New Book 'Bernstein Meets Broadway' Explores How Leonard Bernstein and His Collaborators Pushed Political Agenda During WWII

By Jon Sobel on Sep 04, 2014 02:12 PM EDT

A new book by Harvard scholar scholar Carol J. Oja, Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Oxford University Press), describes how the work of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden and Adolph Green in New York during the Second World War "defied artistic boundaries and subtly pushed a progressive political agenda."

Oja focuses on the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town and the ballet Fancy Free and how they featured itinerant sailors as heroes. At a time of race riots and Japanese internment camps, Bernstein and his cohort also depicted racial integration, featuring African American performers and a Japanese American ballerina.

Fancy Free was a hit for American Ballet Theatre in the spring of 1944, and set designer Oliver Smith convinced Robbins and Bernstein that it would make a good musical. The choreographer and composer brought on Comden and Green, and director George Abbott premiered the completed musical at Broadway's Adelphi Theatre (a former Shubert venue, no longer standing) on December 28, 1944.

Given the years-long gestation periods of new Broadway musicals these days, it seems a remarkably short turnaround time. But On the Town was a hit and ran for over a year, despite its mixed-race cast. The movie version, starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Ann Miller, and with much of Bernstein's music replaced with other numbers, came out in 1949 to commercial and critical success.

Subsequent Broadway revivals weren't so successful, but lead producers Howard and Janet Kagan are hoping to do a lot better with their 70th anniversary revival of the musical, scheduled to begin previews on Broadway later this month.

New York City Ballet revived Fancy Free, which Robbins set to music by Bernstein and which served as the major source of inspiration for On the Town, as part of its 2008 Jerome Robbins Celebration.

Author Carol J. Oja is Harvard University's William Powell Mason Professor of Music and American Studies and the New York Philharmonic's Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence. "When Bernstein, Comden, Green, and Robbins created On the Town in 1944," she says, "they were twenty-somethings who ended up as BFFs. Their audacious talent was breathtaking. The first production of On the Town--appearing towards the end of World War II--marked an important moment in the long march for civil rights in performance."

"Civil rights in performance" have come a long way since then. It's worth noting, though, that just as it's news when the first black President is elected, it's also still news when the first black Cinderella takes the stage on the Great White Way or the first black Phantom hits the Opera. And as Norm Lewis, that first black "Phantom," told, "You don't ever see African-American men being the romantic lead [in Broadway shows]."

Oja is leading a panel of distinguished artists and signing books at a free event featuring performances of music from On the Town at Barnes and Noble, 86th Street and Lexington Avenue, New York City, on Monday, September 15, 2014 at 7PM.

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TagsLeonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Carol J. Oja, On the Town, broadway, Broadway Musical, Musical, musical theater, New York City Ballet, Fancy Free

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