Interview Series: Carol J. Oja, Bernstein Meets Broadway

by Jarek Ervin on July 4, 2017

Carol J. OjaBernstein Meets Broadway

In Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in the Time of War (Oxford University Press, 2014), Carol J. Oja explores the 1944 original Broadway production of On the Town through a number of overlapping stories: the creators’ previous influential works (including Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free and Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s work in the Revuers), the careers of Japanese American ballerina Sono Osato and the African American members of the cast and orchestra, and Bernstein’s compositional process. Along the way, Oja chronicles the quick and successful collaborative efforts of the young group and their project to combine commercial and “high” arts. Elsa Marshall sat down with Oja to discuss the challenges of weaving together diverse historical narratives, the politics of race and gender in film and theater, and the importance of efforts to digitize historical black newspapers.

 

Elsa Marshall: You’ve titled your book “Bernstein Meets Broadway,” but many others also take the lead. In a way, you have Betty Comden and Adolph Green meet Broadway, Sono Osato meets Broadway, Everett Lee meets Broadway, the whole cast meets Broadway. Why then did you decide to make Bernstein the focal point of this work, and do you consider him to be the lead figure in bringing these art forms together?

Carol J. Oja: Yes, well, that’s a good question. To this day, I am actually not settled on the title of the book. I had many discussions about it with my publisher. We never quite landed in a place where each of us was completely happy. Bernstein is in the title because he is sort of the linchpin figure. Also, my own orientation is that of someone who studies music. For me, I came to this project through Bernstein more than, say, through Robbins or George Abbott or other leading figures in the production team. The word “collaboration” is sort of the key one, but it’s so neutral that I think it might miss some of the main energy of the show’s original production. It is hard because this book doesn’t really fit into a particular pre-existing genre.

The big word that’s missing from the title—and that should be there—is race, and I think that’s a signal that should have been sent out. I kind of stumbled into writing this book because of discovering all of the really interesting racial politics involved in the first production and recognizing how much they affected the show—although not necessarily in its ongoing performance practice because those racial politics weren’t written into the script. Just as importantly, the racial dimensions of the first production of On the Town affected the creative team in terms of their later work. They all continued to be attuned to mixed-race casting over the years, to featuring people of color as often as possible, to trying to create musical artworks that deal with social and political situations that aren’t necessarily comfortable for everyone.

I feel that one of the vistas that really needs work for music historians is that of the racial desegregation of performance and creative expression. Writing this book and trying to situate On the Town within the history of multi-racial performance in New York City during World War II meant facing a fairly large historiographic gap.

As musicologists trained within a system that is largely white, much of the historical writing that we draw on comes out of a European-based heritage. We need to be asking different questions and challenging ourselves to think in different ways. Anyway, I could feel that absence profoundly as I wrote this book, and I just hope there is much more interracial interrogation up ahead.

EM: Continuing the discussion of race, On the Town remarkably starred Japanese American ballerina Sono Osato as Ivy Smith in the middle of World War II. I liked the photograph you have of the “Presentation of Ms. Turnstiles” scene where you’ve got the poster at the back and Sono in front of it, when she’s just being crowned.

Sono Osato as Ivy Smith on the “Presentation of Ms. Turnstiles” set.

 

The poster is an overdone caricature of Ivy Smith, which takes a bit from contemporary war propaganda stereotyping Japanese people. In contrast, Sono is showing this all-American demeanor in front of the poster. It’s a complex visual. I was wondering if you could talk to that. Was this talked about amongst the crew and the cast? How did this relate to ideas of race in New York at the time?

CJO: In terms of whether the racial representation of Sono Osato was discussed by the cast and crew, I simply don’t know. Osato has said to me—because she was involved in the show as it was being written—that she was bothered that the character of Ivy Smith was an ingénue. She didn’t put it in racial terms, but she wanted to be seen as a strong independent woman. In our interview, she didn’t discuss racial issues very much, although her family story during World War II was very difficult for racial reasons, and it remained so afterwards. I asked her at one point if she wanted a copy of her father’s FBI file, which I requested as part of my research, and she looked stricken and changed the subject.

