It’s 1920 and the Dolan family vaudeville act is at a crossroads. Now that the teenaged son is old enough to date the chorines, Ma is worried: “I’ve seen nothing developing in Junior except his lower nature.” She banishes him to school to forget about hoofing and become, as Pa envisions it, “a lousy music teacher.” Indeed, jump-cut to fifteen years later, and Junior is drilling the three Bs into students who’d rather hear jazz. Thus begins (and all but ends) the sensible part of the book of On Your Toes, the 1936 musical that implicitly asks what happens when vaudeville isn’t good enough for vaudevillians anymore. What do you — yes, you, American Musical Theater — do next?
On Your Toes, the final production of this year’s Encores! season, is terribly important as theater history and a terrible mess as theater. The two facts are related. Rodgers and Hart, who wrote the songs (and, with George Abbott, wrote the book), explicitly set out to do something different after almost twenty Broadway outings together. They wanted to tell a story that was more coherent, at least by the extremely low standards of earlier musicals, and do so in a way that used the elements at their disposal — song, dance, script — more concertedly. As a result, it would later be said that On Your Toes was groundbreaking, paving the way for the integrated storytelling of Oklahoma! and its successors.
Maybe so, but On Your Toes itself is about as integrated as Ole Miss was in 1936. The book is just too weak to support the authors’ ambitions. It barely supports a synopsis, but here goes: One of Junior Dolan’s students has written a jazz ballet called “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” about a hoofer in love with a dance hall girl. Junior brings the score to the attention of a Diaghilev-like impresario in hopes his company will perform it. But the star dancers — a cartoon Russian duo named Vera Barovna and Konstantine Morrosine — are feuding; before you know it, Junior is thrust into the role of Barovna’s boytoy and, thanks to his vaudeville background, the evening’s premier danseur. Morrosine, insanely jealous, orders a hit on him, to be carried out at the climax of the ballet. To avoid getting shot, Junior just keeps dancing. Yes, the comedy hinges on an attempted assassination.
If it’s difficult to take any of this humorously, it’s impossible to take it seriously. And yet there is something fascinating about the way Rodgers and Hart, at a time when musical theater was not yet consolidated as a genre, experimented (if that’s not too highfalutin a word for slapping things together) with their disparate and sometimes recalcitrant materials. You can see the wrangling expressed directly in the story (classical dance vs. hoofing) and also in the all-over-the-map storytelling. There are moments that resemble musical comedy, long stretches told only in dance terms, and even, for much of act two, exactly the kind of shoehorn revue (And now we’d like to sing … ) they were so eager to leave behind.
The struggle of its creators to invent a new form does not by itself account for the lasting appeal of On Your Toes. So what does? Paradoxically, it’s not the supposed integration of musical-theater modes but rather their separate qualities that make it worth revisiting. (There was a successful Broadway revival as recently as 1983.) The book may be lousy but some of the songs (including “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Quiet Night,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” and the irresistible title number) are gems, stunningly set in orchestrations by Hans Spialek that are never again likely to be heard as fully and beautifully as at Encores! this week.
And then there’s the dancing. Don’t let anyone tell you it emerges naturally from the story — nothing could. Still, Rodgers and Hart’s aesthetic ambitions — and savvy — were never more evident than in their hiring of the recent émigré George Balanchine to choreograph the entire show, from Broadway-style tap to a satire of Scheherazade. Most of the original dance material is lost, but the eighteen-minute “Slaughter,” set to Rodgers’s most intensely erotic music, exists in a revised version Balanchine made for New York City Ballet in 1968. That’s the basis of the version we get here, produced (as the program carefully reports) by arrangement with the George Balanchine Trust, “in accordance with the Balanchine Style® and Balanchine Technique®” under the direction of repetiteur Susan Pilarre. We may forgive the Trust its trademark-rattling in light of the brilliance of the product it aims to protect; there’s no other dancing like it in the musical theater. (You can see a 50-second clip of the current NYCB production online, or the whole thing when it returns to the repertory in October.) Even imperfectly cast — American Ballet Theatre principal Irina Dvorovenko is spectacular as Vera, but Shonn Wiley as Junior is merely pleasant — it can’t help but blow the rest of the evening’s choreography (by Warren Carlyle) away.
Actually, aside from the music, the production is relatively weak. The gorgeous Dvorovenko is a nice surprise as a comedian, but the rest of the cast, which includes Christine Baranski as a ballet patroness and NYCB principal Joaquin De Luz as Morrosine, represents a sacrifice of verve for versatility. That’s not a surprise in a production that requires so many hyphenated talents. Balanchine had more than 40 ensemble members to deploy in 1936, meaning it hardly mattered if some dancers were wooden actors, or some singers moved like sea cows. But Encores! has only 24. And something else is going on, too. As musical-theater works have become more demanding, partly as a result of the ambitions of innovators like Rodgers and Hart, a certain level of homogenization of talent has occurred: Performers are more often good at everything but less often exceptional at anything. The original Junior was Ray Bolger, an “eccentric” dancer in more ways than one. In the 1948 Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music, Gene Kelly (dumping Balanchine’s choreography for his own) played the role. Who could follow in their footsteps now?
Still, On Your Toes is always worth seeing, for its faults as much as its pleasures. Rodgers and Hart hadn’t yet figured out how to put onstage what their own lives constantly showed them: That “lower nature” and “higher nature” were not different things, any more than high art and low art were. Pal Joey was four years off, and Rodgers’s great works with Hammerstein even further in the future. But On Your Toes has adolescent charm, if that’s not an oxymoron. It’s a sketch of what they wanted their art to be when it grew up.
On Your Toes is at City Center through May 12.