‘On The Town,” the 1944 musical that follows the zany adventures of three sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during World War II, began life as a ballet, “Fancy Free.”
Created for American Ballet Theatre by two fabulously gifted “emerging talents” of the time — choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein — it proved so successful that Robbins and Bernstein teamed with comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to quickly turn it into a full-fledged Broadway musical directed by George Abbott. Financial backing for the show came from MGM, which in 1949 released a film version that starred Gene Kelly (as Gabey) Frank Sinatra (as Chip) and Jules Munshin (as Ozzie), and, unaccountably, replaced much of Bernstein’s music.
“On the Town” is not revived very often, but right now it seems to be on a roll. At the very moment the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is gearing up for its Aug. 20 opening (it will be the musical’s first “major” Chicago area production ever), a Broadway revival is set to open in October.
Audiences here also will be able to catch a performance of “Fancy Free,” featuring six stars of the New York City Ballet, when the free Chicago Dancing Festival performs it on Aug. 20 at the Harris Theater, with a simulcast on the ultra-bright screen at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
“The book for ‘On the Town’ is a vaudeville, and director David Bell and I have not shied away from that style, but embraced it,” said choreographer Alex Sanchez, the Chicago-bred dancer-turned-choreographer who has appeared in such Broadway shows as the Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel,” “Big, The Musical,” the Roundabout revival of “Follies,” “Fosse,” and “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life.” “We’ve tried to organically find the truth in the comedy of Comden and Green.”
“I’ve never seen the show, and I stayed away from watching the movie or other archival material. But reading the script I was amazed by how many ballet sequences there were — a total of seven, with one at the end of almost every scene — from the opening, ‘New York, New York,’ to ‘Miss Turnstiles [an ode to a subway beauty], ‘Carried Away,’ ‘Times Square Ball,’ ‘Carnegie Hall Pavanne,’ and ‘The Real Coney Island’.”
“I did do a great deal of research about the time period, and that generation that was both tougher and more hopeful than mine as it emerged from the Great Depression,” said Sanchez. “But then war broke out, along with that hope for better things. And I began to realize that these sailors sensed they could die at any minute, and this show is about them just wanting to live to the fullest in their last free day in New York. I also tried to envision what it would be like to be cooped up in a big battleship on the ocean, and then enjoying that brief bit of freedom in what was then the greatest city in the world.”
Sanchez grew up in Humboldt Park, the child of factory workers. When the family moved to Schaumburg he joined the high school choir and began doing musicals. A choreographer noticed he was a quick learner and natural dancer and he began taking classes in Des Plaines, where his teacher encouraged him and he sneaked off to Wednesday evening classes.
In 1985, while majoring in music at Illinois State University (he planned to become a teacher), he got a job in an Opryland theme park in Nashville. But the day after he arrived he got caught in a serious fire in his apartment, spent 2-½ weeks in an intensive burn unit and then returned to Chicago for skin rehab at Northwestern’s burn care center. His friend, dancer Kenny Ingram, suggested he take classes at the Lou Conte Studio to lift his spirits.
“I was 18 and in a class taught by Rick Hilsabeck [an early Hubbard Street dancer], and Lou kept peeking in and watching,” Sanchez remembered, “And finally Lou said, ‘You have the potential to be a professional dancer,’ and gave me a scholarship. I then went on to dance with Ballet Chicago under Daniel Duell.”
Although most of the Marriott cast is from Chicago, Sanchez had to find his three sailors (Max Clayton, Seth Danner and Jeff Smith), in New York.
“It was difficult to find them even there, because you need ‘triple threat’ talents — terrific dancers who can also sing and finesse the comic acting,” said Sanchez. “But we’ve put together a terrific cast.”