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Review: Musical Triplets: The Band Wagon Times Three

11 minute read

“This show is silly,” says the snooty choreographer to his colleagues as they prepare a new musical. “It won’t mean anything to anybody in 50 years.” That line gets a knowing giggle from the audience at City Center Encores! The show, The Band Wagon, was a popular and critical success when it opened as a Broadway revue in 1931, with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele in the cast, and achieved legendary status when reworked into the 1953 MGM movie, again starring Fred. Now, more than 80 or 60 years later, it’s back in New York for an 11-day run (ending Sunday), with the implicit hope of transferring to Broadway.

The new team has a superb pedigree. Broadway’s leading baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell, in the Astaire role, is supported by Aussie star Tony Sheldon (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Laura Osnes from Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella and ace stage and TV comics Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean. Kathleen Marshall, the director-choreographer, has brought polish and pizzazz to many a venerable musical, from Anything Goes and The Pajama Game to Wonderful Town, the 1953 show by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein that she spiffily revived in 2003 here at City Center.

Encores! itself is a New York musical treasure, having staged concert version of classic shows for 21 seasons. One of these, Chicago, made it to Broadway in 1996 and celebrated its 18th birthday Nov. 14th.

So how it the new show? A fine night at the theater, with Marshall’s bright staging, some clever lines in the Douglas Carter Beane book, a starry cast eager to please, pearly arrangements for Todd Ellison’s 12-piece orchestra and hummable melodies galore (“Dancing in the Dark,” “By Myself,” “New Sun in the Sky,” “Shine on My Shoes”) in the score by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. If this revival glides rather than soaring, that’s due not to the performers but to a curious misunderstanding of the source material: that The Band Wagon — intended in both its earlier incarnations as a showcase for the elegant, swellegant Astaire, the most revered dancer of the 20th century — should mostly just stand around and sing. If Arthur Freed, the producer of The Band Wagon at MGM, had seen this version, he would have ordered it and its leading man to get up and dance.

In his reign as MGM’s musical maestro, from The Wizard of Oz in 1939 through Gigi in 1958, Freed occasionally dipped into the trunks of famous songwriters and turned their legacy of hits into either musical bio-pics — Words and Music (Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart and Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers) and Three Little Words (with Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby) — or new scenarios with old songs, such as Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. Freed hit the jackpot in 1952 when he dusted off the tunes he had written with Herb Nacio Brown in the first years of talking pictures. He handed the job to ace scripters Comden and Green, let star Gene Kelly direct it with Stanley Donen and, voilà!, Singin’ in the Rain, widely and wisely considered the best original musical in Hollywood history.

Like Freed, Dietz worked at MGM; he was the studio’s chief publicist, creating the Leo the Lion mascot and the “Ars Gratia Artis” motto. On the side he wrote Broadway revues with Schwartz, a lawyer with enough spare time to put music to Dietz’s words in the scores of 10 Broadway shows from 1930 to 1937. These guys wrote fast: hired to provide the songs for a radio musical-comedy series called The Gibson Family, they composed 94 numbers in 39 weeks. In his memoir, Dancing in the Dark, Dietz recalls, “We weren’t touchy about criticism. I would say, ‘The tune stinks.’ He would say, ‘The lyric is lousy.’ We aimed to please each other. We figured that if we succeeded, there were a lot of people like us.”

Given the Dietz-and-Schwartz catalogue to shape into a Band Wagon movie, Comden and Green applied the same technique they’d used for Singin’ in the Rain: a backstage musical, but set in the theater instead of in 1920s Hollywood. Aging movie star Tony Hunter (Astaire) has returned to New York to get his mojo back by starring in a Broadway show. His old writing pals Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray) provide him with a cute script and good songs. But renowned director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) sees the production as a modern Faust, solemn as a Teutonic funeral pyre, and hires ballet master Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) as choreographer, with Paul’s girlfriend Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the leading lady.

When high art clashes with showbiz in a musical comedy, guess which wins? Tony and Gaby fall in love, Jeff gets into the populist spirit, and at the end everyone sings “That’s Entertainment,” a perennial hit that that Dietz and Schwartz wrote specially for the movie — in 30 mins. Like we said, fast.

As directed, ever so sumptuously, by Vincente Minnelli, The Band Wagon doesn’t reach the Singin’ in the Rain stratosphere. In part, that’s because the movie was satirizing something that didn’t exist: the takeover of musical comedy by pretentious directors and choreographers.

On a helpful, if madly gushing, Band Wagon commentary track with Minnelli’s daughter Liza, show-tune historian Michael Feinstein says that Comden and Green based the Cordova character on José Ferrer, who in the late ’40s stoked the envy and animosity of old-fashioned Broadway types when he filled the actor-director-producer boy-genius role taken by Orson Welles a decade before. But Ferrer didn’t directed a Broadway musical (1958’s Oh Captain!) until four years after The Band Wagon was released. There’s no reason to make fun of a serious director except from the need to build some bogus conflict: Jeff is the guy who gets in Tony’s way, then gets out of it.

