FROM THE ARCHIVES: What Broadway Musical Launched Fresh Prince’s Alfonso Ribeiro’s Acting Career?

From the Archives   FROM THE ARCHIVES: What Broadway Musical Launched Fresh Prince’s Alfonso Ribeiro’s Acting Career?
 
Before landing major TV roles on Silver Spoons and as Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Alfonso Ribeiro was a 12-year-old Broadway tap sensation.
The_Tap_Dance_Kid_Broadway_Production_Photos_1983_Samuel_E_Wright_Hattie_Winston_Martine_Allard_Alfonso_Ribeiro_HR.jpg
Samuel E. Wright, Hattie Winston, Martine Allard, and Alfonso Ribeiro Kenn Duncan

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.

In 1983, an unknown 12-year-old actor named Alfonso Ribeiro danced his way into the starring role of the new Broadway musical The Tap Dance Kid, which boasted a score by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger and lyrics by the late Robert Lorick.

Based on the 1978 TV series of the same (inspired by Louise Fitzhugh’s novel Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change), the musical tells the story of a young boy who dreams of becoming a tap dancer like his uncle. (Ribeiro would later be succeeded in the show's starring role by a young tap phenom named Savion Glover).

Shortly after making his Broadway debut with the musical, Ribeiro landed a role on the 1984 TV sitcom Silver Spoons, which was followed by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In the House, and even a return to his dance roots as the season 19 winner of Dancing With the Stars.

Take a look back at the start of Ribeiro’s career below.

The best dancing on Broadway these days is centrally located on 44th Street, and the stars come in extremely assorted sizes: On one side of the street, at the St. James in My One and Only, is 6-foot-6 Tommy Tune; on the other side, at the Broadhurst, is 4-foot-7-and-a-half Alfonso Ribeiro, a.k.a. The Tap Dance Kid.

The Kid’s a tall talent, too. Despite his tender years (12) and his bantam weight, Alfonso can tap up a storm to Broadway specifications and hold his own with the best of ‘em (notably, seasoned hoofers like Hinton Battle and Alan Weeks, who play his uncle and grandfather in the new musical).

Still, sudden stardom is a stunner for the Bronx seventh-grader who was tapped for the title role out of more than a thousand youngsters who went out for it, and he’s the first to admit it: “To land the lead in a Broadway show, with those kinds of odds—well, it’s just too high for one of my dreams.”

But such is the stuff of which The Tap Dance Kid is made. It’s a sentimental confection that encourages impossible dreams. The title character, who hails from an upper-middle-class black family on Roosevelt Island, harbors just such a dream: to be a tap dancer like his Uncle Dipsey. In the eyes of the boy’s lawyer-father who sternly tries to steer him toward a law career, it’s a racially out-of-date dream. “We didn’t start doing until we stopped dancing,” he tells his son. Both points of view get a full airing, with the emphasis—this is a Broadway musical after all—on the former.

Fortunately, Alfonso faced no such hurdles in his own Riverdale home. His parents, Michael and Joy Ribeiro, have been supportive of his acting career since he was eight. He has appeared in commercials, on the PBS-TV series Oye Willie and at the All Children’s Theatre. Ultimately, it was his acting that intrigued Vivian Matalon, the show’s original director—although, at the time, the boy couldn’t even manage a basic buck-and-wing.

“When I tried out for the show,” Alfonso recalls, “I didn’t know how to tap dance at all. It was Vivian who wanted me so the choreographer, Danny Daniels, said he would teach me. There were five of us finalists, and we went through a month-and-a-half of tap dancing rehearsals with Danny and his son, D. J. Giagni, who’s in the chorus. I figured the one who improved the most would get the part. There was one guy who could tap dance better than all of us, but he got too tall for the part, so that threw him out. Another kid’s singing wasn’t up to par. That left three of us. I got the part, and the other two boys are now my understudies.”

Alfonso has a one-man rooting section in the show’s top-billed Hinton Battle, who started tripping the light fantastic himself at age nine or ten, but only relates to the title role in a reverse way. “I had the opposite problem,” he says. “I didn’t want to dance. I wanted to hang out and have fun with the guys, but my mother decided that I would dance, and here I am.”

