ON YOUR TOES
April 11, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
On Your Toes, a new musical, opened on April 11, 1936 at the the Imperial Theatre with music by Richard Rodgers. Tomorrow evening, a revival of another Rodgers musical (Carousel), opens at the Imperial. The latter was the second show he wrote in collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II; the former was the 19th written with Lorenz Hart. Yes, many of those titles were revues and not full book musicals (which generally took longer in those days to write and craft), but nonetheless, Rodgers and Hart’s output was extraordinary, their names eventually on 28 shows in 17 years, and the writing of more than 500 songs.
On Your Toes was somewhat different from the preceding 18 Rodgers and Hart shows, as it marked a distinct transition in their approach to creating an original musical. Though many historians look to Oklahoma!, Rodgers’s first collaboration with Hammerstein, as beginning the integrating of dance into drama, it was actually On Your Toes, seven years prior. And it’s not overreach to use the word “drama” when discussing a musical with a book as silly as the one the team devised for On Your Toes (with a strong assist from George Abbott, who also served as the play’s director). It earns its radical shift in tone with its penultimate scene, a lengthy full-scale ballet, devised by George Balanchine, a Russian émigré who, at the time, was the biggest name in the ballet world. Less than three months after arriving in the U.S., Balanchine had already co-founded the American Ballet Theatre, with the purpose of training young American dancers in the style to which he had already established his worldwide reputation. The importance of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” cannot be underestimated, even if you choose to believe the story (boasted on the American Ballet Theatre’s website) that it “introduced the word ‘choreography’ to Broadway, at Balanchine’s request. Not true, but enough of an interesting sidebar that I thought it worth mentioning (and proof that a second source is always important when doing research on just about anything you read on the internet).
What is inarguable, is that “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” was the first ballet written for a musical that advanced the action, as opposed to merely taking time out for audiences to enjoy some fine dancing. What occurs in the show is nothing less than “a story-within-a-story,” whereby a Russian ballet star hires a hit-man to murder a rival during a dance premiere in mid-performance. In the course of the twenty-seven minute ballet (yes, twenty-seven minutes), the story unfolds bit by bit, until finally the intended victim discovers he is to be shot during one particular musical phrase. His solution: to keep dancing, repeating the closing phrase until the police arrive. It’s both dramatic and comical, and in keeping with the overall tone of the whole show, highly original and extremely satisfying. With its use of both classical dance and jazz in its score, On Your Toes was a harbinger of many shows that were to come.
Funnily enough, the musical was first devised as a film vehicle for Fred Astaire, during the period when Rodgers and Hart were under contract to Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. And according to Todd Purdham, in his excellent new book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, that when writing the musical, the idea for the ballet was entirely Larry Hart’s. “But Rodgers was hesitant about just how to proceed, as he would recall years later. ‘I didn’t know a thing about choreography and told Balanchine that I was unsure how we should go about it,’ he remembered. ‘Did he devise steps first and expect me to alter the tempos wherever necessary, or did he fit his steps to the music as written? Balanchine smiled and with that wonderful Russian accent of his said simply, ‘You write it. I put it on.’”
The role of Junior Dolan III was sung and danced by the rubbery Ray Bolger, already then a veteran vaudeville and Broadway hoofer, but not yet the huge star On Your Toes would make him (and three years before his Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz would allow him entrance to film immortality). He was joined in the ballet by Tamara Geva, not only a world renowned ballerina, but a former wife to Master Balanchine, who he married when she was sixteen (dissolved just three years later). Interesting note: The 1950 Broadway revival of On Your Toes, that Balanchine once again choreographed, featured his second wife Vera Zorina in the same role. This revival also featured Elaine Stritch, having two years earlier killed it singing “Zip” in a remounting of Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey.
The original production of On Your Toes had a very successful run in its day at 315 performances. It offered such hits as “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Glad To Be Unhappy” and the title song, even if the critic in the New York Herald Tribune wrote: “The songs are mildly hearable … If you do not expect too much you will not be disappointed.” On Your Toes was also the first of four Rodgers and Hart musicals Balanchine choreographed in a little over the next three years, the others being Babes in Arms, I Married an Angel and The Boys from Syracuse — all four having opened between April 1936 and November 1938. Astounding.
Even more astounding was when in 1983, George Abbott, On Your Toes’ original director (and co-author), returned to stage a Broadway revival. Abbott was then ninety-six years old — and helped make the show a big hit, running more than a year. I once asked one of its leading players, Peter Slutsker (now Marx), if Abbott really did the directing, or just supervised Donald Saddler and Peter Martins, who were hired to share the choreography assignments. Peter said, “Are you kidding? Mr. Abbott totally directed it. The staging, line readings … the whole deal. He blew my mind.”
On Your Toes was recently staged in 2013 at City Center’s Encores! (where musicals get staged more and more elaborately with each passing production — gone the early days of actors with scripts in hand). But considering Encores! only puts its shows up for eight performances (or less), I would love to see a full-scale revival in a big and beautiful Broadway house some day.
On Your Toes deserves the full treatment.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.