- Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War by Carol J. Oja
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Carol J. Oja’s captivating monograph, Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War, is the latest addition to Oxford University Press’s Broadway Legacies, a series of books dedicated to topics in American musical theater. Bernstein Meets Broadway is the first major study of On the Town, the 1944 Broadway debut by a quartet of up-and-coming twenty-something talents: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. Set in present-day New York City, On the Town follows three young sailors on twenty-four-hour shore leave as they search for adventure, sightseeing, and sex. Until now, On the Town has lingered in the shadows of its wartime contemporaries, particularly Okla homa! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Oja draws on extensive archival research, FBI files, interviews, and previously untapped criticism to demonstrate why scholars, students, and enthusiasts should start paying more attention to On the Town. The result, a fascinating cultural microhistory written in Oja’s characteristically compelling and engaging manner, brings to life a cast of remarkable figures and an innovative musical comedy to illuminate broad-ranging cultural questions.
Oja provides a detailed account of the genesis of On the Town: the fast-paced collaborative process carried out under veteran director George Abbott, casting, tryouts, Broadway debut, critical reception, national tour, release of two recordings, and the 1949 Hollywood reimagining starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. But Bernstein Meets Broadway is much more than a biography of a show and its creators. Oja divides her book into three sections. In the first, “Ballet and Nightclubs,” she focuses on the late 1930s and 1940s, when Bernstein began to find his distinctive voice as a composer with two seemingly contrasting streams of high and low creative collaboration: the ballet Fancy Free, Bernstein and Robbins’s first collaboration, and nightclub skits developed by The Revuers, a comedy troupe that included Comden and Green as writers and performers and Bernstein as occasional pianist. Fancy Free follows the same basic plot found in On the Town just short of nine months later. Oja explores gendered messages in both the dance and plot subtexts of Fancy Free as well as its previously-unknown inspiration, a 1934 painting by Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In!, which invites bisexual readings that “hold the key to the ballet’s multiple narratives, as well as the interplay of personal and professional relationships among its collaborators” (p. 21). Launched in 1938, The Revuers wrote and performed satirical songs, dances, and sketches at the Village Vanguard, and later moved their zany act to uptown theaters and nightclubs. The Revuers challenged racial segregation by consistently appearing in venues that welcomed all, regardless of race. Oja points out that this commitment to racial equality within the realm of performance has gone unnoticed until now. Whereas Fancy Free—through Bernstein and Robbins—would share with On the Town an extraordinary attention to ballet, The Revuers—with Comden and Green—would bring experience in writing topical, accessible scripts for mixed-race audiences.
The centerpiece of the book, “Broadway and Racial Politics,” examines how Bernstein, Robbins, Comden, and Green tackled issues of race and politics in the debut production of On the Town. Oja reveals untold stories about the various ways that the show defied the status quo—not in terms of plot with social commentary, but rather, in casting decisions. In 1944, most performance spaces offered limited opportunities for non-white performers. Bernstein and his creative collective demonstrated their opposition to these racial and ethnic stage practices by employing a mixed-race cast that included a Japanese American dancer, Sono Osato, who played the non-singing role of Ivy Smith, an all-American beauty queen. Osato had performed on Broadway one year earlier, as the Premiere Danseuse in One Touch of Venus...