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April 21, 2005

On the Town - Leonard Bernstein

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

On the Town
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Text by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
English National Opera at the London Coliseum
March - May 2005

"Why is On the Town worth reviving, sixty years on?", asks Humphrey Burton in a "feed" question (in the programme) to the director Jude Kelly, and is told that Bernstein had a deep commitment to popular work without losing any integrity. Big stuff! One can but remember Stephen Potter, who made a professional study of pretentiousness, and recommended that, if finding oneself among people going on about the technicalities of symphonic structure in Beethoven, the best thing to do was to drum one's fingers on the wood and say: "I just like a good simple tune, myself".

Similarly, the best reason for reviving On the Town is that it's a terrific song and dance show, and that the ENO has made a marvellous job of it. Some of the critics were a bit snooty when it began but the audiences are certainly not being snooty now.

The theme is so ordinary as to teeter on the edge of the mythical ah, sorry, that's programmese, though the actual programme for On the Town is a model of sanity by contemporary standards. It does, however, tend to intellectualise everything in sight. Three sailors with a 24-hour leave pass during the Pacific War try to cram the pleasures of New York into the time. They are hayseeds, and the story repeats an old theme of American life in wartime: "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, now that they've seen Paree?" as they used to sing.

New York is where life is, but the whole point of life is that you must have a girl. This is just one of the many aspects of life in the 1940s that contrasts with today. The story touches on sex and death, but at heart (as you might say) it's just about three young men looking for love. The dramatic idiom is farce, with borrowings (or homage, as we say these days) from the life of the time film and radio "sit coms" especially. And the sound! Bernstein's sinuous jazz rhythms are perfect reflections of a unique city in one of the epochs that has generated its legend.

That's why Humphrey Burton's programme question to Jude Kelly: "You didn't even think about changing the date?" (from 1944) is in the idiom of the devil trying to bring out the evil dominatrix that lurks in the breast of every contemporary director. In reply, she can't help a reference to the boys going off to war in Iraq "it's heartbreaking" but she pulls back, just in time. She clearly remembers she's directing a masterpiece, not grabbing the microphone for some banal political statement. And the result is that, if one wants to think about On the Town as having some meaning beyond being a marvellous display of singing, dancing and satire, one can find more interesting things to say about the human condition, rather than joining the herd with half-baked judgements of contemporary politics. Intellectually, indeed, it's hardly challenging. That there's a lot of loneliness in big cities is hardly an intellectual breakthrough, and hence the "Lonely Town" number isn't telling us anything we didn't know. Rather, it is using familiar material for an aesthetic purpose.

On the Town does, as the director tells us, require the resources of an opera company, because the mix of skills that make it so irresistible aren't often found together. Here dance is an independent element in the show no doubt expressing emotion and moving the story forward, and all that but clearly above all expressing its own spontaneous exuberance. There's a rather nice and subtle ballad "some other time" and some lively skits. The story gives it just enough coherence and forward drive. But above all, as Proust once put it, a place is also a time, and a time is a place. And Bernstein and his collaborators have captured it perfectly.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.


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