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“Manhattan Women”: Jazz, Blues, and Gender in On the Town and Wonderful Town
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A musical can be a mere diversionary entertainment, or it can be a great deal more. It should always be entertainment but in the best sense of that word. It can be serious, of course, and concern itself with big topics but if you mean by entertainment something that picks one up and reveals something new and leaves one feeling good—then of course it must be that, too.

This response from Betty Comden, to the question of whether musical theater is art or entertainment, is based on decades of collaboration with her partner, Adolph Green. Her remarks also echo Leonard Bernstein’s in his Omnibus program on “American Musical Comedy” (1956). All three believed that musical theater could deliver a message and entertain at the same time. This belief in the social value of musical theater underpins all of their collaborations, from On the Town (1944) through the unfinished adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth (c.1962–65). Their intertwined careers also demonstrate that the “message” of musical theater is best understood as a text with multiple authors. Bernstein concluded his survey of the topic by noting the significance of collaboration to the evolution of American musical theater, out of which would come “not only a Mozart but all the other artists who are just as important.” He referred to those assisting the composer in orchestration and arranging as a “small army” and acknowledged everyone from the choreographer to the lighting designer. Comden had more to say on the relationship between lyricists, book writers, and composers, specifically as agents of character development:

A musical number should always be right for the character singing it; characters determine numbers. Situations determine numbers. Sometimes, as is said above, the music dictated what the lyric would be; other times the lyric was written, and the music would set the lyric … but in the right way for the situation and character.

Her reflection reveals how the process of character and song creation, including choices as to musical style, was the shared responsibility of Bernstein, Comden, and Green. Surveys of musical theater understandably tend to emphasize the role of dance in On the Town and the working relationship between Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins as they moved forward from Fancy Free (1944). However, as Comden’s and Bernstein’s remarks indicate, musical theater depends on “multifarious collaboration” and in the case of the New York musicals, Bernstein, Comden, and Green (as well as the book authors and directors) share responsibility for the sound and meaning of their works.

As the result of an intimate creative process, the New York musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town (1953) also draw together several strands of precedent and influence. On the Town is often cited for its forward-leaning integration of dance, music, and drama rather than its relationship to earlier musical theater works. However, earlier models, including satirical and comedic sketches by Comden and Green, offer various constructions of gender in relation to musical style as source material. These two works demonstrate how crucial an understanding of collaborative dynamics is to musical theater scholarship. By interweaving an analysis of musical topics with a closer examination of Betty Comden’s writing, performance, and personal politics, I aim to shift the discussion of these two musicals toward some of their less-examined facets and to highlight the complexity of their creation. Not in spite of, but because of, this collaborative authorship the New York musicals “reveal something new” to their audiences and speak to the “big topics” Americans struggled with during World War II and after.

Although On the Town and Wonderful Town may appear more romantic and less political on the surface, both implicitly address Popular Front causes, specifically integration and labor. In both musicals these causes are pursued and voiced by women. Elizabeth Keathley, in regard to Trouble in Tahiti (1952), has observed Bernstein’s tendency to cultivate liminal female characters in his theatrical works. Likewise, in their work as writers and performers Comden and Green contribute to a history of exaggerated female characters in film, theater, and popular music that evidence a fascination with the disruptive female voice. Usually such women are virtuosic...



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