REVIEW: On the Town - New Broadway Cast Recording

Recording CoverHolding the new 2014 Broadway cast recording of the 1944 musical On the Town in your hands, the first thing you notice is just how weighty it is. Two discs and a substantial booklet with lyrics, short essays, and eye-popping photos from the stage production, all enveloped in a handsomely designed sleeve. This isn’t just another cast recording, but a classic of the American musical theater made tangible.

When this new production of On the Town opened on Broadway this past fall, it earned well-deserved raves. Sharply sung, acted, and danced by a talented cast and perfectly directed by John Rando, this was a production of On the Town worth catching, in marked contrast to the last and short-lived Broadway revival produced by the Public Theater in 1998.

On the Town is a musical with an uneven recording history. An album of the show’s selections featuring various members of the original cast was made by Decca in 1944, but it was hardly complete. In 1960, some of the show’s original cast members, including lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green who wrote for themselves the juicy roles of Claire and Ozzie, recorded what was then called the “First Full Length Recording,” but even with over an hour’s playing time, parts of the score (mainly dance music) were either omitted or truncated. Jay Records, which has made its mark in the cast recording industry by producing complete versions of classic musicals offered a two-disc version of the show in 1995, but it was a studio recording. This latest release, then, has the true distinction of being the first complete recording of a stage production of On The Town. With an hour and a half of music, it’s a musical theater lover’s delight.

The plot of On the Town is pure silliness. Three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York want to find some dames and have a good time before they have to report back for duty. Even 70 years later—“where has the time all gone to?” as one of the lyrics puts it—the show holds up remarkably well due to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s witty lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s smashing, instantly memorable score chockful of hits including “New York, New York,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “I Can Cook Too.” The three sailors, as performed by Tony Yazbeck, Clyde Alves, and Jay Armstrong Johnson (the strongest of the bunch) are very good and sound great, if a bit unmemorable in their roles. Rather, the standouts in this recording are the women and all that gorgeous Bernstein dance music.

First, the ladies. Elizabeth Stanley makes for a kooky Claire with her magnificent soprano voice and perfect sense of comic timing, while Alysha Umphress scats and belts her way through her big numbers “I Can Cook Too” and “Come Up to My Place.” Both offer unique takes on their characters and are delightful on disc. The recording's other woman of note is mugging comedian Jackie Hoffman who does double duty here as Madame Dilly, hilariously traveling through the various vocal octaves in “Carnegie Hall Pavane” and camping it up as a variety of lounge singers in Act Two.

But with an hour and half of music at our disposal, the true star here is Bernstein’s score full of rapturous extended dance music. A large orchestra of 34 members—if only current shows had so many players—moves through the score with flair and finesse, confidently and artfully conducted by James Moore. Getting to experience the show in this complete fashion reminds the listener that On the Town while full of songs that have become staples of the American musical thaeter, is much more than that; rather, Bernstein’s sophisticated skill as a composer-- he was barely twenty-five when he wrote this--is already on display here drawing on the worlds of classical music, jazz, and musical theater in ways that were original in 1944 and remain so today. (Throughout the score you can hear the beginnings of New York’s musical hustle and bustle dissonance, which will fully blossom thirteen years later in West Side Story.)

The stage production has sadly been struggling at the box office in recent months and it’s unclear as to how much longer it will run. This outstanding recording, carefully and handsomely produced by PS Classics, though, will ensure that this production will not be forgotten any time soon.

1 Comment

Stuie wrote on March 23, 2015

This new original cast album and this new REVIVAL of a sensational show is thrilling. Its so diisheartening that it is not doing well at the box office. These so called NEW THEATRE PEOPLE dont know a thing about great theatre and they wouldnt know if it hit them in the head. Lets get this show off the ground and make it a sellout which iti should be. This is thrilling theatrea SUPPORT IT SUPPORT IT SUPPORT IT

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