Thursday, March 10, 2011

Douglas Messerli "Three Bernstein New Yorks" (on On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story)

Three Bernstein New Yorks
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, based on stories by Ruth McKenney My Sister Eileen, Biltmore Theatre, New York, opened December 26, 1940.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) On the Town, Adelphi Theater, New York, opened December 28, 1944.

Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (book), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) Wonderful Town, Winter Garden, New York, opened February 26, 1953.22

Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) West Side Story, Winter Garden, New York, opened September 26, 1957.

Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) Wonderful Town (revival), Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York, 2003 / the performance I attended was on Saturday, May 8, 2004.

Given a 24-hour shore leave, three sailor friends—Gabey, Ozzie and Chip—are let loose on the city of New York. All want to “see the sights,” particularly Chip, but they are also seeking “romance and danger”: after all, it’s World War II, and the men—evidently—have been long at sea. A helluva town, New York—where the “Bronx is up” (suggesting not only northernmost borough of the city but the vulgar cheer of contempt) and the “Battery’s down” (suggesting both the southern tip of Manhattan and a source of lagging energy), where one must endure an unbearable pace and “seven millions…screaming for space”—is ready and willing to greet them. Indeed the New York of On the Town (which premiered in 1944) is a city in love with strangers, a community that quickly embraces its visitors. No sooner is Ivy Smith named the subway system’s “Miss Turnstiles” of the month, than Gabey falls in love with her poster image.

Brunhilde Esterhazy (the incomparable Nancy Walker in the original production), a taxi driver, invites Chip “up to her place.” Only after she convinces him that the New York he is desperate to see—a city of the Hippodrome, “Tobacco Road,” and the Manhattan Aquarium—no longer exists does he accept her offer, and is she able not only to make love but can cook!

Ozzie, in the mean time, has mistakenly visited the Museum of Natural History in search of Gabey’s Ivy (the poster has described her as studying painting at a museum); there he encounters Claire de Loon, a would-be anthropologist in search of a “sub-super-dolico¬cephalic head”—and any man attached. The two (in the original, the musical’s book and lyric writers Betty Green and Adolph Comden) quickly discoverthat they are kindred souls, people who easily get “Carried Away,” and, ultimately, as proof of their malady, they destroy the museum’s rare dinosaur.

For a short while, the friendly city is experienced by Gabey, wandering through Central Park, as “A Lonely Town”; but that feeling soon disappears when he discovers his long-sought Ivy at a Carnegie Hall studio, and she, immediately smitten with him, promises to meet him in Times Square at 11 p.m. Due to previous commitments (enforced performances as a cooch dancer on Coney Island to pay for her ballet lesson debts) Ivy is a no-show; but his friends and their dates (along with a unsuitable substitute date for Gabey, Lucy Schmeeler) head out for a night on the town.

Once more, Gabey perceives the lively city as a lonely place, but his friends cheer him up with their love and zaniness. When he discovers that Ivy is working on Coney Island, he quickly speeds off (via subway and nightmare ballet) to find her, while the others, recognizing that their 24 hours are almost over, sing Bernstein’s lovely lament to the end of their short-lived romances, “Some Other Time” (“This day was just a token, / Too many words are still unspoken. / Oh, well, we’ll catch up / Some other time.”). Gabey and Ivy are quickly reunited just in time for the all three sailors to return to their ship, replaced by a new trio on their way to see the “wonderful town.”

I recount this plot, since many readers may have only seen the enjoyable but less than perfect movie version which not only devotes a great deal of its energies to the characters’ attempts to escape authority, but also deletes the majority of the most charming of the original’s music and lyrics: “Carried Away,” “Lonely Town,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “Some Other Time.” What I am most interested in conveying about the original is the near absolute excitement about the city itself. On the Town is a valentine to New York, a city presented as, perhaps, vulgar and fast-paced, but also loving, accepting, embracing. As Comden and Green write: New York is “a visitor’s place,” a world that loves outsiders.

