Fancy Free/On the Town

Leonard Bernstein

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Fancy Free/On the Town Review

by William Ruhlmann

This reissue combines two related albums released originally as collections of 78 rpm records in the mid-'40s. Leonard Bernstein gets his name and picture on the cover because he composed the music and conducted some of it. But the actual recording artists are those who performed the music in New York theaters, for the most part. Bernstein composed a ballet, Fancy Free, for New York's Ballet Theatre company, with choreography by Jerome Robbins, which premiered on April 18, 1944. The ballet began with the playing of a record by Billie Holiday, which gave way to a dance depicting three sailors competing with each other for the attentions of women in a New York bar. On June 2, 1944, the Ballet Theatre Orchestra, under Bernstein's direction, recorded the music for Decca Records, which added a 1946 recording by Holiday (not the one heard in the stage production) when it issued the four-disc album. It is vibrant, dramatic music, full of the composer's brash combination of classical and jazz styles, and it is vibrantly performed. Bernstein was engaged to expand the ballet into a Broadway musical, and working with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, he came up with On the Town, which concerned the romantic adventures of three sailors on leave for 24 hours in New York City. The show opened December 28, 1944, with Comden, Green, and Nancy Walker in the cast, and was a hit. The original Broadway cast recording was still in its infancy, but Decca brought Comden, Green, and Walker into the recording studio and added a couple of songs sung by Broadway star Mary Martin, who was not in the show, to come up with a six-song "selections from" album. (This release adds as a bonus track a previously unreleased extended version of "On the Town Opening.") The incomplete recording is nevertheless impressive, with the music, drawn from and extrapolating upon Fancy Free, even better than its predecessor, the lyrics witty, and the performances, most of them fresh from the stage, lively.

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