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One Helluva Town

From New York to New Orleans, musically speaking
On The Town
On The Town

Bright young talents conquer Broadway with hip new streetwise music: Seven decades before Hamilton, 25-year-old composer Leonard Bernstein and his upstart young (average age 27) drinking buddies — singer-songwriter-comedians Betty Comden and Adolph Green and choreographer Jerome Robbins — blitzed wartime Broadway with On the Town.

Running for more than a year, the smash hit signaled a changing of the guard in American musical theater, with cutting-edge dance and bubbly music propelled by both jazz and unprecedentedly sophisticated contemporary classical sounds. 

The Shedd’s new production, which opens at Jaqua Concert Hall Friday, July 29, for a one-week run, reunites its team of director Peg Major, music director Robert Ashens and choreographer Caitlin Christopher to bring this still exuberant and surprisingly forward-looking show into the 21st century. Veteran Shedd actors Trevor Eichhorn, Jim Ballard, Evan McCarty, Stephanie Hawkins, Shannon Coltrane, Lynnea Barry, Matt Leach and Rebekah Hope lead the cast.

The original production featured several Broadway firsts: a racially integrated cast including a Japanese-American whose father was interned in America’s racist concentration camps; an African-American conductor; a symphonic composer (Bernstein’s first symphony premiered earlier that year); lustily assertive female characters; and a cheerfully ribald, feminist attitude toward sex (“Come Up to My Place,” “I Can Cook Too,” “Ya Got Me”). 

Although then-raging World War II is never explicitly mentioned, the story of three sailors on one-night shore leave (taken from Bernstein and Robbins’s hit ballet Fancy Free earlier that year) sports a “Let’s have our fun tonight, because who knows what’ll happen tomorrow” vibe. They fall for an anthropologist, a taxi driver and a Coney Island baby while soaking up Big Apple bustle.

The era’s dark side emerges only implicitly, in poignant instrumentals and songs like “Some Other Time” (which jazz pianist Bill Evans turned into the touching “Peace Piece”) and “Lonely Town” that lend a depth and emotional counterpoint to brassy tunes like the immortal “New York, New York.” 

That sensational number is the big sloppy kiss that seals what Bernstein called a love letter to the big city he’d recently made his home and would soon come to dominate as composer of West Side Story and so many other triumphs, and as conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

On the Town went on to become a film (which stupidly jettisoned most of the music) starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra and was revived in various forms that provided star vehicles for Bernadette Peters, Tyne Daly, Frederica Von Stade and many others.

And now this Broadway gem provides a little summer infusion of urban buzz into a Eugene that seems at times primed to turn into a real city.

Speaking of Broadway and young talent, Eugene’s own Broadway House Concerts launches its new season of intimate concerts in the little bungalow at Adams and Broadway 7:30 pm Saturday, July 30, with New York (and erstwhile Eugene) trumpeter-composer Josh Deutsch’s No Chairs Ensemble. The stellar band (Portland piano powerhouse Greg Goebel, drummer Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Josh Hettwer, bassist Sean Peterson) channels the brass band music of America’s other most distinctive city: New Orleans.