New York comes to London this week with the British capital's first staging of the Leonard Bernstein musical On the Town in more than 40 years. The English National Opera is putting on a full-scale production after director Jude Kelly was approached by the original lyric writers. So taken were Betty Comden and Adolph Green by Kelly's award-winning Singin' in the Rain that they encouraged her to stage the 1944 show On the Town, best known for the 1949 film version starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Since then Green has died, but Comden hopes to travel to London to see the show.
Kelly says On the Town, with hit numbers including "New York, New York," is more than just an ode to youthful exuberance. Following the exploits of three young sailors as they hit the Big Apple for a 24-hour leave in 1944, it is set against a backdrop of war and danger. "To me, the piece is very poignant," Kelly told Reuters ahead of press night at the ENO on Thursday. "It is about 18-year-old guys coming to the city for the first time, full of aspiration and hope. But then they are going off to their battleship and may never come back."
The ENO's production features a cast of 57, including established opera singers alongside musical stars, and an orchestra of 48. It is an unusual departure for the recently restored ENO, which traditionally stages operas (sung in English); also, On The Town is not without commercial risk despite strong advance ticket sales. "I don't think the ENO is being cavalier in doing this, and it is not pushing the boundaries excessively," Kelly said. "Part of looking after the future of opera is to not turn your back on change."
On the Town features Jamaican-born opera star Willard W. White and Australia's Adam Garcia, who appeared in the hit London musical Saturday Night Fever. The last time On the Town was seen in London was in 1963 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, although the cast of 34 did not perform the complete score. Several concert performances have been held since.