By Peter Filichia
If I had a chance to run into Leonard Bernstein wherever he is now, I’d ask him to forgive me.
I just – for the first time ever – heard the Original London Cast album of On the Town that was recorded in 1963. And I vastly prefer how musical director Lawrence Leonard handled Bernstein’s score to the way that the composer conducted his own show’s semi-original cast album in 1960.
The London album, now available on disc and download, is faster and zippier. That speed befits three World War II sailors – Gabey, Chip and Ozzie – who have only twenty-four hours in New York City and want to savor every second of it. Poster girl Ivy, taxi driver Hildy and anthropologist Claire see that they do.
This recording is brassier, too, leading me to believe (although I can’t prove it) that the London orchestra boasts more musicians. As a whole, it’s more — to quote the ballet that inspired the musical (but one from which Bernstein didn’t borrow a single melody) — fancy free.
Now I understand why in 1989 people kept telling me “Don’t buy the new two-disc Candide. Yes, Bernstein conducted it, but his tempi are awfully slow.” Maybe that’s the way he heard it, but it isn’t the way most of us would want to hear it. And while Bernstein’s On the Town recording can’t be called slow, it does seem to be a tiny step behind what Lawrence Leonard delivered.
In early 1963, director-choreographer Joe Layton cast Elliott Gould as Ozzie, and thought that his then-wife would make a good Hildy. She would have, too, for these were the days when Barbra Streisand was first and foremost seen as a comedienne – or, if you will, a funny girl.
Funny Girl kept her from accepting. Not that Streisand was busy with the show; rehearsals wouldn’t even begin for another seven months. But she hadn’t yet landed the part, and felt she’d better stay close to home in case the producers and director wanted her to audition her again. (They did, for a total of seven times.)
So the role of Hildy went to Carol Arthur, who’d later become one of Mel Brooks’ favorite faces in his films. Franklin Kiser, best known as the son of the title character of Ben Franklin in Paris the following year, was Chip, while Don McKay, soon to play Tony to Julia Migenes’ Maria in a New York City Center revival of West Side Story, portrayed Gabey.
They were all Americans, leaving Gillian Lewis, from Tisbury, Wiltshire, to carry the banner for British performers as Claire.
On the album, they all sound terrific. Some may grouse that they sound like understudies for original casters as Nancy Walker (Hildy) and Cris Alexander (Chip) as well as Betty Comden (Claire) and Adolph Green (Ozzie), who co-wrote the book and lyrics. Perhaps, but remember that when Bernstein finally got them all into the studio, Walker was pushing forty while Comden and Alexander were past it – and Green was nearing fifty. Yes, they’re exemplary, but the London cast sounds young.
Of course I’m still grateful that on May 31, 1960 Bernstein and company gave us a far more complete recording of On the Town than we’d ever had before.
Until then, all many had heard of the 1944 hit came from one side of a record – and that was a fluke recording. Decca in 1946 really wanted to record the latest Mary Martin vehicle: Lute Song. But that show was really a play with music, so its seven songs (including the eleven o’clock number called “Dirge”) would only fill one side.
Thus, Decca enlisted Martin to do two On the Town selections – and never mind that they had been sung in the show by Gabey: “Lonely Town,” in which he rued at how isolated he felt during his one day in New York, and “Lucky to Be Me,” his complete turnaround after he’d found Ivy and love.
Now few if any ever complained when Mary Martin sang, but those of us who are into original cast albums prefer that original casts appear on them.
Decca did have Comden and Green reprise “Carried Away,” in which they find they have impulsiveness in common. Walker got two cuts: “I Can Cook Too,” Hildy’s double-entendre filled come-on to Chip and “Ya Got Me,” in which she offers the suddenly stood-up Gabey some gin and sympathy.
But “Ya Got Me” was a bigger production number than the Decca recording revealed. Okay, Alexander wasn’t at the session, but Comden and Green were and should have had a piece of the song.
So cast album purchasers of the era had to wait until late 1960 to hear Walker try to seduce Alexander in “Come up to My Place.” Better still, listeners finally heard one of the most beautiful melodies in all Broadway history: when Chip, Hildy, Ozzie and Claire know that the sailors’ leave will soon end and that all they can do is plan to meet again “Some Other Time.” What makes the song all the more poignant is that all know a reunion is not a sure thing: World War II is raging, and the boys are shipping out to be part of the conflict.
Arguably best of all, this 1960 recording gave protracted sequences of Bernstein music to which Jerome Robbins had added his much-heralded choreography. But, my, these half-dozen sequences sound better under Lawrence Leonard’s baton.
Two songs can’t be found on the London recording: “Do-Do-Re-Do,” Ivy’s music lesson with Madame Dilly, her alcoholic teacher, and “I Understand,” sung by Pitkin, Claire’s beau, who finally comes to complain about the way she’s been treating him.
But back then, these omissions were actually in keeping with the 1960 studio cast album. Although both songs had been recorded for that vinyl record, they couldn’t be accommodated because of space limitations.
In 1971, when On the Town was revived on Broadway – and technology had advanced to allow for a few more grooves of music — a new record was released with “Do-Do-Re-Do.” Then, in 1998 when a second CD of On the Town made its way into the world, “I Understand” was included as well.
With any London version of a Broadway show, some lyrics are inevitably changed because they’re too American. Here, in “I Can Cook Too” Hildy’s insistence that she does “rate a big Navy ‘E’” is gone; the British had no knowledge that this was an honor bestowed on companies that were efficient in making war equipment.
“Come up to My Place” lost references to two popular New York restaurant institutions — Luchow’s (think Dolly’s Harmonia Gardens) and Reuben’s. A more substantial cut came when Chip said he wanted to see Broadway’s then-longest-ever-running hit Tobacco Road (1933-1941), only to have Hildy tell him it had closed before joking that the actors were now doing Angel Street.
You may infer that Londoners may have known Angel Street, because it is a British play, but that Tobacco Road was unfamiliar to them, and that’s why the section was excised. Not quite: Tobacco may well have still been in the consciousness of 1963 English theatergoers because the censors had barred a British production until 1949. Such notoriety kept its name in the papers.
Actually, the problem might well have been Angel Street. In London, it was known as Gaslight, the original title that would be used for the famous film version. Only in America was it ever Angel Street.
Accommodating these small changes didn’t mean that On the Town itself translated to the West End. The musical that had lasted fifty-eight weeks on Broadway could only manage sixty-three performances in London. But such a fate is not so surprising. New York hits The Fantasticks, Carnival and Fiorello! fared just as poorly in Britain – just as such London hits as Salad Days, The Maid of the Mountains and Chess couldn’t even mark 100 performances on Broadway.
But, oh, does On the Town sound like a hit on its London cast album. It is, to quote a line from the creators’ contemporary Oscar Hammerstein, brisk, lively, merry and bright: allegro!