Yet in my book, I quote from her autobiography where she does talk about race to a certain degree in terms of applying make-up—meaning that she, in ballet, had learned over the course of a long career to use make-up to make herself look Caucasian. She achieved that effect in her image in front of the poster; at the same time, however, it is important to remember that she was half-Caucasian.

Other members of the cast, like Billie Allen, one of the dancers whom I was fortunate enough to meet, were very aware of the original production’s racial advances. Billie noted the progressive staging of herself and the other African American dancers, but she had less to say about Sono Osato.

EM: For me, it’s hard to look at the photograph of the “Presentation of Miss Turnstiles” through the lens of someone in 1945, given today’s commentary on race in the news, but that massive poster there, with the caricature version of Ivy Smith, was that meant to be a parody? Or do you think that was enforcing stereotypes?

CJO: It’s impossible to know; but I think it might have been intentionally opaque. On the Town was a progressive show in many ways, yet it was also a piece of commercial theatre. It was the first work of a very young creative team; they took some risks, but then they also played it safe. In a way, that particular stage backdrop encapsulates that philosophy completely: it does take some risks and yet it plays it safe. The set signals to the audience, “yes, in fact, you are witnessing a Japanese American woman on stage here, but don’t worry, she’s a mainstream American (whatever that means!).”

EM: Yeah. And in your book you discuss the ballet that starts the second act, where they’re going to all the different nightclubs. You wrote that at the last club they were meant to have a bluesy number sung by one of the African American members of the cast, and they cut it down for dramatic reasons.

CJO: There were a number of moments like that. There was a spot early in the show, which was set on the subway and a black serviceman was supposed to have a conversation with a white subway passenger; it was a comedic conversation that focused on race. That was cut. There were many things that might have been a bit riskier that were cut along the way, at the same time as the mixed-race cast was maintained. The symbolism of putting white and black soldiers side-by-side on stage at the end of World War II was huge. The symbolism of having a dance scene in which black men held hands with white women was also huge. (This scene is pictured on the front cover of the book.) These bits of staged resistance gave the audience an opportunity to imagine a vision of citizenship that was not yet possible in the United States.

EM: In your introduction, you talked about the use of digital newspapers and how that has made dialogues from the African American community and from left-wing newspapers much more accessible. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your methodology in terms of what considerations you took when you were looking at these digital sources and how you searched through them.

CJO: The digitization of black newspapers constitutes a kind of revolution. Whereas the New York Times consistently had a published index so there was some means of access to its contents, the black papers had no index whatsoever. My book about On the Town could not have happened without the digitizing of black newspapers. That said, the left-wing papers, like the Daily Worker, have not yet been digitized. It’s a step that ProQuest needs to take. I wonder if there are lingering political concerns to explain why it has not happened?

In terms of method, accessing digitized newspapers yields a relatively new means of being an archival researcher. Once I figured out which cast members were African American, then I could search those names. I was interested in where they had come from and what their education had been: where they’d been able to go to school and what shows and performances they’d been in before On the Town. This information enabled me to shape a broad cultural context for the show. At a certain point, it started to feel like an ethical obligation to write brief biographies of each of the black actors and dancers. When the book was still in manuscript, a number of readers thought that chapter should go up on the web in order to save space, but I argued to retain it.

So here I am: a white person in a privileged academic institution, with resources to do the research about this group of African American performers, and in some way, these dancers and actors needed to own the results. Through the performer biographies—showing their rich life experiences—I felt that I could give something back to them by entering their stories in the historical record.

Bernstein Meets Broadway features several short biographies of black members of the On the Town cast, detailing their careers before and after the show. Billie Allen, a dancer in the tour of On the Town that followed the Broadway production, went on to be a successful dancer, actress, director, teacher, and model. Allen is pictured here as part of the cast on The Phil Silvers Show, which she appeared in between 1955 and 1959.

