On the Town.

Funny to read (in a Norman Lebrecht column, linked from ArtsJournal) that anyone might object to the English National Opera performing Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. It’s a musical, see, and opera companies ought to be above that. (Which isn’t Lebrecht’s position, by the way.)

My wife and I just listened to the On the Town original cast album, during one of our drives from our New York apartment to our country place. It’s very sophisticated music, heads and shoulders, if you ask me, over most American operas. The beginning is especially brilliant, with a through-composed opening scene built around “New York, New York” (“…it’s a hell of a town/The Bronx is up/And the Battery’s down”). This is a very sophisticated bit of composition, especially since the song is by no means all we hear, and — even though it’s the hit tune in the show — it’s introduced quite gradually.

After it’s been around for bit, Bernstein (all of 25 when he wrote this show) makes the song work as a canon against itself. This could be nothing more than a stunt (people are too impressed with contrapuntal tricks, maybe because not everyone knows that counterpoint is the one aspect of composition that can easily be taught). But instead it works as a fabulous piece of urbane savoir faire, the musical equivalent of someone bouncing down a New York street with irresistible style and verve.

Later, there’s a ballet sequence based on the song, and it’s a little miracle. The song, fine as it is, is from a structural point of view pretty thin. All it has is two musical phrases, the second almost a repeat of the first. No beginning, in other words, no middle, and no end; just two tossed-off little phrases. So how do you build this into a ballet? You can’t just keep repeating it. Not, that is, unless you’re as clever as Bernstein, who does repeat it many times, dressing it each time in new colors. Also a brilliant piece of composition, much harder to pull off, actually, than extending, or, God help us, developing the tune (like symphonic composer) would have been.

On the Town, perhaps tellingly, struck some people as too sophisticated when it premiered in 1944. (Even though the show was a gigantic hit.) One critic thought it had too much ballet (as opposed to old-fashioned Broadway “hoofing,” to use the critic’s word). And even George Abbott, the director, told Bernstein he wrote too much “Prokofiev stuff.”

I’ll say again that most of it, and especially the beginning, is better composition than anything in any American opera. In fact, I think I’ll take it to my Juilliard class (a graduate course on the future of classical music) and ask the students why we don’t call it classical music. The only reason, I suspect, is its style. It’s too catchy. Most classical composers, even tonal ones, can’t relax enough to write a real tune. Too bad for them! (And, of course, too bad for classical composers of the past, when this prissy restriction didn’t apply.)

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