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On the Town

There is a common misconception that Leonard Bernstein’s ballet Fancy Free (1944) was adapted by the composer with Comden and Green into the Broadway musical On the Town, after which it was transferred to the screen. In fact, although the two works share a similar storyline (involving three sailors looking for girls while on 24-hour shore leave), they are totally different. The ballet Fancy Free is a symphonic score, cleverly integrated into Jerome Robbins’s choreography. Oliver Smith, who designed the ballet’s sets, suggested to Bernstein that he turn the ballet into a musical; Bernstein agreed this would allow greater depth of characterization for the sailors in their pursuit of love, adventure, and the glitz of the Big Apple, and he invited his friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green to create the book and lyrics.

Excerpt from Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town (III. Times Square: 1944)

New York Philharmonic / Leonard Bernstein, Conductor. Sony Classical SK 60559.

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On the Town, which opened in 1944, was an enormous success. Gene Kelly attended opening night and immediately contacted Arthur Freed of MGM, insisting that he buy the film rights. Four years later, Freed assigned Stanley Donen to co-direct the movie with Kelly. Sadly, the studio chiefs decided that Bernstein’s music was too “clever” and assigned Roger Edens to write six new songs, for which Comden and Green provided lyrics. Even “Lonely Town,” one of Bernstein’s loveliest songs, was taken out, and the ballet music from Act II was drastically reduced to fit Kelly’s choreography. Nevertheless, the film proved to be one of MGM’s finest productions, an indication that Hollywood’s professionals recognized the difference between sophisticated New York theatergoers and international movie audiences.

—Paul Myers

Paul Myers, a classical record producer for more than 40 years, is the author of several books, including a biography of Leonard Bernstein (Phaidon).

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