 

EM: Your book certainly shows that, unlike the way it’s often presented in undergrad music classes, history isn’t about singular individuals. It’s about groups of people working together in different ways, and I think those biographies are very important in showing, again, the collaboration, the main theme that goes throughout your book.

CJO: And in terms of methodology, any given source needs to be put in conversation with other sources. So in terms of what I was finding out about these dancers in black newspapers and about racial aspects of the show: there were other sources to fill in details like production flow charts from On the Town stage manager Peggy Clark. These charts indicate who was on stage in every scene. They are remarkable! So all these different type of sources could come into conversation with one another.

EM: On the Town is often understood to be a mixture of low- and high-art forms as well as showcasing these different racialized art forms—what Bernstein calls the “middle ground” in his 1956 Omnibus episode “American Musical Comedy.” In terms of the torch song “Lonely Town,” you discussed how the “‘brow’ level” of the scene was raised between draft versions and the final versions. I was wondering why you think this elevation may have occurred and if other numbers from the show shifted on the low-art/high-art spectrum?

CJO: It’s hard to know how much shifting there was in general. But Bernstein’s goal—and gift!—was to find a voice that aspired to the high-art realm yet was very accessible to a broad audience. Related to this, his music is harder to perform than people expect it will be. So where is Bernstein’s “brow level”? Ranging somewhere between 35 and 75 on a 100-point scale. One of its beauties is that it’s not consistent.

The 2014 Broadway revival of On the Town used the orchestration of the original and featured 28 musicians. The “Great Lover” ballet, like the “Lonely Town” Pas de Deux, was one of the several instrumental numbers featured in stage productions but cut for the film.

 

EM: You added a quote from a 1947 Esquire article where Bernstein states that “The ‘popular song’ has had, and can have, no influence whatsoever on serious music.” I was wondering if this stance was a one-off, or whether his view of popular music changed over time?

CJO: That quote was a fairly strong thing for him to say, and I would imagine that as the years passed he wouldn’t have stood by it entirely. Even, say, in the Young People’s Concerts, he brought in jazz and popular song as part of educational programs focused largely on classical repertory. He believed in the democratizing power of popular music, he wrote some popular songs of his own, and he respected those of others. So I think that quote in 1947 was kind of a harsh moment. At the time, he was still emerging. He was young then, and he was not yet an established conductor. In many ways, once he became stratospherically famous as a conductor, that freed him up to be able to acknowledge that he liked a lot of music that might not be acceptable to the composer and symphony-orchestra crowds that surrounded him. He could be more open about his taste than in 1947.

EM: You’ve avoided writing much about the film version by MGM (1949) in your book. That’s not a criticism, it makes it more focused. Do you have any information on how it got to MGM? How did the rights end up there? They seemed to have drastically changed some bits of the show in the movie version.

CJO: I can’t answer that with a huge degree of specificity. There was some Hollywood investment in the Broadway show, but I haven’t researched the financial arrangements. Comden and Green were reaching ever more aggressively into work for Hollywood, so they’re the primary conduits who brought the show to Hollywood. Bernstein, at that point, was busy establishing himself as a conductor, and his music—returning to the “brow level” question—was deemed to be too complicated for the film; as a result, much of it wasn’t used. It is unfortunate. However, there’s still some great dancing in that film, and the film is its own artistic entity.

EM: Oh, its own thing, yeah. Well actually, I was reading about Cabaret and how the initial Broadway production of it differs quite a bit from the movie version, and the movie version has now influenced recent Broadway productions. In contrast, I was listening to the 2015 Broadway cast album of On the Town while reading your book, and in that version they seemed to maintain the original score rather than change it to be like the movie. They did include an Arabic American actor as Gabey in the 2014 revival, and they had a few African American actors on the show, but otherwise the level of integration was almost the same as the original production.

