In the 1930's, during the heart of the Great Depression, the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lifted the spirits and offered a temporary respite from reality. Set amidst the backdrop of some Art Deco wonderland, impeccable Fred swept irresistible Ginger off her feet — sometimes literally — in witty, sublime dances that epitomized, as the lyric says, "the la belle, la perfectly swell romance."
That line comes from the Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields song that lends its name to the title of the new Broadway musical Never Gonna Dance, a show based on the Astaire-Rogers film "Swing Time." Directed by Michael Greif and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, Never Gonna Dance is an homage to the legendary stars, a romantic musical comedy with an exceptional score in which the language of love is dance — and lots of it.
"I love the Astaire-Rogers films," says Greif, best known as the director of Rent. "I love the tone and the dizziness of their films. And when I read the script for this show, I thought that Jeffrey Hatcher had written a terrific adaptation with a real theatrical motor. I've loved so many dance musicals, and I thought, 'How wonderful to have a dance musical that has a little more plot and character than most, but a musical whose heart and soul is really going to be dance.'"
Never Gonna Dance takes place in the thirties in a magical New York — the fantasy is enhanced by Robin Wagner's sets and William Ivey Long's costumes — where Lucky Garnett (Noah Racey) has come in quest of earning $25,000. Lucky, a professional hoofer, is out to prove to his future father-in-law that he is capable of making a good living by any means other than dancing. But from the moment he arrives in Grand Central Station, he succumbs to the sounds of the city and his feet begin to move. Before long he finds himself a new love interest and dancing partner, Penny Carroll (Nancy Lemenager). "I had to feel very confident in the people who were going to play Lucky and Penny," says Mitchell. "Then we found Noah and Nancy. I put them together at the first audition, and when they touched, that was it. They just fit." Playing Penny's wise-cracking friend Mabel is Tony winner Karen Ziemba.
The basic scenario adheres to the plot of "Swing Time." But Hatcher has added new characters and new situations, most notably a big dance contest. The score includes such classic Kern-Fields songs from "Swing Time" as "Pick Yourself Up," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Never Gonna Dance" and "A Fine Romance," as well as about ten other Kern standards, written with a variety of lyricists, including Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer, Otto Harbach and Jimmy McHugh. Among the additions are "I Won't Dance," "Dearly Beloved," "Who" and "I'm Old Fashioned."
"The songs are sensational," says Greif. "One of the wonderful aspects of the show is that it's not just Lucky and Penny who dance. The whole community dances. Jerry has created exquisite duets that are the heart of the musical, and he's also created spectacular dance numbers for the ensemble."
"Astaire and Rogers were such brilliant collaborators," says Mitchell, "and I'm so inspired by them and by Hermes Pan [Astaire's frequent co-choreographer]. What I tried to do is embrace their style yet also present it onstage in 2003 in a way that audiences could grasp. It's a different kind of dynamic dancing in real time than it is dancing on screen. You have to be sharper onstage in order to make your point. On film the camera can help the sharpness and focus. In the theatre you have to reach 1,500 heads all at once. So there's a difference. But you'll see many steps that will remind you of Fred and Ginger. The show is packed full of them. It's been a great pleasure to find those steps and piece them together in our vocabulary and our songs and our musical arrangements to tell our story. For instance, at the end of the first act there's a number inspired by Fred and Ginger, but it's something they never did. Lucky and Penny go to the top of a building that is still under construction, and there's no dance floor - just I-beams. And they dance and jump and spin and fly from I-beam to I-beam. I created the number thinking of Fred and Ginger, as well as Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse and all the greats."
The show is also a valentine to New York. It's an idea that's present in the film and has been expanded for the stage. "We did a dancing workshop in late 2001," says Greif, "and the notion of a piece that celebrated New York and went hand in hand with two people finding their dreams was very much a part of our sensibilities. For Lucky and Penny, New York represents the opportunity to dance and express joy through dance. So the joy and passion and rhythms and heat of New York are all part of the character of the musical."