THE NEW MAN ABOUT ‘TOWN’ : Andrew Barnicle Talks About His Musical Debut As Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director

Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

“Dream. Fantasy. Love. How’s that sound?”

Like a telegram from someone gone off the deep end. And maybe he has, though he looked quite sane the other day watching his choreographer and two lead actors run through a second-act pas de deux from “On the Town.”

But director Andrew Barnicle’s shorthand is as accurate as any to describe the essential flavor of the 1944 musical classic, which launches the Laguna Playhouse’s new season Tuesday at the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach.

“I thought it would be attractive in terms of old-fashioned Broadway and yet would be esoteric enough to do,” he adds, cognizant that the revival also marks his debut as artistic director of the 71-year-old amateur Playhouse (succeeding Douglas Rowe, who retired earlier this summer after 15 years in the post).


“Not very many production organizations dare to try this show, certainly not at this level, because it’s so hard to cast. You can’t find a large enough company that can sing and dance and act. So it’s a challenge and it’s highly aesthetic, which is what gets me involved.”

Barnicle, a former actor who headed the theater department at U.S. International University in San Diego before coming here, points out that “On the Town” rings familiar because of the MGM film made from it with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen. “But,” says the tall, strapping, 40-year-old director, “I don’t think too many people have seen the show on stage. There’s only a handful of them. I never have. We’ve all seen the movie, but it’s radically different from the play.”

In fact, when the screen version of “On the Town” came out in 1949, anyone who had seen the original Broadway production would have realized that everything from the music by Leonard Bernstein to the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green to the choreography by Jerome Robbins was tinkered with, altered wholesale or cut entirely.

“Having Ann Miller, for instance, they added all kinds of tap numbers,” says Barnicle. “They also eliminated peripheral characters and rewrote scenes.”

Because of a preproduction deal with MGM--one of the first of its kind, providing the $125,000 Broadway show with most of its financing--the Hollywood studio was entitled to do more or less what it liked with the screen property.

“They were a little afraid of the Bernstein music,” Betty Comden told a Dramatists Guild symposium in 1981. “On top of that, Gene Kelly was playing what had to be a romantic lead. He couldn’t sing the ballads, so there was a whole shifting over of the story to make it quite different.”

Nevertheless, the central plot remained: Three World War II sailors arrive at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and head over to Manhattan on a 24-hour shore leave, where they meet the loves of their lives.

Gabey, an incurable romantic, falls for Miss Turnstiles, a glamorous subway-poster girl named Ivy Smith who turns out to be a belly dancer at Coney Island; Ozzie, who is something of a clown, lands a man-hungry female anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History; and Chip, who plays hard to get, is reeled in by a streetwise, equally man-hungry cab driver.

Also surviving translation to the screen was the ‘40s vintage romance of the city itself, expressed in naive, wistful, sappy affection for a place and period idealized by the stage production’s young creators and vividly embodied in the hallmark anthem “New York, New York, It’s a Helluva Town.” But Bernstein, for one, was embarrassed by the new songs added to the movie.

“I don’t think MGM was so much afraid of the ‘Prokofiev music,’ ” he told the symposium, alluding to Broadway director George Abbott’s joking terminology for the show’s symphonic score. “Almost all of it was used in the movie (as well as) all the ballet music, which was a tough nut to crack. What did not stay in the film were the songs. An associate producer of the picture arranged to write six songs of his own to replace six of mine.”

When Bernstein discovered what had happened, he asked to have his name removed from the main credits, except for his own song listings. “I really don’t want anybody to think I wrote a title song called ‘On the Town,’ which I certainly didn’t,” he explained, “or songs called ‘Back Home’ or ‘Mainstreet.’ ”

For all Barnicle’s intent to keep faith with the original conception and to stage an authentic “On the Town,” the Playhouse revival is guaranteed to be different from its source, not least because Jerome Robbins’ choreography is being replaced by Jack Tygett’s (see accompanying story) and Bernstein’s music will be filtered through a five-piece band. Furthermore, the scenic arrangements will consist of moving unit sets instead of a series of backdrops.

“My theory of theater is that every play creates its own world and its own style,” says Barnicle, who notes that the last thing he wants to stage is a museum piece. “So I try to take every play like it’s an original work and bring it to fruition as though it has never happened before. I think the audience is going to see the resources of the playhouse stretched as far as they can be. I’m using every element, putting them into motion about as fast as they can go.”