CJO: The great thing about the 2014 revival—and it was wonderful in a great many ways—is that they used the original orchestrations, which was an expensive decision because it meant having a very large pit orchestra. My understanding is that the producers were convinced it would cost as much to commission a new set of orchestrations for a smaller ensemble. Whether those numbers work out I don’t know. Anyway, the decision to use the original orchestrations yielded an amazing orchestral sound.

EM: Also, while I was searching, and I don’t know if you’ve come across this, but have you seen the 1945 Army-Navy Newsreel that includes a performance of “Come Up To My Place”?

CJO: I don’t know that I have.

EM: Anyway, it’s got Nancy Walker and Cris Alexander in the taxi on stage, performing “Come Up To My Place” before four ensemble girls, all white, come on. They sing a completely unrelated number. I was wondering if you had comments on that.

Nancy Walker, Cris Alexander, and ensemble performing “Come Up to My Place” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in “Army-Navy Screen Magazine, #1, Navy Edition” (1945).

 

CJO: It’s a wacky newsreel, which appears to have been filmed specifically to entertain the military, especially with the singalong at the end. With the original production of On the Town, there is very little footage—primarily a short film at the Lincoln Center Library, which also includes the taxi number.

EM: I just found that interesting because “Come Up To My Place,” if you’re going to choose one song to send to… to send off…

CJO: . . . to send off to horny soldiers!

EM: Basically. I mean it’s a pretty stark thing.

CJO: It’s out there. It’s a sort of feminist anthem—it’s something!

EM: Yeah, and then on top of that you’ve got several strong women in On the Town. I’ve not watched the movie version recently, but in your book you comment that with the movie version, the focus becomes more on the men. Was Betty Comden a driving force in the writing to create these more complex female characters in the Broadway show?

CJO: She must have been. At the same time, we can’t really know for sure. Because she and Adolph Green worked as such a tight duo, it’s impossible, I suspect, to separate who did what in their collaborations. They were constantly bouncing ideas off of one another, and that’s the way they worked. So they sort of emerge with one voice. As a result, it’s hard to give her sole credit for the strong female characters.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green, writers and leads in On the Town, perform “Carried Away” in a 1957 episode of “Art Ford’s Greenwich Village Party,” which was filmed in the Village Vanguard. In her book, Oja discusses Comden and Green’s early career in the Revuers and how this influenced their comedic writing style.

 

EM: I have one last silly question. In the “Carnegie Hall Pavane,” there’s this sort of downwards scalar part between Osato and her vocal teacher. To me, that along with the strings, sounds a bit like Appalachian Spring at one point.

CJO: That’s very possible. Bernstein lifted a lot from Copland’s music. It’s been one of the big criticisms of him as a composer: that he quoted so much, if not directly then approximately. Doing so is a conductor’s burden. To me, however, it seems like we’ve moved into a world of sampling where issues related to borrowing are intriguing as opposed to being problematic. With Appalachian Spring, who knows? It was being written around the same time as On the Town, and Bernstein and Copland were very close.

EM: Well I remember, you call that his “montage” technique in the book. That’s cool. Now, like you said, with sampling and things like that, other works are understood as material for new works.

CJO: It’s much more accepted today. I attended a poetry reading recently where the poet introduced most of her poems in terms of texts she was quoting from or poets who had influenced her, and she did so unapologetically. That’s Bernstein’s mojo. ◼

 

Carol J. Oja is William Powell Mason Professor of Music and American Studies at Harvard University. Her Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War (Oxford) won the Music in American Culture Award from the American Musicological Society.

Elsa Marshall is completing her MA in musicology at the University of Ottawa under the supervision of Paul Merkley. She is using traditional and digital historical research tools to study the development of musical practices in local cinemas during the silent film era. This fall, she will be starting her PhD at the University of Sheffield, studying MGM film musicals under the supervision of Dominic McHugh.

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