Just short of a decade later, however, in Wonderful Town—based on the 1940 play My Sister Eileen, by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov—the city is presented as a very different place. Although the musical begins exuberantly enough, again with tourists—these encountering the “sweet,” “pleasant” and “peaceful” Christopher Street—the two new interlopers at the musical’s center quickly regret leaving home. In their caterwauling rendition (which turns into a wild howl as their apartment is shaken by a dynamite blast for a new subway) of “O—H—I—O,” (“Why, oh why, oh why, oh— / Why did I ever leave Ohio?”), the Sherwood sisters (brilliantly performed in the original by Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair, and in the 2003 revival, which I witnessed, by Donna Murphy and Jennifer Westfeldt) express not just their fears and loneliness in the city, but their absolute distress.

Gabey in On the Town, who may feel temporarily lonely, these women are rejected. The popular and attractive Eileen finds that those qualities get her nowhere with regard to a theater career. Ruth, desiring to be a writer, is literally told by her romantic interest, Robert Baker: “Go home / Go West! / Go back where you came from.” In the operatic prelude to that song, the male lead goes so far as to warn her that those coming to New York are “in for a bitter surprise.”

Everyone in this version of New York seems to have an angle, even the love-stricken soda jerk Frank Lippincott. Sent on a wild goose chase to the Navy pier, Ruth gets ridiculously involved with other visitors—members of a Brazilian navy ship—who tail her back to Greenwich Village. Their absurd Conga line gets Ruth, Eileen, and nearly everyone else arrested. So much for New York’s hospitality!

Of course, this is an old-fashioned musical where all must end well: the publicity surrounding their arrests lands Eileen a night club job and presents Ruth with the possibility of being a news reporter (a long way, one must admit, from their goals: stage performance and writing serious fiction). Robert Baker realizes he has fallen in love with Ruth, and Frank Lippincott makes up with Eileen. The last number of the musical—in which the sisters and others sing “Wrong Note Rag”—leaves one, moreover, with a strange feeling that not everything is in proper order, that staying in New York may not be their best solution. Bernstein’s almost blaring atonality combined with radical syncopation make one, at the very least, a bit uneasy.

By the time of Bernstein’s West Side Story New York has transformed—for both book writer and lyricist (Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim)—to a war zone. Not only are the outsiders, represented by the Puerto Rican Sharks, unloved and unwanted, but the home-boy Jets are societal rejects, which they brilliantly express in “Gee, Officer Krupke!” (“Our mothers all are junkies, / Our fathers all are drunks. / Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!”). Love may have been difficult for Ruth Sherwood, but it is absolutely unthinkable for Tony and Maria, as the battle breaks out. Authority—represented by Krupke, Doc and a couple of others—is ineffectual; in both the musical and the movie (which is, in itself, a masterwork) show a city where the adults have all but disappeared. Gangs are the only family left to these young people.

Both sides seek another time, a place apart from the current landscape. For Tony everything lies in the future (“Who knows? / It’s only just out of reach, / Down the block, on a beach, / under a tree. … Something’s coming, something good, / If I can wait!”). For the male Sharks it lies in the past of their beloved Puerto Rico. Only their women love New York and America; but even their paean to their new country is filled with sarcasm (“Ev’rthing free in American / For a small fee in America!”). Certainly New York is no longer the friendly and welcoming city of On the Town.

The soldiers in that musical were loved; these soldiers of the street encounter only hate.

Almost all of the characters in this work desire an out, a world where they may be welcome by being themselves—whether they are simply disenfranchised, racially outcast, or a forbidden couple: “Somewhere a place for us. / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us / Somewhere.” Locked in the chasm of New York’s city streets—brilliantly presented in the opening sequences of the motion picture—the denizens of New York’s upper West Side (The rumor is that originally Bernstein intended to locate his characters in the East Side—a war between Jews and Catholics; fortunately, he was dissuaded from that idea.) have no way to escape. Their only hope is to be “cool” enough to “live it up and die in bed.” In this hateful landscape, however, love is not “cool”; Tony is doomed by the very thing that was so openly proffered to Gabey, Ozzie, and Chip.

