HOUSTON -- "At first it was a little intimidating," admitted composer Megan Cavallari about trying to create music similar to 1940s standards by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and other American icons.
Such period tunes had formed the score for the first Hot Shoe Shuffle, a 1992 Australian tap dance review masquerading as a musical. Its rewritten American version, which world premiered in Houston under the auspices of Theater Under The Stars Mar. 7 and continues through March 22, is comprised of about 80% of original tunes reminiscent of the era. To compose them, Cavallari figured out the tempo, rhythm, and energy of her renowned predecessors and riffed upon them accordingly.
"I really liked my assignment over all," Cavallari continued. "I virtually fell in love with the source music, as I always do. What I did was analyze what instrumentation there is, the way the melodies lilt, if and how they modulate. I took these and other sensibilities and applied them to the demands at hand, stripping them down to the root of the story and the characters." The new songs, she said, worked for the show, while in the Australian review the show worked in pre-existing material.
Hot Shoe Shuffle is billed as "Crocodile Dundee meets 42nd Street." Seven tap-dancing brothers from "down under" learn about love and family as they search for fame and fortune, first in Australia then on Broadway, in the 1940s. Australian superstar David Atkins directs and choreographs and is the main conceiver. The book writer is David Hahn. The lyricist is David Goldsmith, Cavallari's occasional songwriting partner, mostly notably for the score of the recent animated movie A Christmas Carol starring the vocal talents of Whoopi Goldberg and Tim Curry.
In its first incarnation in 1992 in Australia, Hot Shoe Shuffle was little more an "excuse" by Atkins for fancy footwork. The crowdpleaser toured New Zealand, Japan, and England, where it won an Olivier Award for choreography. This new Hot Shoe Shuffle has been reconstituted for American sensibilities; additional creators have been added, most specifically Cavallari, Goldsmith, and Hahn, and others deleted, as the project began to be reshaped into its current, more standard musical-theater form. A winner of awards for film scoring and for film songs mostly for children's projects for such studios as Fox, MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount, Cavallari, age 33, has written 15 other musicals. "But this is the first one I haven't put on myself," she joked. An early effort, Echo Park was workshopped at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. But Hot Shoe Shuffle is her most significant musical theater credit.
Is it ironic that her big leg up is for a song-and-dance show whose reason for being still remains hoofing more than crooning? "No. Because David Atkins is so strong choreographically and comedically, the music becomes enhanced. He understands peaks and valleys, the beats."
Cavallari, not to mention theatergoers, can assess how expertly nostalgic her tunes are: in the reconstituted Hot Shoe Shuffle, the finale, a carryover from the first incarnation, is a 30-minute non-stop tap marathon called "The Act," in which the cast shakes a leg to such Big-Band standards as "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Pennsylvania 6-500," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)."
The first Hot Shoe Shuffle was about American tap-dancing brothers who go abroad; the current revision inverses this, laddies from the outback winding up on Broadway. Cavallari, therefore, had to immerse herself in Australian music theory, since local flavor runs throughout. She studied indigenous and folk traditions, Australian anthems, and which instruments are used and to what effect. "I have a lot of C.D.s," she laughed, partly because unlike others from the creative team, she did not venture forth to Australia for research. Not that she was jealous. "Australians having a saying I rather like, 'No worries.'"
Hot Shoe Shuffle continues through March 22 at the Music Hall in Houston. For tickets, $15 - $48, call 1-800-678-5440. It then travels to The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company in Seattle and the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul. The three theaters have formed The New Musicals Studio/USA, a creative partnership whose mandate is fostering original musicals. With a combined subscription of more than 85,000 theatergoers, the consortium asserts that it's the largest non-profit producer of new musicals in America.
-- By Peter Szatmary