On the Town with Misty Copeland

Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.
Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.

 

Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith. Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.

In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.

On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.

Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):

On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.

The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra. The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):

 Additional Listening

  • Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux (from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944 (Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
  • Lucky to Be Me is from near the end of Act 1.
  • Some Other Timethe final song in Act 2, hints at the blues with its lowered seventh.
  • Find the 1960 studio cast recording on iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Fancy Free on iTunes, Amazon.

Lonely Broadway, Circa 1946

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Here’s an interesting historical coincidence from the golden age of American musical theater: At one fleeting moment in the late 1940s, there were three shows running on (or near) Broadway containing songs with strikingly similar titles. The shows had little in common in terms of style or substance. But the three songs, Lonely RoomLonely Town, and Lonely House share an obvious, if superficial bond.

Lonely Room

Lonely Room is a dark soliloquy, occurring near the end of the first act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the transformative, plot-driven musical which opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for a record-breaking 2,212 performances. The song offers a brief glimpse into the troubled, isolated world of Jud Fry. Fry, who lives in a smokehouse, is the show’s main villain and outcast. He is an anti-hero, the polar opposite of cowboy Curly McLain. Curly and Jud are embroiled in a romantic rivalry for the affections of Laurey Williams, a farm girl.

Lonely Room gives us empathy for Jud as a character, even though we don’t want to see him triumph over Curly. We are forced to enter the painful desolation of his inner turmoil and to acknowledge his humanity. He becomes a developed character rather than a stick figure “villain.” Our encounter is simultaneously disturbing and life-affirming.

Lonely Room opens with a grating dissonance. Its melody steps up chromatically, mirroring the rising heat of Jud’s emotions. It veers unpredictably into major before being pulled back into a stormy minor. Lonely Room unfolds as a stream of consciousness with its own dramatic arc. In The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (pg. 42), Dominic Symonds points out the song’s unconventional “A, B, B, C, A, A-extended” structure, noting that at the song’s conclusion, the “A” section is developed and extended “to reveal Jud’s dramatic journey through the song.” Rodgers and Hammerstein would develop this form further in Carousel (1945) with Soliloquy

Lonely Town

The jazzy, escapist musical comedy On the Town opened on Broadway in 1944. The music was written by a young Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The show’s plot follows three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during the Second World War. Lonely Town is Gabey’s lament at not being able to find romance in the big city.

Harmonically, Lonely Town is restless, constantly unfolding, and never quite going where we expect. Bernstein seems to give a sly nod to Puccini in the final bars of the song. Lonely Town melts into the solitary blues of the Pas de deux dance sequence.

Lonely House

Kurt Weill’s 1946 opera, Street Scene, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, premiered in Philadelphia and moved to Broadway in 1947. It is set on the doorstep of a tenement on the East Side of Manhattan over two scorching summer days. (The curtain opens on a song called Ain’t it Aweful, the Heat?). Street Scene was based on Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. Weill offered this description of the story:

It was a simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device – life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.

Lonely House is sung by Sam Kaplan, a teenager who is in love with Rose Maurrant. The song expresses the sensation of loneliness in a large crowd. Here is a performance by Lotte Lenya, an Austrian singer and actress who was Kurt Weill’s wife:

“America” in Simple and Compound Time

Chita Rivera in West Side Story
Chita Rivera in West Side Story

Conductor, composer, pianist, educator, music philosopher…Leonard Bernstein’s whirlwind career was a complex mix of these versatile roles. Perhaps as a result, when it came to Bernstein’s Broadway music, outside influences were constantly creeping in, from West Side Story’s Copland-like Somewhere Ballet sequence and the dueling-keys of the Finale (a reference to the final bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustrato a hint of Puccini in the soaring and harmonically searching Lonely Town from On the Town. 

Bernstein couldn’t resist writing a 12-tone fugue for West Side Story’s Cool, a sly tip of the hat to the atonal concert music of composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, and the last thing you would expect on the popular Broadway stage. The Cool Fugue’s disguised tone row may be a great metaphor for what was arguably Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment: the ability to break down barriers for a whole generation, demystify “difficult” music, and show a wide audience that classical music is really just “cool.”

Bernstein most obviously broke the traditional Broadway mold in the area of rhythm and meter. The songs of West Side Story are far removed from the traditional “boom-chick” 32-bar Tin Pan Alley style. While reflecting on writing the lyrics for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim has said, “one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases.”

For an example, listen to the complex Latin cross-rhythms in the opening of America. There are four distinct rhythmic layers. By the time the bass pizzicato enters, our sense of downbeat and upbeat is delightfully unstable. But keep listening, and you’ll hear America’s real rhythmic innovation: alternating measures of 6/8 time, a compound meter based on a feeling of three (three eighth notes filling out two beats) and 3/4 time, a simple meter based on a feeling of two (two eighth notes for each of the three quarter notes). The two rhythmic “feels” fight each other, suggesting a musical melting pot akin to the ethnic melting pot at the heart of the song:

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Looking back on West Side Story’s earth shattering opening night on Broadway in September, 1957, Sondheim remembers that the audience sat through the first half of Act 1 with disturbing reverence, as if they had forgotten they were at a musical. It was Chita Rivera (Anita) and America which brought the audience to life, and provided the right emotional release at a crucial moment in the story.

In celebration of the lead up to Independence Day on Friday, let’s listen to the original Broadway cast recording of America. Keep an ear out for the irregular rhythm outlined in the bass line and pay attention to the way it fits with the other voices. Notice little details like the flute line, suggesting “tropical breezes” (0:27) and later an exotic bird song from the jungle (0:48). At times, you may be reminded of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México:

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