Obviously, the shifts I am talking about do not completely exist within the context of Leonard Bernstein’s music. The source materials—the original My Sister Eileen for Wonderful Town and Romeo and Juliet for West Side Story—strongly determined the way New York is presented. The lyricists, moreover, delineated many of the ideas on which I have commented. Yet, it seems interesting to me, nonetheless, that Bernstein devoted his major energies during this period to these three musicals, each representing New York so differently.

What had happened to the city and the idea of the city through these years 1944 to 1957? How could this idea so utterly change within the span of barely more than a decade? Certainly, by the late 1960s, I recall, the upper West side of the city had begun to look more and more like a bombed-out territory. 42nd Street was a kind of terrifying gauntlet of porno theaters and hucksters. I recall sharing a taxi with a young woman from Natchez on her way to the theater one night. When we dropped her off at 45th Street, she recoiled, turning back into the taxi; “Oh no, no,” she proclaimed, horrified at being left alone there, “this can’t be the theater district!” The city was no longer seen as a habitable space.

Today New York—with its spiffed-up 42nd Street and conspicuously glistening streets of wealth—seems more welcoming to visitors than it might have been even in 1944. Would three soldiers on the prowl, however, be so readily embraced? I don’t think these are questions that can be easily answered; New York has always been many things to different people. But clearly, it appears as the American concept of the city and the idea of community it represented, as seen through the lens of these three popular entertainments, had changed rapidly over a twelve-year period. By the mid-1960s American cities were being set afire by some of their own angry residents. Perhaps Bernstein’s and his collaborators’ three New Yorks might give us a clue to what had changed.

Los Angeles, June 3, 2004
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 2 (March-April 2006)

If I seem in the above comments to downplay the significance of the great musical West Side Story, I want to assure the reader that I feel I have a very special relationship with that work. I bought the 1957 recording when it first appeared—at a time when my family did not own a record player—and insisted that my parents let me order the libretto printed by the Fireside Theater series. When we did get a stereo record player, I lay for hours listening over and over to the musical, reading along with the text, nearly memorizing both libretto and song lyrics. I performed (in a loud and probably quite intolerable voice) both “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” at our high school yearbook show.

In retrospect it seems almost perverse that my parents forbade me to attend the motion picture in 1961. Obviously, they had not paid the least attention to my listening and reading activities. To this day, I cannot comprehend what compelled them to make that decision: were they afraid I would join a non-existent Marion, Iowa, gang? One must simply put it into the context of a society where any presentation of so-called “deviant” behavior was tantamount to supporting it. I recall hearing a local news commentator years later, upon my return home from college, recounting how he had got up and walked out of the original New York production of
West Side Story. He was obviously quite proud of his act. What a jerk! I remember thinking to myself. Why had he gone to it in the first place?—was he that ignorant of what he had bought tickets to see? How I wished I had had his tickets. But, as I explain elsewhere in these essays, I was not able to travel to New York until I was a junior in college.

Obviously, my parents were, to my way of thinking, demented. And I quickly announced that I was going to another movie—one, if I remember correctly, with much more mature sexual content—and took in, with guilty pleasure, the film of
West Side Story.

In the mid-1990s someone brought Richard Beymer, the original Tony of the film, to one of my regular literary salons. He attended more of my poetry and fiction events after that, and I got to know him a little. Before and immediately after West Side Story—film aficianados will recall—Beymer had played leads in several major films, including So Big, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Longest Day. But as time passed, he had found fewer and fewer major roles, and during the time I knew him was primarily appearing on television series such Twin Peaks and Murder, She Wrote. What he truly wanted to do was to write, and he left a fiction manuscript with me, containing an interesting mix of fiction and visual collage.

Later, through my companion’s involvement with a memorial devoted to the Hollywood writers who had been blacklisted during the 1950s [see also my essay, “Descent into Hell” in My Year 2003], we met Robert Wise, who with Jerome Robbins directed the movie version of West Side Story.

Los Angeles, June 4, 2004

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