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Snowflakes waltzing in the original 1954 production of The Nutcracker; choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; photo by Alfred Eisenstadt

George Balanchine created The Nutcracker as an idyllic snowglobe ode to his St. Petersburg youth—but when the ballet made its world premiere at City Center, the atmosphere backstage was anything but idyllic. In 2007, Robert Sandla spoke with veterans of the first Nutcracker about the ballet’s hectic creation and its extraordinary survival. We’re delighted to reprint the article now, as New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker enjoys another holiday season. (A few relics from the 1954 premiere—including the Grandmother’s cape—still appear onstage.)

Americans didn’t know The Nutcracker in 1954. Or rather, what people knew was the Nutcracker Suite, a greatest-hits set of divertissements from the full-length Tchaikovsky ballet. Walt Disney put his marketing muscle behind it with Fantasia in 1940, and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo bourréed across America with various versions of the Suite in the 1940s. The first full-length professional Nutcracker in this country wasn’t presented until 1944, when Willam Christensen created one for San Francisco Ballet.

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December 16, 2016 by New York City Center

Leonard Bernstein rehearsing in City Center’s studios.

For three years in the 1940s, Leonard Bernstein led “the youngest, poorest symphony in the world” at New York City Center. Working without a salary, Bernstein brought a daring assortment of symphonic works to the masses: Marc Blitzstein and Alex North premiered new works, celebrity pals like Orson Welles, Benny Goodman, and Paul Wittgenstein made guest appearances, and the 75¢ ticket price attracted working stiffs who yelled “Hello, Lenny!” from the second balcony when their maestro came onstage. One critic called it a “love feast,” and Bernstein never forgot that love. “I had the best time of my life there,” he said in 1983. “I cut my teeth as a conductor there.” We decided to look back at Bernstein’s salad days at City Center, which began on his 27th birthday: August 25, 1945.

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August 25, 2016 by New York City Center
Carol Channing Photo

Carol Channing in 1949, photographed by Nina Leen.

Before Dolly, before Lorelei, and before Raspberries!, a 19-year-old Carol Channing made her New York stage debut in a Communist musical. And it happened at City Center—exactly 75 years ago today.

A “militant operetta” about love, murder, and unionization set in a Greek luncheonette, Marc Blitzstein’s No for an Answer may seem like a peculiar debut for the legendary star. But in 1941, Channing was just a Bennington College sophomore, auditioning on a lark during her winter break. Blitzstein gave her the Cole Porter parody “Fraught” and deployed her as comic relief; as it happened, Channing was the only non-Communist member of the cast. “During rehearsals,” she says, “the company constantly told me to write to my congressman and complain about something. I could never remember what.”

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January 5, 2016 by New York City Center
Logo on Stage

The 1994 Encores! production of Allegro—back when the cast lugged scripts and wore their own cocktail dresses.

stripped-down revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s experimental 1947 musical Allegro is currently playing at Classic Stage Company. It marks the first time the show has been seen in New York since a 1994 Encores! production that starred Stephen BogardusKaren ZiembaChristine Ebersole, and Celeste Holm. On that revival's opening nightMarch 2, 1994Stephen Sondheim spoke about the show’s formal innovations and his memories of working on the original Allegro (he was a gofer). Here are his remarks:

Allegro was a seminal experience in my theatrical life, and luckily it coincided—rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts—with my summer vacation from college. Oscar said, “How would you like to work on it?” and for twenty-five dollars a week that’s what I did. I typed the script and got coffee. I listened to Agnes de Mille maltreat singers, and I watched the growth of this quite remarkable show. I might not be quite so attracted to experimental musicals if I hadn’t gotten my feet wet with Allegro.

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December 8, 2014 by New York City Center
Sondheim Photo

Mixing things up: artists from various musical disciplines re-imagined songs from Sunday
REVIEW by David Levy (The Sondheim ReviewWinter 2014)

Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick... BOOM! occupies a special branch on the Sondheim family tree. Stephen Sondheim holds a God-like (albeit offstage) position in the creative development of the central character, Jon, buoying the struggling songwriter’s sinking confidence with a well-timed phone call. The show is also notable for its loving tribute to Sunday in the Park with George’s title song, re-imagined as a meditation on brunch through the eyes of a harried waiter. The themes of mentorship and derivation in Larson’s musical inspired young composer Ben Wexler to create the Sondheim REMIX challenge in conjunction with a revival of tick, tick... BOOM! at New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series (June 25-28, 2014).

Writers, producers, and performers were invited to take a piece from Sunday “and remix it. Make it yours. Sample it. Adapt it. Run with it.” The range of submissions represented world music, spoken word poetry, electronica, folk, and rap, each demonstrating Sunday’s power to transcend cultures and generations.

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October 30, 2014 by New York City Center
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