“New York, New York: a hell of a town.” These felicitous words were written by master musical comedians Betty Comden and Adolph Green for their first Broadway show, On The Town. New York was a subject they returned to again and again throughout their careers in a series of “city musicals”. After On the Town there was Wonderful Town, Bells Are Ringing, Do-Re-Mi and they finally got under the surface with Subways Are For Sleeping; no writers had more to say about The Big Apple. Their musicals introduced Americans (and the rest of the world) to a city that was chaotic, energetic, gritty and glamorous. In many ways, Comden and Green’s New York took on a life of its own, defining the city for years to come.
Comden and Green were the city’s greatest guides to New York, using their shows to take audiences on a whirlwind tour of all the sights, sounds, and characters that the city (or at least their version of it) had to offer. “I wanna see New York. I’ve never been anywhere bigger than Peoria, and I’m not gonna miss any of the famous landmarks.” plans a sailor on 24-hour leave in On the Town. “I got our whole day figured out: 10:30 Bronx Park; 10:40 Statue of Liberty…” Metropolitans know these points of interest are impossibly far from each other, not ten minutes apart, and Bronx Park is bound to underwhelm. In a way, though, Comden & Green are joking about their own impossible task: cramming as many New York locales as possible into two hours of stage time.
The show is full of these sly winks at the contrast between the myth of New York and its day to day reality. A sailor fresh off the farm wants to meet Miss Turnstiles, a beauty-of-the-month pictured on a subway ad, so naturally he decides to find her by visiting her favorite New York sites. As the sailor and his two friends trapse around the city in pursuit of Miss Turnstiles they are caught up in the energy of the city and quickly accumulate pursuers of their own. As they run from one set piece to another there’s always a chase going on: a museum guard is after them, a transit cop’s been roped into following the thieves who took the subway poster, and on and on.
The chase/flight finally culminates in Coney Island, which, much like Miss Turnstiles herself, is not quite so classy as they had expected. The show plays perception versus reality with a ballet set in the Coney Island of the sailors’ imaginations before they arrive in the actual not-so-nice area where Miss Turnstiles is dancing in front of men in a scanty costume to pay her music teacher’s tuition bills. But Comden and Green never framed this discrepancy between fantasy and reality as a disappointment. The truth that the sailors discover about Miss Turnstiles and New York is that behind the polished and unattainable myth is a fun, wild and raw reality. After 24 hours on land the three sailors have been embraced by the city and become a part of the action.
Eight years after On The Town Comden & Green teamed up with Leonard Bernstein to develop a musical that needed major fixing – a whole new score. It was a vehicle for movie star Rosalind Russell, who had a strict schedule, so the new songs would be needed in four weeks! Incredibly the team met their deadline and the magnificent result was Wonderful Town, another New York show with wild goose chases and a touch of nostalgia. There’s a song in On the Town that mentions city sights from the 1930s, now gone. In Wonderful Town, Comden, Green and Bernstein got to return to the Greenwich Village of that earlier era, and also the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where On the Town begins and ends.
In addition to revisiting some of the same sites, Wonderful Town also returns to some of the same themes from On The Town. Comden and Green once again explore the city through the eyes of outsiders struggling to reconcile their fantasies with the reality that they encounter. Instead of sailors, the main characters this time around are Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, two sisters that just moved to New York from Columbus, Ohio to pursue their dreams of becoming a writer (Ruth) and an actress (Eileen). They spend the first act struggling and suffering disappointments and setbacks, but by the second act they too find themselves a part of the action. In Comden and Green’s New York anybody can find their place in the city if they persist.
Comden and Green returned to New York (thematically) in their very next Broadway show, Bells Are Ringing. They wrote the show to be a star vehicle for an old friend of limitless talent, Judy Holliday. The part that they created for Holliday was Ella, an answering service operator and a benevolent busy-body who helpfully gets involved in the lives of all her customers. This means running around town, to penthouse parties and Central Park. This time the subway is a place where, urged by Ella, strangers gleefully introduce themselves to each other. Bells Are Ringing carries on many of the tropes from Comden and Green’s previous city musicals but this time the city is shown through the eyes of a native instead of a visitor or recent transplant. Ella doesn’t need to find her place in the city because she already has one. This crucial shift makes the city portrayed in Bells Are Ringing feel more than ever like a small town.
Despite this warm and friendly portrayal of the city, Comden and Green didn’t sanitize their version of New York. Most likely influenced by the 1950 depictions of New York low-lifes in shows like Guys and Dolls, some less savory characters began to show up in Comden and Green’s musicals. Bells Are Ringing includes an inventive schemer who leads a band of bookies. Do-Re-Mi is about an opportunist who collaborates with gangsters on a racket involving jukeboxes, and Subways Are For Sleeping focuses on a group of homeless people that sleep on the subways.
Comden and Green’s city musicals confronted the myths and fantasies that people had about New York, and at the same time they built up new ones. The city that Comden and Green portrayed on stage was tough, uncouth and rough around the edges but it was also relatable, fun, and funny; very, very funny. The characters in these musicals zip the audience from place to place, like a travelogue film played at an extra-fast speed, and everywhere they go the audience is made to feel right at home. “The famous places to visit are so many” – and boy, do we visit them fast.