Why the reprises in Broadway's On the Town are so important
During the new Broadway revival of On the Town, pay attention to the songs that come back.
There are several of them in this classic 1944 musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. As three sailors scamper across New York City, looking for love on their one day of shore leave, they have all sorts of comic adventures, mostly with three young ladies who are just as zany as they are. And whenever they burst into song, the numbers almost always get reprised a few minutes later.
And those encores aren't simply there to fill time. Just ask director John Rando, who's helming the show at the Lyric Theatre. (This production transfers to Broadway from Barrington Stage in Massachusetts, where it played last year.)
"The one thing that I tried to share with the company was the joy of the reprise," Rando says. "I wanted to embrace that form of musical theatre. Because you could choose not to do a reprise. You could choose to do a bridge that blends the reprise with the song, so that it's just one number. But there's something about the reprises that are important to the sense of play. How far can we take this spirit?"
As an example, he points to"You Got Me," which the main characters sing to cheer up their lovesick pal Gabey, who's convinced he'll never meet the gal of his dreams. More to the point, Gabey's buddies actually kick a nightclub singer off the stage so they can perform their ode to friendship. And by the end of the number, a Navy officer is so charmed by the ditty that he shouts "One more time!" That gets the entire cast up on their feet, dancing and singing for joy.
For Rando, there's deep resonance in this celebration. "I spoke to [the cast] about the need to release and celebrate that you can imagine during wartime was very important," he says, noting that On the Town is set in the thick of World War II. "These were precious moments for these military guys, for these Navy guys. Their celebration was more than just a drink. It was a communal coming together."
And so that moment where the entire room belts "You Got Me" becomes a depiction of how people at war can still find moments of happiness.
Meanwhile, other repetitions let Bernstein, Comden, and Green flex their comedic muscles. Take the song "I Understand," which a character named Pitkin sings every time his wife steps out on him with another fella. Eventually, his happily oblivious concessions make him goofily charming, and when he changes his tune near the end of the show, we've been primed to celebrate his breakthrough.
The same goes for a running gag between two ladies who keep wandering through scenes, talking about their love lives. We can not only enjoy their shtick, but also get tickled in the final moments when they change it up.
Rando sees something vital in these silly bits. "I like to call it 'strategic play,'" he says. "The show was created with such joy and chutzpah and youth---don't forget the original creators were in their twenties when they wrote this---that I've always believed that joy is the most important thing for a production of the show to capture."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus