Finally! Some Good Musicals on Broadway

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Ahoy! The cast of On the Town Photo by Joan Marcus / via

This column is being written because I couldn’t not write it. For several months I’ve bemoaned the state of that great American achievement: The Broadway Musical. But as radio newscaster Gabriel Heatter used to claim, “There is good news tonight.”

Last season’s Broadway musicals, aside from the clever and Tony-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, were dismaying. It was so dismal that no less a leading light than Susan Stroman had two embarrassing, capitalization-losing flops—Big Fish and Bullets Over Broadway. (Whether this leads to a reassessment of Stroman’s strengths–production numbers–and weaknesses–libretto deficiencies–remains to be seen.)

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Ahoy! The cast of On the Town Photo by Joan Marcus / via
Ahoy! The cast of On the Town
Photo by Joan Marcus / via

Hope springs eternal every season, of course, though the prospect of leading off the 2014-15 season with a revival of On the Town didn’t impress me as a very promising event. The Leonard Bernstein-Adolph Green-Betty Comden-Jerome Robbins production that ran from December 1944 to February 1946 was, with 462 performances, an uncontested hit, but the first revival in 1971, with no less than Bernadette Peters, Donna McKechnie and Phyllis Newman as the leading ladies, chalked up a mere 73 performances, and the 1998 revival, which George C. Wolfe brought from Central Park, amassed a merer 69 performances.

Broadway prognosticators, including myself, wouldn’t likely place heavy bets on the sunny future of a third revival. My stand was that producers so devoted to marquee-name value over just about everything else worth raising money to mount were wide of the mark here. In fact, On the Town has enough producers above the title—including Barrington Stage Company where the revival originated—to choke an entire stable of horses.

Hadn’t they looked at the statistics for the previous resurrections and noticed there didn’t seem to be much hunger among ticket buyers for a show crafted by a gang of extremely talented young people that had enormous appeal to patrons during World War II but wouldn’t attract audiences who are concerned, 70 years later, with vastly different issues, audiences aware of several global wars involving Americans but not in the all-encompassing way the so-called “good war” did?

Let’s just agree it’s not advisable to dust off a musical for assumed name value alone. It should go without saying (but maybe can’t) that a first-rate production needs to take shape along with the title. This does happen from time to time (for example, the recent Lincoln Center South Pacific return).

On the other hand, I won’t say I’ve abruptly changed my mind about eventual box-office traffic at the Lyric (no longer the Foxwood, thank the theater gods). I maintain my belief that many of those producing on Broadway today habitually misjudge what has box office promise and what hasn’t, due to obsolescent convictions about what’s commercial and what isn’t.

Nevertheless, I hope I’m wrong about this On the Town for the simple reason that it’s such a marvelous realization of the show. I can attest without fear of contradiction that it outstrips (even though one of the characters is a sort-of stripper) the two previous revivals. I saw them, and I know—not that they were unfit: Wolfe’s was quite good, and director choreographer Ron Fields’s was more than acceptable.

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But the heroes here are director John Rando and choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who fully honor the work that creators Bernstein and Robbins—building on Fancy Free, Robbins’s City Center ballet—and Comden and Green did. Music director-conductor James Moore joins them, thanks to his handling of a 28-piece orchestra according complete justice to the cornucopia of Bernstein melodies.

Apparently figuring that the show is the draw, no one connected with this treatment saw it necessary to have bold-face names in the show–aside from the currently widely loved Jackie Hoffman given prominence in several roles. Otherwise, casting directors Duncan Stewart, Benton Whitley and Pat McCorkle sent only the best candidates they could find for Rando and Bergasse to consider.

As the songs and moody dance music charge the air, Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as the three sailors on 24-hour New York City leave (and direct from Barrington) make great partners for Megan Fairchild, Elizabeth Stanley and Alysha Umphress as the three young woman they get to romance, if too briefly.

And another round of cheers for Rando, who’s full of surprises, starting as the lights go up with having the audience stand for the National Anthem. At other times, he sends cast members into the audience, most effectively when Yazbeck delivers the haunting “Lonely Town.”

The Last Ship logoThis On the Town is too laden with delights to name them all in a short column. Just know that the classic is accorded evidence of its classic designation by everyone connected with it. Whatever the thinking behind the revival, it deserves the original production’s acclaim.

Furthermore, tonight’s good news doesn’t stop there. However welcome returns to past glory may be, theater thrives on new additions to the venerated annals. Just such an entry is The Last Ship, which is Sting’s Broadway debut with libretto, based on Sting’s past when he was Gordon Sumner growing up as a riveter’s son in England’s Wallsend, a shipbuilding city.

Since I’ve already carried on about The Last Ship on The Huffington Post, I’ll just refer you to that review.

As I say, the news seems too good to be true, but it is true. It certainly is, if you ask me. The On the Town and The Last Ship accomplishments can’t be underestimated. They guarantee that the 2014-15 Broadway musical comedy season is already a big, big winner.