Given the production’s size and complication--Barnicle believes the original script calls for a company of as many as 50 players--putting it up required considerable pre-planning. That is why he turned to a pair of creative associates on whom he felt he could rely--Tygett for the choreography and Bill Doyle for the musical direction. Both worked with him in San Diego.

“When I was putting the season together and I listed ‘On the Town’ as a title for approval by the board, I would never have done it if I didn’t know I had those two guys,” says Barnicle. “Jack is the best choreographer I have ever met. I trust him implicitly. He’s also of the (‘40s) era. And Bill is a musical wizard. He’s working of necessity with a five-member combo. But while the sound will be shrunken Bernstein, it will still be beautiful.”

Barnicle had no trouble finding professional guest artists for the two leads--Gabey (played by Adam Pelty) and Ivy (played by Lee Wilson). All the playhouse had to do was list an open Actors Equity call in the Los Angeles trade papers and literally dozens of “triple threats” turned up.

Pelty, a former USIU student of Barnicle’s, says he came out from Chicago, where he gave up offers of three dinner-theater productions, to do “On the Town” here. Wilson, who never met the director before her audition, is based in Los Angeles and says she has been on Broadway in nine shows, among them “A Chorus Line,” “How Now Dow Jones” and, most recently, “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Still, in terms of the open amateur call, Barnicle was lucky to fill the company with enough players to cover all the roles.

“We had maybe a handful out of the 130 or so non-Equity people who came to audition who knew the play,” he says. “When you do something like ‘Hello, Dolly’ or ‘Guys and Dolls,’ everybody knows what it is, what parts they want. They’ve seen it. They know it. They’ve done it. Not with this show.”

In the meantime, between early dropouts and a shortage of amateur talent in the first round of auditions, Barnicle was forced to go to a second round and ultimately fielded a company of 29 players, many of whom must double in peripheral roles.

“What I’ve done to expedite that in production,” he says, “is that whenever an actor changes costume, he or she effectively becomes another person. In other words, I don’t have a lot of mustaches and wigs out there. So the audience will be aware that some of the ensemble have been in multiple locations just as though it were a repertory company. I’ve actually grown fond of that.”

The genesis of “On the Town,” which had its Broadway premiere on Dec. 28, 1944, and ran for 463 performances, has been mythologized as an expansion of “Fancy Free,” which Robbins and Bernstein created eight months earlier for Ballet Theater. That jazzy collaboration received its first performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on April 8, 1944, and was the ballet sensation of the spring season.

Despite the obvious similarities between “Fancy Free” and “On the Town,” however, Bernstein always maintained that the linkage was merely superficial. And he went out of his way to set the record straight on that point, emphasizing in the 1981 symposium that the Broadway show “was in no way an expansion” of the ballet--either in terms of the plot or the score.

“ ‘Fancy Free,’ ” he said, “was a brief, wonderful look at 25 minutes in the life of three sailors who had 24 hours’ shore leave in New York, and had some balletic adventures in a bar--indulging in a certain amount of competition culminating in a fight, and then they wound up pals again. Beautiful ballet.

“ ‘On the Town’ was not about three sailors competing. It was about three sailors with 24 hours’ shore leave, period. In another important sense it was not an expansion of ‘Fancy Free’: there was not a note of ‘Fancy Free’ music in ‘On the Town.’ . . . We started from square one with a totally new series of conceptions . . . which we had great fun bouncing off each other’s brains and souls.”

Not everyone was so enamored of the material when “On the Town” opened. As Arthur Laurents has recalled, the drama critic of New York’s Daily News lamented that even Abbott, the most revered director on Broadway, couldn’t make it “anything but a dullish musical comedy.” And the New York Times’ critic opined that the Comden-Green story was “a feeble frame for sustained entertainment.”

At the other end of the spectrum were the daily critics best exemplified by Louis Kronenberger, as Laurents has also noted. Kronenberger wrote: “ ‘On the Town’ is not only much the best musical of the year, it is one of the freshest, gayest, liveliest musicals I have ever seen.” He saw its faults, “but even they are engaging,” he wrote, “for they are faults of people trying to do something different, of people willing to take a chance.”

Understandably, that is just the sentiment Barnicle hopes the Playhouse revival will evoke.

What: “On the Town.”

When: Tuesday, Sept. 3, at 8 p.m.; continues through Sept. 29. Performances Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays (Sept. 15 and 22) at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees (Sept. 14, 15, 21, 22, 28 and 29) at 2 p.m.

Where: The Laguna Playhouse’s Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Laguna Canyon Road exit, or Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Canyon Road.

Wherewithal: $14 to $22.

Where to call: (714) 494-8021.