“On the Town” and Its Iconic Soundtrack

In April 1944, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins debuted Fancy Free, a ballet about sailors on shore leave in New York City. The ballet was the genesis for the stage musical On the Town, which debuted on Broadway the same year. Five years later, On the Town made its way to the screen, with many of Bernstein’s songs replaced with pieces by the composer Roger Edens.

On The Town (1949) is a Technicolor musical film that follows three singing sailors and three dancing dames on adventures in New York. (Trivia fact: Technicolor originated in Boston.) On The Town is saturated with more than just color. The musical is unreservedly saturated in art, dance, and melodies.

In 2006, On The Town was ranked #19 on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals. It’s easy to understand why this musical film remains popular after seven decades. To echo the film critic Brendan Gill, the lyrics by creative duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green “have never lost their freshness,” which is evident when Chip (Frank Sinatra) and Hildy (Betty Garrett) tease and compliment each other during the very amusing song “You’re Awful.” Then there is the bright and brilliant composition written by Leonard Bernstein, “New York, New York,” graded by the American Film Institute as #41 on their list of the greatest songs in American cinema. Very lush and super sultry in some scenes, the film’s music won an Academy Award in the category of Music – Scoring of a Musical Picture. Gene Kelly, who also co-directed the film, and dancer Vera-Ellen, who plays the young ballerina Ivy Smith, are masterly dancers in this movie, doing the complex score its due justice.

When adapting it to screen, song arrangement was executed by the Boston-born orchestrator Conrad Salinger, whom film scholar Clive Hirschhorn considers “the finest orchestrator ever to work in the movies.” Salinger was part of the Music Department on several Gene Kelly films – namely The Pirate (1948), An American in Paris (1951), plus other successful films.

While Conrad Salinger was preparing the music for an orchestra, Saul Chaplin was arranging the lyrics for the actors. Chaplin (born Saul Kaplin) studied accounting, before joining The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1936. Then Chaplin wrote music for for Kiss Me Kate (1953) and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), and he teamed up with Conrad Salinger and Gene Kelly on a several other occasions. Two years after On The Town, Saul Chaplin would reunite with both Salinger and Kelly when he worked as the musical director on An American in Paris (1951), for which Saul Chaplin received his first Oscar in honor of his contributions to that score.

Arguably the best woman singer in the film is Ann Miller, who becomes equally enchanted and enchanting during the production number “Prehistoric Man.” By today’s standards, the song is politically incorrect: The cast does a slanderously silly dance mocking cultures showcased in the halls of the Museum of Anthropological History (a stand in for the Museum of Natural History), and the song’s lyrics fetishize brutish men. I could write another essay about On The Town as a commentary on masculinity and on gender in general. But right now, I will return focus to Ann Miller’s skill, which is undeniable. Her voice is strong. Her energy is high yet easy. When singing, she engages each of her co-stars, and she glances at the audience – cheekily breaking the fourth wall and effectively pulling the viewer more deeply into this musical number. Miller succeeds in (momentarily) outshining the glow of Gene Kelly’s celebrity and celebrated grace.

However, the symphony of sounds in On The Town aren’t limited to jazzy actors and the rhythms of their tapping feet. Thirty minutes into the film, Gabey (Gene Kelly) goes to the Symphonic Hall searching for Ivy (Vera-Ellen). Here the audience briefly encounters a host of background actors. There is a nameless man incanting Matthew Arnould’s poem “Philomena” in flowing cadence. He walks past Gabey reciting “Hark! ah, the nightingale—/ The tawny-throated! / Hark, from that moonlit cedar what a burst!” While Gabey continues to wander through the corridors of the Symphonic Hall, we hear snippets of a singer’s trilling and a pianist practicing a chromatic phrase. While none of these background actors are significant to the film’s plot, in the Symphonic Hall scene we see Gene Kelly filling up each moment with music, culture, or the arts.

The stories that the characters sing – as well as the specific desires they express through dance – are about companionship and love. That is certainly what the breathtaking ballet sequence “A Day in New York” is about. If you are seeing On The Town for the very first time, then be prepared to have your pulse palpitate when you witness Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen turn from sweet to sultry in this ultra sensual scene. In this Bernstein composition, his signature brassy fortissimo tones down, and a flute and clarinet come to the fore as quietly coquettish murmurs. The dancer Vera-Ellen wears a black leotard to balance Gene Kelly’s white sailor suit, and at one moment they each sit atop a ballet bar and gaze deeply into each other’s eyes. It is a moment when Old Hollywood censorship codes don’t matter one wit; when the old-school actors let something more primal and more real briefly ooze from their shiny innocent veneer. Yes, I am swept off my feet by that superbly dreamy sequence, but this romantic mood is seeded in the first second of the film, when the shipyard worker yearningly croons “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet / Oh, the sun is warm / But my blanket’s warmer / Sleep, sleep, in your lady’s arms.”

From Frank Sinatra’s confident voice (which is a bit too mature for the naïve and wholesome Chip) to the sailors’ stereotypical siffling, audience’s ears stay as engaged as their eyes during On The Town. Plus, it’s always entertaining to hear that ol’ transatlantic accent of 1940s actors.

So gee, make sure you see On The Town. Do it for me, kid.

Bishop C. Knight enjoys grocery shopping and experimenting in the kitchen. Her cooking skills are on the up and up, which she’s quite happy about. When Bishop isn’t stirring a pot of noodles or pouring a glass of juice, well, she is probably watching a movie.
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