Bernstein On the Town

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

Bernstein On the Town

  • On the Town

It was a first for all of them: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jerome Robbins. First time lucky. Well, actually no, luck has nothing to do with it. On the Town is a peach of a show a show which positively hums along on the heat of its inspiration, a show rejoicing in the race of time, but regretful of its passing, a show which lovingly encapsulates those transitory moments seized and then lost amidst the impatient, pulsating heart and soul of the lonely city—the Big Apple. On two amazing nights in June last year, Michael Tilson Thomas and this starry cast brought New York City to the Barbican, London, and played out its energy and charms against a fantasy skyline straight out of Broadway stock. You can see it on video, you can hear it right now on CD. But in some respects it was, rather like the plotline of the show, an experience for those nights only. Its unique atmosphere was never entirely going to make it 'down the wire' on to disc—does it ever? But it's been swell attempting to relive the occasion. No studio recording could even have come close.
Maybe not close enough. Recording this semi-staged performance live must have been a living nightmare for DG's engineers, but I wonder if they might not have pulled off a more up-front balance for the voices? Was this the balance by choice or necessity? It's a musical, not an opera, I want to be grabbed by the lapels, feel the size of the personalities, the clout of the lyrics. Maybe I've simply listened to too many Broadway show albums. Only Cleo Laine gets to be really intimate with her bluesy nightclub song ''Ain't got no tears left'', one of three numbers dropped from the original show (Bernstein aficionados will know the tune from the ''Masque'' of Symphony No. 2, Age of Anxiety). You'll hang on every breath Laine takes. Many of the notes are threadbare, but who needs the notes when you've got instincts like hers. These tears dried up long ago and it hurts. A slightly sadder (even embarrassing) piece of casting finds Evelyn Lear popping up as Ivy Smith's matriarchal singing coach, Miss Dilly, and you haven't lived till you've heard Adolph Green's Rajah Binney sounding a little as though some middle-eastern voodoo chant has been processed through a ring-modulator. Just keep reminding yourself that this was the show's original Ozzie.
Which brings us to the major roles and, happily, no grave misjudgements in casting such as marred the composer's by now infamous West Side Story on this label. Mind you, you know you're in big-league production when you get Samuel Ramey delivering (gloriously) the Brooklyn Navy Yard Workers' ode to morning ''I feel like I'm not out of bed yet''. And Ramey was an inspired choice for Clare's monumentally boring boyfriend, Pitkin. His ''Song'', a masterpiece of arch formality, is very funny indeed. In performance, Tyne Daly's cab-driving Hildy knocked 'em in the aisles with her huggable personality. The voice has really come on since the Broadway revival of Gypsy, and in the first of her numbers, with Chip (the excellent Kurt Ollmann, honorary member of the Bernstein Rep), ''Come up to my place'', she uses what she has to terrifically spunky effect. ''I can cook too'' is more of a problem. Heard but not seen, you're more aware of her grappling with the technical difficulties—the breathing, the syncopation. Frankly, she's not sufficiently on top of the singing to really sell the song. It's a great lyric: but you have to be a very skilled practitioner to savour the sexual innuendo up-temp. ''My chickens just ooze … my ribs get applause''—I'd like to believe her.
The three sailors, Gabey, Chip, Ozzie—Thomas Hampson, Kurt Ollmann, David Garrison—are just perfect. Not only are they well-matched vocally, but you could put them on any stage and never look back. Hampson's two big numbers—''Lonely Town'' and ''Lucky to be Me''—are handsomely sung with careful avoidance of that peculiarly 'operatic' articulation. The too, too English chorus didn't fool me in the latter any more than their well-mannered ladies did in ''Gabey's Coming'' but I was taken in by the squeaky Charleston girls of ''So long baby''. I'm sure Adolph Green approved of Garrison's Ozzie, and I'll bet Betty Comden felt much the same about Frederica von Stade's super-cool, dusky-voiced Clare. Together, they are the business in ''Carried away'' with von Stade doing just that with a high C nobody knew she had. She, of course, gets to launch the best number in the show—the bittersweet ''Some other time''. I sometimes wonder if a more perfect little song ever graced a Broadway show. It's Lennie's epitaph.
But finally to the real heroes of this dizzy enterprise: Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra. Or should I say Band—every last player a character, an individual. On the Town lives and breathes through its dance interludes: it struts and swaggers and bustles and broods; it's this music which gives the score its sassy New York tinta. The playing here is stunning, there's no other word. ''Times Square'' takes the composer's famous 1960 New York Philharmonic recording (Sony, 5/92) all the way for style and virtuosity with John Harle's soaring, throaty sax and rhythms so hot and tight and idiomatic that you'd never credit this wasn't an American band. Moody clarinets lazily evoke Edward Hopper's nighthawks, Maurice Murphy's superb first trumpet is always there, right inside the style and sound, leading his colleagues to a searing climax in the Second Act Pas de deux. The record's a winner for the interludes alone. Another of those discarded numbers is given separately as an appendix: this amusing little G & S inspired sorbet begins with the line: ''We don't know how the show is, but the intermission's great''. Take it from me, the show's better.
Seeing, of course, is believing, and on video you get to see a great deal more than just the Barbican show. Busily intercut throughout the performance, linking scenes, underlining musical numbers, lending visual impact to the abundance of dance music is a rich black-and-white or sepia-tinted montage of period film footage: New York in the 1940s, New York at play, New York at war, New York day and night—zany, poetic, showbizzy, evocative. There's even some fun and games with graphics around the Miss Turnstiles sequence. It's all added spice to the semi-staging, a dash of visual flair and variety to enliven static cameras pointed at singers and players. Mind you, the visual close-ups do pull focus on the solo performances in a way that just hearing them cannot. And it's good to see Tilson Thomas in action like a reincarnated Bernstein coaxing, cajoling, intoxicating his performers. I shall occasionally go back to the video to remind myself not only of that, but of the tender interractions between Clare and Ozzie, Hildy and Chip in ''Some other time'', the atmospheric laughter and applause of the audience, the little clips of dialogue, the charming narration of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and—most poignant of all—the spectacle of those two great old-timers leading the encore of ''Some other time''. Now there's a collectors item.'

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