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On the Town: our guide to Bernstein’s 1944 musical that took Broadway by storm

We give you the backstory to Leonard Bernstein's hugely successful musical comedy, On the Town, based on Jerome Robbins's ballet

Bernstein's On the Town

On the Town is based on the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, which Leonard Bernstein scored to accompany Jerome Robbins’s choreography. It tells the story of three soldiers who are set loose on New York City for their 24-hour leave. We go with them on their adventures with the women they meet along the way.

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The history of On the Town: how the musical came to be

Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein went on to collaborate on many other projects, not least West Side Story. It was Robbins that first plucked Bernstein from obscurity though, as when when Robbins first commissioned him to write the score to Fancy Free, Bernstein was a relatively unknown composer.

The show ends with the sailors getting back on the ship, waving goodbye to their female companions, and three new sailors jump off the ship to start their 24-hour adventures in New York City. This musical comedy really is a love letter to New York, the city Bernstein thought of as his home.

On the Town was premiered on Broadway in 1944, with the film rights sold before the show even hit the stage. It was considered very progressive at the time, as it was the first musical that incorporated black and white characters performing alongside one another in equal roles, with a complete lack of racial stereotyping. Plus, the show’s first conductor, Everett Lee, was the first black conductor and musical director on Broadway.

The film adaptation of On the Town

The film rights to On the Town were sold to MGM before the show even hit Broadway. The film opened in December 1949, starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin.

Only four of the original musical numbers from the Broadway show were incorporated into the film adaptation of On the Town. ‘New York, New York’ is probably the best known original Bernstein song from the musical to make it into the film.

New songs with music by Roger Edens was added to the film.

We recently named the best works by Leonard Bernstein.

The best recordings of Bernstein’s On the Town

Bernstein: On the Town
London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices/Michael Tilson Thomas
DG 4791111

Bernstein: On the Waterfront
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Lindberg
BIS BIS-2278

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