Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon.
Everett Collection

Even though musicals are almost always more than the sum of their parts, Vincente Minnelli’s Crayola-box wonder The Band Wagon enfolds more than its share of elegant truths. Fred Astaire plays aging song-and-dance man Tony Hunter, pulling into New York City by train and realizing there’s no one there to greet him. Is he officially a has-been? Tony is hardly old—Astaire himself was only 54 at the time—but still old enough to foresee a future of creaky limbs and even creakier career prospects. So what does he do? He turns his anxiety into a musical number, “By Myself,” a modestly scaled anthem of self-determination. “I’ll face the unknown, I’ll build a world of my own,” he sings in that downy-soft, conversationally expressive voice—one that also happens to be one of the best voices ever heard in the world—as he tip-taps his way through Grand Central Station, creating a space for opportunity even though his horizons look grim. Luckily, he’s got friends and accomplices, played by a marvelous cast including Scottish-born entertainer Jack Buchanan, ice-cool ballerina Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, and deadpan genius Oscar Levant. (The latter two play a show-biz couple who mirror the real-life platonic writing team behind the movie, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the same duo who wrote that other great 1950s musical, Singin’ in the Rain.) The Band Wagon is an exuberant exploration of loneliness, middle-aged reinvention, and the life-saving properties of singing and dancing. Its restorative powers are boundless.

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