As for the tradition of dance directors infusing ballet into musical comedy, that had been a staple since the mid-1930s, when George Balanchine worked with Rodgers and Hart on four ’30s musicals, including Babes in Arms and On Your Toes. Another, younger genius, Jerome Robbins, choreographed such musical comedies as Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, Berlin’s Call Me Madam and the Comden-Green-Bernstein On the Town, proving an expert pleasure giver whether his dancers were sporting tap shoes or pointe shoes.

The most sensational early merger of ballet and Broadway was a piece that choreographer Albertina Rasch devised for her fellow Austrian, Tilly Losch, who wore long phosphorescent gloves in front of a large mirror on a pitch-black stage so that the audience saw only Losch’s arms in graceful motion. The song: “Dancing in the Dark.” The show: The Band Wagon.

O.K., so the 1953 story reeks a bit of anti-intellectualism. But the script percolates with attractive opposites: the all-American Tony vs. veddy British Jeff, the sour Lester vs. the perky Lily and, at its romantic center, the veteran hoofer Tony vs. the young ballerina Gaby. (When they made the movie Astaire was 53, Charisse 31.) Once the plot entanglements are unraveled, The Band Wagon becomes what the 1931 show was: a revue, a cascade of top songs brilliantly staged and performed.

The “Triplets” number presents three homicidal siblings (Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan in baby clothes) wishing they “had a gun / A wittle gun / It would be fun to kill the other two and be only one.” And “That’s Entertainment” has become a showbiz anthem, including the immortal couplet that reprises the plot of Hamlet in a dozen succinct words: “Where the ghost and the prince meet / And everyone ends in mincemeat.”

With Astaire as its star, this song-and-dance movie has lots of both. Michael Kidd, who came to MGM after choreographing the Broadway hits Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls, fashioned two Astaire solos — the moody “By Myself” at a train station and the exuberant “Shine on My Shoes” in a penny arcade — and the 12-min. “Girl Hunt Ballet,” a parody of Mickey Spillane’s tough-guy crime novels that’s aswirl in pulp poetry, with Astaire as a gum-chewing gumshoe and Charisse as the fatal dame with fabulous gams. Most gorgeous is “Dancing in the Dark,” in which Tony and Gaby, heretofore adversaries, take a walk through Central Park that slowly morphs into a pas de deux: courtship made palpable, poignant and rapturous.

In the new Encores! version, Tony (Mitchell) is still the fading movie star attempting a comeback on Broadway — like the Michael Keaton character in Birdman — but instead of a superhero legacy Tony’s fame came from musicals. (Pop quiz: Name a top star of the Hollywood musicals they don’t make any more.) Again, Lily and Lester (Ullman and McKean) have an idea for a fun show that Jeff (Sheldon) wants to turn into a modern Faust; and the choreographer (Michael Berresse) insists that his ballerina girlfriend (Osnes) take the female lead. For second-act wrinkles, Beane has added a one-way romance of Lily for Tony; it doesn’t resonate, but it allows Ullman to sing the lovely ballad “Sweet Music.”

This version restores some of the saucier Dietz lyrics that the 1953 film bowdlerized. In “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” Tony sings the original “Why did I buy those blue pajamas / Before the big affair began?” And the drinking song “I Love Louisa” restores the couplet, “Ach, when I choose ’em / I love a great big boosom!” Beane has also written a elaborate number in which Lily pitches the script and the major songs to Tony and Jeff — a marvelous turn for Ullman, who could run away with this show standing still, but has the chops and body English to sell every line and emotion. If The Band Wagon does get to Broadway, she’s a cinch for a shower of awards. Sheldon, a late replacement for Roger Rees, is another bringer of brio. He makes Jeff’s bullheadedness seem almost innocent: an overflow of his zeal to put on a show.

Though this Band Wagon runs about a half-hour longer than the movie, it excises some important elements: the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the “Dancing in the Dark” pas de deux — indeed, any notion that dance is at the core of the story. Mitchell is a wonderful actor-singer, as he showed on Broadway in The Man of La Mancha and in the 2002 Encores! revival of Carnival opposite a 19-year-old Vassar student named Anne Hathaway. Osnes, who played Margaret in the Randy Newman Faust at City Center this summer, is a winning, charming soprano. What these two aren’t, and were never expected to be, are sublime dancers. So Gaby’s admiring declaration to Tony that “You got me dancing, the thing I love most in my life” is meaningless. Tony might as well be the cowboy star who made Gaby want to ride a horse.

Beane would have to admit that his Band Wagon (which played in a 2008 San Diego version as Dancing in the Dark) is an anachronism even for Broadway. The only performers who parlayed their dance skills to live-theater stardom in the past few decades are Savion Glover —who made a sensational debut at 10 in The Tap Dance Kid but has been absent from Broadway since the 1996 Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk — and Tommy Tune.

The Jeff Cordova of his day, Tune starred in and directed the 1983 hit My One and Only and, in 1991, The Will Rogers Follies. At 75 he’s still lithe and active: he has workshopped a revival of Astaire’s Top Hat and a Studio 54 musical, Fifty*Four*Forever; and this Thursday he’s doing his one-man show as a Minneapolis fundraiser.

Tune is Fred Astaire as a 6-ft.-6-in. Texan, with the same ability to light up a stage through a down-home personality and electric footwork. If Beane and Marshall want to give one more rethink to a silly show with many pleasures and a few unrealized promises, they know which Tune to call.

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