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Dancer Billie Allen Recalls Racial Divide and the Original Production of 'On the Town'

By Jon Sobel j.sobel@classicalite.com on Sep 16, 2014 04:34 PM EDT

As a new Broadway revival of On the Town prepares to open, the release of Carol J. Oja's book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War occasioned a reading at Barnes & Noble's East 86 Street store in New York City last night that was much more than a reading. The event encompassed inspiring performances by Essential Voices USA and fascinating reminiscences by Jamie Bernstein (the composer's oldest daughter), Adam Green (son of lyricist Adolph Green), and especially Billie Allen, a Virginia-born dancer who was part of the original production and tour of On the Town.

That through-composed musical, created by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Jerome Robbins and produced by George Abbott, was not only artistically groundbreaking. It also quietly challenged the racial divide that held sway in the world of entertainment in the 1940s. On the Town included six black company members who were not segregated as "black" characters but played undifferentiated New Yorkers.

It also starred Japanese-American dancer Sono Osato as Ivy, a brave choice when thousands of Japanese-Americans (including her father) had been interned in camps. (Osato's brother served in the U.S. military during the war.)

The orchestra featured a black first violinist, Everett Lee, who later ascended the podium as conductor.

In between energetic and superbly voiced performances by Essential Voices
of songs from the show – "New York New York," "Lucky To Be Me," "Some Other Time," "I Can Cook Too" – we learned a few tidbits, like the fact that Lee is still alive at 95, and that Bernstein and Green met as camp counselors. But most interesting of all were the stories Billie Allen told.

The dancer grew up in Richmond, Virginia where her mother was an activist and Billie did a lot of picketing. "This is what we're fighting for," she thought when she ended up a few years later auditioning for Jerome Robbins and getting cast in the mixed-race On the Town. "I thought that it was always going to be this way. How wrong I was."

She did go on to a notable career both on and off stage, from "WAC Billie" on TV's The Phil Silvers Show to the lead in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro in 1964. She became a director (Saint Lucy's Eyes starring Ruby Dee), a founding member of the Women's Project and Productions (Women's Project Theater), and a founder and co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

But back then it was Bernstein's music that "just swept me along…everything was bursting wide open for me," she recalled. "Even now when I hear that music, my body responds." Every aspect of the show was intertwined, and Allen remembers gliding from walking into dancing without a forced transition.

Of Osato's dancing she recounted, "There was something going on besides doing the steps. She was telling a story. She had soul." Osato, too is still alive at age 95.

Sadly, Jerome Robbins's original choreography was not recorded and does not survive, though his ballet Fancy Free, on which the show was based, survives in the repertory of dance companies today.

The black press lauded the racially neutral production while the white press more or less ignored it. The road was less welcoming. "There were no hotels that really welcomed the negroes, we negroes. 'We don't serve negroes here,'" a hotel employee told the dancer as she piled food on her plate at the cafeteria. "'Well, I don't eat them,'" Allen snapped back, "and by the time I got to the cashier my plate was empty. A sense of humor can take you over any occasion."

And speaking of occasions, the new Broadway revival of On the Town with a 27-piece orchestra playing the original orchestrations begins performances this weekend at the Lyric Theatre.

Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War is available at your local bookstore, at bn.com and at other online vendors.

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TagsOn the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, George Abbott, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Sono Osato, Billie Allen, Bernstein Meets Broadway

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