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On The Town

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The Writing of On The Town

Commentary and writing tips by Noel Katz

Talk about auspicious debuts! On the Town was the first Broadway show for the stunningly successful team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, one of the greatest composers of all, Leonard Bernstein, and the most important non-writer in the history of musical theatre, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Recently, I heard some advice for musical theatre writers: Don't set your show in the present time, because your show will date very fast. What malarkey! Bernstein's On the Town and West Side Story scores don't sound dated after a half a century, and a careful examination of his composition techniques shows why. He's never content to stay in one rhythm or tempo for very long. We aren't given a chance to take our attention away from the music, because it might change on us any minute.

Take "Carried Away," for example. A character makes a confession, and we're in a legato solo with unusual intervals. Suddenly, the other character joins for the echoing chorus, with the title overlapping. Then, we're off to the races with the quick push-beat accompaniment and eight eighth notes to the bar of the fevered interim verses. The climax is cheekily operatic "we know we're not supposed to take the singing seriously.

Another effective compositional device can be heard in the ballet music. Bernstein takes a motif (the one that fits the words, "New York, New York, a hell of a town") and keeps repeating it, but each restatement is in a truncated form, so, while we're hearing something familiar, we're always surprisedwhen the phrase ends. It's a great method of exciting the ear.

Like other Comden and Green hits, On the Town is a valentine to New York. The three sailors on 24-hour leave go through a variety of only-in-New York adventures "subway conversations, wild cab rides, a police chase, Carnegie Hall, The Museum of Natural History and Coney Island. It's all rather episodic, but they meet a variety of humorous characters along the way. And, wacky as it all is, the reality of young men on leave on their way to the perils of a war zone is never far from our minds. I'm most moved by the ending. Not only do we have the great bittersweet ballad of one-night stands, "Some Other Time" (note the sigh on "Oh, well"), but the show ends just as it starts, giving us the sense that it's all about to happen again, to three other sailors.

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DVD

On the Town (DVD) from Amazon.com 1949 film version starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

Cast Recordings

On the Town Original CastOn the Town Original Cast Recording from Amazon.com Remastered edition of the original recording starring writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Songs include: Opening: New York, New York/Dance: Miss Turnstiles, Come Up To My Place (Taxi Number), Carried Away, Lonely Town Dance: Lonely Town, Carnegie Hall, I Can Cook, Too, Lucky To Be Me, Dance: Times Square, Nightclub Sequence: A. So Long Baby/B. I'm Blue/C. Ya Got Me, I Understand, Ballet, Some Other Time, Dance: The Real Coney Island/Finale, Ov, Three Dance Episodes From 'On The Town': I. The Great Lover, Three Dance Episodes From 'On The Town': II. Lonely Town: Pas De Deux, and Three Dance Episodes From 'On The Town': III. Times Square: 1944

Sheet Music

"Lucky To Be Me" from Musicnotes.com Instant digital download sheet music.

On the Town Vocal SelectionsOn The Town: Vocal Selectionsclassic Broadway Shows PVG Songs include: I Can Cook Too, Lonely Town, Lucky to Be Me, New York, New York, Some Other Time, and Ya Got Me

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