed by John Rando, opened in October at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway. It transports a viewer back to the golden age of American musical theater, when highly skilled orchestras delivered a robust sound while extended segments of dance were central to telling the story.
Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War explores the very first production of On the Town, which opened in December 1944, towards the end of World War II. It marked the Broadway debut of a soon-to-be-famous creative team, with Leonard Bernstein as composer, Betty Comden and Adolph Green as lyricists and book-writers, and Jerome Robbins as choreographer. There were many audacities to this youthful production. The star was the gorgeous Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato, even as her father was among the Japanese nationals interned in the United States. The stage manager was Peggy Clark, who was among the earliest women to serve in that role on Broadway. The cast included six African Americans, who were intentionally presented as part of a multicultural citizenry, avoiding pernicious racial stereotypes of the era.
Sono Osato and John Battles
When Sono Osato starred in the original production of On the Town, her leading man was the white actor John Battles. Many states had laws against ‘miscegenation’ at the time.
The inspiration for On the Town came from the ballet Fancy Free, which debuted in April 1944, eight months before the Broadway show opened. The ballet focused on three sailors on shore leave, who were competing for the attention of two women in a bar. Leonard Bernstein was the composer and Jerome Robbins the choreographer, as well as one of the lead dancers. Robbins, Harold Lang, John Kriza, Janet Reed, and Muriel Bentley are captured in an action shot for Fancy Free, in front of the original set by Oliver Smith.
Before Betty Comden and Adolph Green became famous for their work on stage and screen, they were part of a comedy team called The Revuers. Occasionally, Bernstein was their pianist. In 1940, the group had a regular program on NBC radio, where they performed original skits that were essentially mini-musicals. This promotional photograph shows (from top left) Judy Tuvim (later to gain fame as Judy Holliday), Adolph Green, Betty Comden, John Frank, and (in the center) Alvin Hammer.
At work on On the Town
On the Town fused the story line of Fancy Free with comedic sketches by The Revuers. As Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Jerome Robbins worked on the show, they clearly had a lot of fun.
On the Town Flyer
The preview of On the Town opened at Boston’s Colonial Theater in mid-December 1944. In the 1940s, an out-of-town preview was standard practice for a new Broadway show, offering a creative space at a safe distance from New York critics. Considerable revising took place during previews.
On the Town Playbill
On the Town opened at the Adelphi Theatre in New York City on 28 December 1944. The six principals were pictured on the cover of The Playbill (clockwise from bottom center): Sono Osato, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, John Battles, Cris Alexander, and Nancy Walker.
When Peggy Clark became stage manager of On the Town, she did so at a time when few (if any) women held a comparable position on Broadway. Clark later gained fame as a theatrical lighting designer.
Sono Osato, 1945
A gifted dancer of exceptional beauty, Sono Osato began her career with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. During the early 1940s, when the troupe settled in New York City because of the war, she also did some fashion modeling. Her first Broadway show was One Touch of Venus (Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, and S. J. Perlman; 1943), where she had a secondary role. Then came On the Town. (Photograph from the 1940s by G. Maillard Kessière. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Undated Photograph. Photofest Digital Archive.)
On the Town Stage 3
In “The Presentation of Miss Turnstiles” (Act I, Scene 4), Ivy Smith – the character portrayed by Sono Osato – appears on stage for the first time. In Oliver Smith’s set for the original production of On the Town, Osato is presented as “exotic,” and she dances in front of a stylization of her own photograph. (Photofest Digital Archive)
Times Square Ballet
At the close of the first act of On the Town, the entire dance chorus joins in for the jubilant “Times Square Ballet.” This photograph from a souvenir program for the show gives a sense of the mixed-race cast. While the number of black dancers was small, blacks and whites held hands on stage, which defied racial practices of the day. (Peggy Clark Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.)
Letter from the dancers
As the heat of summer descended on the original production of On the Town, male dancers in the show sent a note to Peggy Clark requesting an electric fan in their dressing room. Clearly there were mixed-race dressing rooms, since the African American dancers James Flash Riley and Frank Neal signed the note together with their white colleagues. (Peggy Clark Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. ©Douglas Clark.)
Headline image credit: Theater spotlights. CC0 via Pixabay.