Encores! Celebrates Twenty Years With On Your Toes

By Steven Suskin
09 May 2013

On Your Toes is not a modern musical comedy, as is evident by the sometimes sketchy dialogue and the lack of book-motivated songs. It was, actually, an important stepping stone. George Abbott, who had theretofore been known as a director/author of comedy and farce, started working with Rodgers & Hart in 1935. By the time they reached Pal Joey in 1940—their fourth musical in five years—they had laid the pattern for what we now call the well-made Abbott musical comedy, other examples of which include On the Town, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game and Fiorello!

On Your Toes was the first step, and it was built around an intriguing notion. Dance at the time was used in musicals mostly as ornamentation and to extend song routines. After a long and mostly inactive spell in Hollywood, Rodgers and Hart returned with a rejected idea for a Fred Astaire movie. Hart's agent, who had signed up a group of Russian emigres, suggested that they add one of them to the mix: a choreographer named George Balanchine. With Balanchine on board, the book and score were literally built around the ballets which end each act. (Strains of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" are heard throughout, as one of the characters is supposedly composing it.)

As a result of this, the rest of the score is to some extent compromised. Broadway songwriters usually have space for fifteen or more songs to develop their plot. With thirty minutes of ballet music, plus another twenty between the dance routines and the overture, there was room for only nine songs. Rodgers and Hart made the most of it, though, with such charmers as "The Three B's," "It's Got to Be Love," "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye, "Glad to Be Unhappy" and the show's biggest and most enduring hit, "There's a Small Hotel."

As for "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," Encores! uses Balanchine's choreography. Not his original 1936 choreography, as that is considered lost; this is the version created by Balanchine in 1968 for the New York City Ballet, licensed from his estate and restaged by Susan Pilarre. And for those interested in such things, let us point out that while the ballets in most Rodgers musicals, including Oklahoma!, Carousel and The King and I, were devised by talented arrangers, "Slaughter" (and "La Princess Zenobia") were both composed, note-for-note, by Rodgers himself.

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