On the Town – How To Do It Right

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Clyde Alves, Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and the Cast of On The Town. Photo © Joan Marcus

Clyde Alves, Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and the Cast of On The Town. Photo © Joan Marcus

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Based on an idea by Jerome Robbins
Music Direction by James Moore
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Directed by John Rando

Featuring: Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves, Jay Armstrong Johnston, Megan Fairchild, Elizabeth Stanley, Alysha Umphress, Jackie Hoffman, Allison Gunn and Michael Rupert.

Dear Future Broadway Musical Producers,

Here’s how you do it right:

First, hire 28 of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians finest. Don’t even consider  a skimpy orchestra with the smallest number of musicians you can get away with.

Second, show them off. Don’t hide the orchestra under a tarp, in theatre boxes or, heaven forbid, in another building. (Yes, it has been done.) Put them in a real orchestra pit in front of the stage and put a conductor in front of them that we can see. Don’t kid yourselves. Audiences love the musicians and appreciate them. Flaunt them. Advertise them. A big orchestra is a selling point.

Third, hire a theatre where the above is possible. Think big. Think grand. A theatre like the Lyric on 42nd Street will more than meet the bill. It has six crystal chandeliers and outstanding raking and sightlines. A grand theatre gets the audience excited the minute they walk in. It says: “Just wait. You’re in for a big musical treat.”

Fourth, find a special show. A show or that has proven itself out of town, perhaps at the Barrington Stage in the Berkshires or at City Center Encores – or both. A musical revival works well. So does a new show.

Fifth, don’t change the cast for the sake of change or fame. Actors who blew the audience away in the boonies, can do it on Broadway. Okay, if the show is on a much bigger stage that can accommodate bigger dances, you can change the major dancer. Try to find someone like Megan Fairchild, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, whose dancing is renowned and whose eyes, smile and charm can reach up to the rear of the second balcony

Sixth, hire an imaginative and brilliant set designer, lighting designer, choreographer and director. (Try to get Beowulf  Boritt, Jason Lyons, Joshua Bergasse and John Rando, if they’re available.)

Finally, get out of the way.

If you need an example, look to the current Broadway revival of On The Town. It is beyond spectacular.


On The Town, Leonard Bernstein’s first musical, opened on Broadway on December 28, 1944, during WWII. The show began then and now with the Star Spangled Banner to honor country and the armed forces.

As the show begins, it is just before 6AM at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the dock where a ship is berthed. Walking down an orchestra aisle, Tony Award nominee Phillip Boykin, playing a dock worker, operatically sings our attention onto the stage where he joins a small male chorus singing the aria-like “I Feel like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” It’s quiet in a pre-dawn sky in front of the New York skyline.

At 6 AM, the three lead sailors Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Ozzie (Clyde Alves) and “Chip” John Offenblock (Jay Armstrong Johnson) bound down the ship’s gang plank, onto the stage and burst into “New York, New York.” With graceful, athletic, balletic leaps purposely reminiscent of the original choreographer, Jerome Robbins. A large male ensemble of sailors soon join them.

The three horny sailors then head for the subway to see New York, “a helluva town,” and meet girls. The legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green created the always witty book and lyrics.

Gabey falls in love with a poster of Miss Turnstiles/June while riding the subway. His two friends agree to help him find her, and they all split up to follow clues from the poster bio.

Chip wants to sightsee instead of searching but gets seduced by his taxi driver, Hildy, aka Brunhilde Esterhazy. (Alysha Umphress)

Ozzie, thinking he’s at the Museum of Modern Art finds himself in front of a dinosaur at the Museum of Natural History instead where he encounters an uptight paleontologist, Claire De Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), and they soon leave for her apartment where they are surprised by her always “understanding,” older fiancé, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework (Michael Rupert).

Gabey heads off to Carnegie Hall and discovers the woman he is searching for, Ivy Smith, Miss Turnstiles/June (Megan Fairchild) taking a singing lesson with her inebriated teacher, Madame Maude P. Dilly (Jackie Hoffman). Ivy and Gabey fall for each other and agree to meet at a Times Square Nedick’s at 11 PM. When Ivy doesn’t show up, Hildy arranges a date for stood-up Gabey with her head cold-challenged roommate, Lucy Schmeeler (Allison Guinn). Eventually, after a  night-club bar hop (which goes on a bit too long) Gabey meets up with Ivy, who is earning money for her singing lessons by working as a Coney Island hootchy-dancer.

Tony Yazbeck has been Gabey since its City Center Encores days. He dances in solos, with the large ensemble,  and also partners Megan Fairchild perfectly. His voice is bigger than at the superb Barrington Stage production in the summer of 2012. His rendition of “Lonely Town,” a gorgeous Broadway ballad, is stellar.

In the current Broadway production “Lonely Town” takes place in a literally breathtaking set: A  foggy lower tip of Manhattan. In the distance the torch from the Statue of Liberty is lit to add a visual dimension to the lyrics, “It’s a lonely town unless there’s love, a love that’s shining like a harbor light.” It’s impossible to imagine a more appropriate setting for this classic song.

For sheer fun in this production, Allison Gunn sneezes for you; Jackie Hoffman wobbles in inebriation around the stage; Alysha Umpress belts out “I Can Cook Too” and “Come Up to My Place”; Elizabeth Stanley hilariously and beautiful sings “Carried away.” All wonderful. Clyde Alves as Ozzie and Jay Armstrong Johnson as “Chip” John Offenblock are exceptionally talented singers and dancers.

On the Town is also a big dancing show. With the Lyric’s large stage and a big (19 person) ensemble, Joshua Bergasse’s choreography eats up the space. The show, after all, began as a ballet, Fancy Free, and the dancing is executed to perfection backed up by the huge orchestra playing Bernstein’s gorgeous lyric score.

The scenery is sometimes animated in an artistic way (do not think Disney) to bounce us on the subway and weave us through the City’s streets in a New York taxi. There are five prosceniums all lit with flowing light.

Grab the children, the grandchildren and any friend who thinks that a Broadway musical is not what it used to be. Oh yes it is in On The Town! May this splendid, hilarious, visually stunning  revival run a long, long time. Long enough for discounts so that we can all afford to see it again and again.

About the author

Nancy Salz

Nancy Salz is a freelance performing arts journalist and the author of Nanny: A Memoir of Love and Secrets (Richard Books, 2014). She lives in New York City and Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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