BERNSTEIN: Wonderful Town

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Wonderful Town

Original Broadway Cast (1953)

Music by Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green

Comden & Green

Betty Comden & Adolph Green (1955)


Touched by tragedy, conceived in confusion and delivered with dissent, there's no possible reason that Wonderful Town should have lasted past opening night, yet alone become one of the classics of the musical theatre.

Yet somehow it did and although a lot of people can take credit for its success - including star Rosalind Russell, director George Abbott and composer Leonard Bernstein - you really have to take your hat off to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose cheeky, chip-on-the-shoulder humour was perfect for the project, just like their burn-the-candle-at-both-ends energy made it possible for the show to even get on the stage in the first place.

To go back to the beginning, it started with writer Ruth McKenney, who came to New York with her younger sister Eileen in the 1930s, seeking fame and fortune.

Ruth wanted to write, Eileen wanted to act and their colourful adventures in the bohemian neighbourhood of Greenwich Village generated a series of stories by Ruth that were initially published in The New Yorker and then collected in book form in 1938 under the title, My Sister Eileen.

They became so popular that Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov turned them into a Broadway comedy with the same title. But four nights before it was due to open, on 22 December 1940, the real-life Eileen was killed in a car crash along with her husband, author Nathaniel West.

Producer Max Gordon and Director George S. Kaufman debated closing the show, but decided to go ahead and open it 'as a tribute to the real Eileen'. The end result was a smash hit that played for 864 performances.

A film was made in 1942 which would star Rosalind Russell as Ruth and everyone remembered how great she had been some ten years later when it was decided to turn My Sister Eileen into a Broadway musical called Wonderful Town.

By now, Russell was into her 40s and although she was a giant screen star, she hadn't been on stage in years. More to the point, her singing and dancing experience were extremely limited.

Still, producer Robert Fryer plowed ahead, hiring Fields and Chodorov to adapt their original script, while bringing in composer Leroy Anderson and lyricist Arnold B. Horwitt to write the score.

But because of creative difficulties among the four men, Anderson and Horwitt quit only five weeks before rehearsals were to start.

Normally, in a situation like this, the producer would gently exhale, postpone his rehearsals and calmly look for a new songwriting team.

But Fryer was determined to have Russell as his star and her contract specified that if she did not go into rehearsal by 15 December 1953, all bets were off.

Director George Abbott knew of only one team who could turn out the necessary material in time: Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

He had worked with them during On the Town and Billion Dollar Baby on Broadway and had seen their stock rise ever higher when they added Hollywood hits like Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon to their credits.

He knew they were fast and he knew they were funny. The only problem is, they didn't originally want to do the job.

Green thought that My Sister Eileen was 'so awfully Thirties-bound, full of overexploited plot lines and passé references'.

Comden agreed, but they both said they would tackle the assignment if their good friend and On the Town collaborator, Leonard Bernstein would agree to write the music.

Fortunately for musical comedy history, he felt the exact opposite from Comden and Green about working on the material. 'The Thirties!' he enthused. 'My God, those were the years! The excitement that was around! Glorious! And the songs! What beat!'

And so the trio were signed.

Fields and Chodorov viewed their libretto as largely carved in stone, so Comden, Green and Bernstein had to work around it as best they could.

Considering that, it's amazing to look on the musical sophistication as well as the lyrical wit that this written-to-order-in-35-days score contains.

The trio seized on obvious genre pieces of the period like Swing!, Conga! and Wrong Note Rag, using them to infuse their score with vitality.

But they knew how to turn out character pieces as well. Nothing could capture the homesickness of Ruth and Eileen better than the big open vowels and corny harmony of Ohio.

Eileen's sly, shy romanticism comes through perfectly in A Little Bit In Love, Robert Baker's slightly stuffy charm is on display in A Quiet Girl and Ruth's take-no-prisoners personality is defined by the classic One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose a Man).

There's also the marvelously quirky Conversation Piece in which both composer and lyricists let you know that they won't be painted into a corner by stubborn authors or a five week creation period.

It's such a bright, breezy marvellous score that you feel everyone must have had a great time working on it and that the tensions involving the earlier songwriters had long since dissipated.

Alas, that wasn't the case and director Abbott later recalled 'more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension and more screaming than any other show I had ever been involved with'.

Part of it came from Fields and Chodorov, who found the work of Comden, Green and Bernstein too satirical for their liking. They were eventually told by Abbott, however, that they were only allowed to force one songwriting team to quit and since they had already done that, the next ones to go would be them. So they kept quiet.

Russell was also more than a little uneasy until choreographer Jerome Robbins showed up during the out-of-town tryout to smooth her starry ego, restage her dances and coax everyone into writing the new opening number the show needed, Christopher Street.

When Wonderful Town finally opened on 25 February 1953, it received unanimous raves from the New York critics. Typical was John Chapman's comment in the Daily News : 'one of the gayest, smartest shows of recent times'.

It ran 559 performances and would have probably gone on forever if Russell had been able to stay with the show indefinitely. Back then, she commanded $12,500 a week - an incredible amount in 1953 dollars - while her co-star Edith Adams, only made $175. But the movies could offer Russell even more and so off she went.

Besides the original cast recording of Wonderful Town, which brings you Russell, Adams and the rest of the talented company, this album features Comden and Green performing eleven of their other lyrics.
Disc: 1
Two On The Aisle: Catch Our Act At The Met
1 Christopher Street (Tour Guide, Villagers)
2 Ohio (Ruth, Eileen)
3 One Hundred Easy Ways (Ruth)
4 What A Waste (Robert, Associate Editors)
5 A Little Bit In Love (Eileen)
6 Pass The Football (Wreck)
7 Conversation Piece (Ruth, Eileen, Frank, Robert, C
8 A Quiet Girl (Robert, Vocal Group)
9 Conga! (Ruth, The Cadets)
10 My Darlin' Eileen (Eileen, Drunk, Police)
11 Swing! (Ruth, Villagers)
12 It's Love
13 Ballet At The Village Vortex
14 Wrong Note Rag
15 I Said Good Mornin' (Cut from It's Always Fair Wea
16 Never Never Land
17 Hook's Waltz
18 Distant Melody
19 Mysterious Lady
20 Good News: French Lesson
21 I Get Carried Away
22 Come Up to My Place, "Taxi Song"
23 Some Other Time
24 It's Always Fair Weather: Stillman's Gym
25 Two On The Aisle: Catch Our Act At The Met
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