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On The Town; On The March

Theatre can build bridges when people only talk of building walls. It was true when On the Town opened in Broadway in 1944 and it's still true today. One of our leading men penned his reflections on how ground-breaking theatre resonates through the ages, but would not presume to air his views on our page. Nevertheless, with the author's permission, we share his commentary here because, above all, theatre is about giving voice to freedom of thought. The original post is reproduced here in full and unedited. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect, or conflict with, the views of Glasgow Music Theatre.

Andi Denny writes:

The idea for this post had started out as a promo for Glasgow Music Theatre, but it couldn't be anywhere near as blunt as I'd like, and I don't want to use this important conversation to sell tickets (you still won't see any ticket link in this post). So instead, it's here, you're reading it, and it's about eight times the length.

Right now, the world from your newsfeed likely looks like it's going to Jinkies in a Goshbasket, and it is. There's plenty to still be thankful and grateful for, but, quite frankly, we're in the early stages of bad in a lot of ways, and I really doubt it's anything other than the prologue. If you think that's dramatic, that's the view from where you sit. From where I and millions of others sit, the view is much different.

The show I'm in right now, which opens a week today, will be my last on stage for a while, and that, since the season announcement last year, has lent it an amazing amount of pressure for me. This part was my Holy Grail: I wanted to go out on a high, and this could be the culmination of six years of learning to dance, learning to sing, becoming a better actor and getting both my nerves and my attitude problem behind me. I was incredibly lucky to get it. I get to be Gene Kelly for a few months and emulate one of my heroes. And yeah, I guess, but I was looking at this the wrong way from the beginning.

On the Town seems like it's a show about sailors trying to get laid and finding love by accident, and essentially it is. It's bright and colourful and sharp, it's funny and sweet and romantic, and, for anyone who's seen the film, it's a wholesome Old Hollywood romp around New York. It's the kind of film Gene Kelly did.

The original production, though, was something altogether different, created by four Jews, one of them a gay man, one of them a bisexual man, one of them a straight man, and one of them a woman - all of them living in an America that was antisemitic, homophobic, sexist, and witch-hunting for Communists. The original cast featured that woman and straight man, along with a (holy f***) fully racially integrated ensemble and Sono Osato, a Euro-Japanese dancer, as Ivy Smith, the lead's iconic love interest. Osato's heritage went against a very anti-Japan America (they were at war at the time, obviously), and her father couldn't even come to see the show in the first two months because he was being held in Chicago after his time in one of America's Japanese internment camps (while Osato's brother was serving in the U.S. military).

Sono Osato in the 1944 Broadway production of On the Town

Even the show's depiction of women, I think, is still far beyond what we're used to seeing. Of the three female leads, every one of them is sexually liberated, and not one of them is a piece of meat (I can't believe we're still having this conversation, either, but here we are, 70 years later). The smartest character in the show is one of those women. The most confident and outgoing character is one of those women. All three of them are employed. Even the beauty queen aims for something much more - and she doesn't just dream of it, she works hard to achieve it, taking jobs she doesn't like to fund her education in the arts. Save for one moment in act two, these women are sexy without bearing skin, and the only person trying to subdue the sexual liberation (while simultaneously encouraging one of the women to take her clothes off for money) is the female villain. Most importantly, while they're just as strong (if not stronger) than the male leads, the female leads are all just as flawed. They are the closest thing to equals I've seen in a show for a long time, and this thing is, just to remind you, FROM THE FORTIES.

When I see people complaining about how this weekend's protests were pointless, useless, annoying and unnecessary (i.e. people complaining online about other people complaining in person), I have to tell you, it's usually from men - and the majority of those have been gay men. Maybe that's just because of the makeup of my news feed, but really, guys, we should know better. Just because you've got enough in your life to be happy about, or because maybe you're part of the charming phenomenon of thinking partial equality should be enough for anyone, none of that should mean you forget what it took from other people to allow you even this much security. If you've got it, if you're happy with where we all are, if you just can't be bothered, that's fine, but I humbly think we should respect the bravery it takes for groups of unequal people to stand up for what they believe in and against oppression, because to say we don't need that now disrespects those who march, who write plays, who petition, who lobby, who make music and films and art and books and poetry, who run for office, who literally fought and literally died - who stand up to be counted in whatever way is the most appropriate and effective for them, because none of us would be where we are without them.

I am humbled to be involved in On the Town next week, and it's barely about the personal achievement now that I know its history - it's about showing off the incredible artistry and bravery of the people who created it to begin with, and to be proud to be a gay leading man in a show directed, produced, choreographed, sold and stage managed by women, with musical direction from a first-generation immigrant. Even this cast, while, yes, exclusively (and unintentionally) white, is made up of incredibly talented, strong, fearless, enlightened, smart women, immigrants, gays, bisexuals, Christians, Jews, Atheists, people of every class and yes, middle-class, white, British men who are staunch allies and feminists. Of course the politics won't matter to many--for them, it matters that the show is excellent and that our production of it is, I think, going to be awesome. But for me, I love knowing that, because of people like Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Sono Osato, etc. the show itself has far more significance to our history than we give it credit for - and many more heroes behind it than Gene Kelly. I hope we can do their work justice next week.

This post was written by the author on 24 January 2017, in the aftermath of the global Women's Marches and other protest events surrounding the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

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