Hinton overcame his aversion to dancing in a big way. In 1981, he collected a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Sophisticated Ladies); when that show closed, he moved on to Dreamgirls and stepped into the role that won Cleavant Derricks the Tony in 1982. Now, in The Tap Dance Kid, he finds himself in a role that was originated on TV by 1983’s Tony-winning Best Featured Actor in a Musical (My One and Only), Charles “Honi” Coles. The part has been slightly rewritten—Hinton is 26 playing 33—but essentially Uncle Dipsey is the same driving, dancing force he was in the original teleplay.

cover_no_shadow
The Tap Dance Kid

Behind the scenes, the show’s main driving, dancing force is Michel Stuart—not the Broadway book-writer (who’s Michael Stewart, anyway) but the singer-dancer-actor-choreographer-set designer-costume designer-director and, most recently, producer of Nine and Cloud 9. He, too, was born to dance—and did for 30 years on Broadway, from West Side Story to A Chorus Line (in the famous original-cast logo, he’s fifth from the left: “Gregory Gardner”). He entered this particular show late as a co-producer and lent a hand to the direction during previews.

“The original creators have been working on The Tap Dance Kid for almost four years,” he says. “Evelyn Barron found Louise Fitzhugh’s novel, Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change, six years ago and turned that into The Tap Dance Kid for afternoon TV. It was a nonmusical then, and it won three Emmys. After the success, Evelyn felt, ‘Now wait a minute, there’s more to be done with this story. It’s such a relevant story about what parents can teach their children and children can teach their parents.’ So she decided The Tap Dance Kid should be a musical not just a play.”

She discussed this plan with Charles Blackwell, who played the father in the original TV show, and he agreed to write the musical’s book. Then, Henry Krieger was brought into the project—long before he composed Dreamgirls—and started songwriting with his collaborator, Robert Lorick.

Four years of false starts later, Stuart entered the picture. He caught the show by accident in its closing days of workshop—and it, quite frankly, knocked him out. “This is a wonderful story, I thought, a story that can organically portray dancing so that it isn’t just sorta stuck in. These actors are fabulous. They’ve been directed beautifully in terms of their characters and their portrayals. Vivian Matalon had gotten lovely performances out of children who’d never been on a stage before. I just couldn’t understand why they weren’t able to get the piece on.

“There’s a song in the show—‘Dancing in My Dreams’—and, when I went home, that’s just what I was doing. It really inspired me. I went back the next night and told Evelyn, ‘You must pursue. You must persevere. No matter how many tell you you can’t get it on, you must have courage because, Evelyn, believe me, you can get it on.”

She did believe—enough to phone Stuart the next day and ask him to put his money where his mouth is: to co-produce the show with her. “I had no intention of doing that, but it took only a moment to say yes. Something in me said I should be a part of this.”

Stuart considers The Tap Dance Kid a metaphor for pursuing one’s dream, and that’s certainly the way he has played it. “In some families,” he says, “you could apply that to a kid who wants to be a doctor or a lawyer. In our show, the boy wants to tap dance. He has inherited his gift through the stream of family genes—from his grandfather, who was in vaudeville with the boy’s mother and uncle—but the boy’s father refuses to recognize that gift. He wants him to follow in his own footsteps and become a lawyer.

“What the father doesn’t understand is that, to be a dancer, you have to be very responsible and disciplined. If you have a special gift, you might make it, and, if the motivation is there—particularly the self-motivation on the child’s part—he will do his schoolwork and have an education, and he will also pursue his dance career. You can have both things. What the father is saying is, ‘You can’t have that. You can only have the other.’ Which is not very helpful to the child. It turns the child’s spirit off. The spirit of the child is about the dancing side of him, and, if you turn someone’s spirit off, he can’t be good at anything.

“What I want people to take away from our show if that, if you have a dream there always is a possibility of attaining that dream.”

And, with The Tap Dance Kid, that’s the prime mover on both sides of the footlights.

Recommended Reading: