Heaven, I'm in heaven. Well, not me, exactly; but fans of Fred Astaire will be. Warner Home Entertainment has issued the Astaire & Rogers Collection, Volume One. This includes five of Fred and Ginger's movies; Swing Time and Top Hat, alone, are enough to start you dancing rings around your DVD player.
These films have special meaning for Broadway fans. With the depression eating away at Broadway production, the theatre's best composers — Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and more — all went Hollywood, where tennis courts and bank accounts were considerably greener. Thus, some of the best show tunes of the decade — "A Fine Romance," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Just One of those Things," "Isn't It Romantic" and more — were written not for shows but for films. Nevertheless, they qualify as show tunes in function (to delineate character) and form (which is often several steps more complex than the catchy tunes otherwise written for the screen).
First and foremost is Swing Time. Kern was in his third, and final, stylistic period; at this point in his career, he could write just about anything, often with startlingly good melodies. Lyricist Dorothy Fields on the other hand, was still relatively early in her career (at 31); even so, Swing Time includes what I consider her finest set of lyrics. Take the unwieldy, ten-word phrase she came up with to describe a very human experience: "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again." Mr. Kern set it to a perfectly snappy melody, but this is not the most obvious basis for a song lyric. A perfect song, as is "A Fine Romance." Here is another in a line of boy girl "I'm not in love songs," but Fields makes it as everyday (and genuine) as you might hear on the street. "We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes, but you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes."
Add to this the moody and fascinatingly constructed "Never Gonna Dance" and one of the most ravishing ballads ever, "The Way You Look Tonight," and you've got a dream of a score. There is also "Waltz in Swing Time," Russell Bennett's arrangement from Kern themes, which provides the basis for a remarkable dance. The songs are more than supported by an amusing story; tip-top choreography, by Astaire and Hermes Pan; and Fred and Ginger Rogers, in finest form. Also on hand are Broadway hams Victor Moore and Helen Broderick, doing what they did so well. Moore is still remembered along Broadway for his partnership with Billy Gaxton; the team starred in such musicals as Of Thee I Sing and Anything Goes. Broderick was the character comedienne in such musicals as Fifty Million Frenchmen and As Thousands Cheer, as well as one of Fred's co-stars in the 1931 revue The Band Wagon. She was also the mother of an Oscar-winning Best Actor, Broderick Crawford of All the King's Men.
If any unsuspecting reader suggest they turn Swing Time into a stage musical, let me suggest that they'd better have a reasonable facsimile of Astaire and Rogers on hand, as well as a sense of style and sense of humor. For further details, see Never Gonna Dance — or better yet, don't.
Top Hat has the same Astaire and Rogers of Swing Time, three tip-top Berlin songs, and even the same droll Ms. Broderick (with Edward Everett Horton in lieu of Moore). The story is not quite as strong, nor are the visuals as delectable. Even so, it makes a worthy companion. "Cheek to Cheek" might well be my favorite Berlin song; it is far more adventurous than most of his music, as a result of which he gives us three delectable melodic strains. "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" — "I'm puttin' on my top hat," it goes — might well be the best song of it's kind. Berlin also turns on the charm with "Isn't It a Lovely Day (to Get Caught in the Rain)." If the rest of the score falls off, everyday Berlin is still more than satisfactory.
Shall We Dance is the lesser of the top three, but how can you go wrong with George and Ira's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed" and "They Can't Take that Away from Me"? The five-disc Astaire & Rogers Collection is crammed with intriguing extras — shorts, cartoons, trailers, and documentaries. Top Hat features commentary from Fred's daughter Ava Astaire; Shall We Dance is accompanied by comments from the great Hugh Martin (who is still very much alive and kicking, at 91) and pianist Kevin Cole (whose playing style — according to Harold Arlen, Kay Swift and Irving Berlin — sounds uncannily like George).
AND MOVING FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUSLY SUBLIME
Ethel Merman goes toe to hoof with Miss Piggy in "Anything You Can Do." This is the sort of thing you'll find on the 4-DVD The Muppet Show, Season One [Buena Vista Home Entertainment]. The Muppet Show, circa 1976, was somewhat subversive in its time; the humor is sometimes silly but often quite sharp. Puppets, yes; television, yes. But there is a certain show biz sense lurking beneath the surface, as can be seen by the inclusion of the likes of Ethel Merman as a typical guest star. (Ethel to Kermit: "You went to the opening night of Gypsy?" Kermit: "Yes." Ethel: "Come to think of it, I did hear some croaking in the audience.") Even the puppet choreographer seems to have rolled his or her eyes at one musical too many.
The DVD set includes 24 episodes, plus Jim Henson's original pitch reel (which is very amusing) and pilot (which, alas, makes you wonder why the network bothered to pick up the show). Broadway types are well represented on more than a quarter of the half-hours, with guest stars like Sandy Duncan, Joel Grey, Florence Henderson, Lena Horne, Kaye Ballard and Ben Vereen. Whether this all is to your taste is up to you; but where else are you going to see Merman — looking somewhere between forty and death — reprising her greatest hits? Kermit: "You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet." Ethel: "You're Mickey Mouse!" Kermit: "Is that a compliment?"
— Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.