By Peter Filichia —
May 10 marks the 112th birthday of the show business celebrity who’s been named in probably more theater songs than anyone else.
All right, I haven’t done a concerted study on this subject, but I’d be surprised if Fred Astaire isn’t in first place in this mythical contest.
Was Cole Porter the first, when he wrote “You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire?” in “You’re the Top” in Anything Goes? That 1934 lyric is the one that immediately comes to my mind.
In second place, I’d guess, is Lorenz Hart’s admonition to “Look up to some rare male like that Astaire male” in On Your Toes in 1936. But I surmise that Hart pulled ahead of Porter in 1940 when he wrote “Fred Astaire once worked so hard he often lost his breath. And now he taps all other chaps to death” in “Do It the Hard Way” in Pal Joey.
In 1956’s Bells Are Ringing, one of the questions that Ella Peterson asks about her as-yet-unseen love Jeffrey Moss is “Can he dance like Fred Astaire?” in “It’s a Perfect Relationship” (which is, by the way, a perfect opening number for a musical theater heroine). Only those who saw Sydney Chaplin do some delicious soft-shoe with Judy Holliday in “Just in Time” can say for sure. But on the original cast album they sound as if they’re having a wonderful time.
When Tulsa is auditioning his act “All I Need Is the Girl” for Louise in Gypsy, he cries out in the middle of it, “Astaire bit!” suggesting that the man is the be-all and end-all for dancers. (By the way, I’ve often heard even the most ardent of musical theater admirers not catch that this is what Tulsa is saying in this song. Many have inferred that he’s saying “A stair bit,” and I can see why they came to this conclusion; after all, plenty of song-and-dance men in the vaudeville days used to deftly dance up and down stairs as part of their acts. But trust me, for I’m not just relying on my ears. I’ve checked the script of Gypsy that was published in the June, 1962 edition of the fondly remembered Theatre Arts magazine: It’s “Astaire bit!”)
One of the cleverest, most entertaining – and, sad to say, least known tour-de-force numbers in musical theater history is “The Late, Late Show” in Do Re Mi. There, Hubie Cram (Phil Silvers) needs to impress his partners that he’s not afraid to take on the imposing John Henry Wheeler — although he very much is. So Hubie goes over to Wheeler’s night club table and ostensibly starts talking to him about old movies shown on late-night TV; thus, when he quotes the movie gangsters of yore by saying such lines as “All right, punk: I’m trying to talk to you nice but you won’t listen,” his confederates assume that Hubie is saying them as part of his threat and once again regain confidence in him. In the process of citing old movies, Hubie takes time to mention John Barrymore, Al Jolson, Nelson Eddy, Charles Boyer, Hedy Lamarr, Eddie Cantor, Ruby Keeler, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Helen Kane, Jackie Cooper, C. Aubrey Smith, Jimmy Durante, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Mae West, Maurice Chevalier, Ginger Rogers and – oh, yes, I almost forgot – Fred Astaire.
Although Astaire did represent complete excellence on the dance floor, one musical theater hero (if we can call him that) brashly claimed, “I could dance rings around Fred Astaire.” He was, of course, Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run? He sings it while expressing his joy at having secured “A New Pair of Shoes.” Frankly, one would think that with a new pair of shoes, he’d be walking gingerly and wouldn’t be dancing for a few weeks until he broke in the shoes, but Sammy always did assume that he could do anything. (Much of the time, he could — albeit rarely honorably.)
We almost got an entire song called “Fred Astaire” in Mame. A January 1966 song-listing – four months before the show opened on Broadway – shows that Older Patrick Dennis would have sung it with his college buddies before they all went out for a night on the town. I’ve never heard it, but I would think that Jerry Herman would be the right guy to write a toe-tapping melody about Fred Astaire. Ah, well; what we did get of Mame was window-opening wonderful, anyway.
Even in the late ‘70s, almost a decade after Astaire had made his final musical movie appearance in Finian’s Rainbow, at least one lyricist was citing him. Granted, Annie takes place in the ‘30s, right around the time that Astaire was coming into his own, so that’s why Martin Charnin wrote “Like Fred and Adele, they’re floating on air now” when Annie and new papa Daddy Warbucks started dancing in “I Don’t Need Anything but You.”
Adele, of course, referred to Adele Astaire, Fred’s sister, who was older by 20 months. From Over the Top in 1918 to The Band Wagon in 1931, they were Broadway’s premier brother-and-sister act. But then Adele decided to marry the son of a British noble, retired and broke up the act. Fred then danced alone in The Gay Divorce, and then did the Hollywood version that was ever-so-slightly retitled The Gay Divorcee. (The movie people thought that that didn’t sound as scandalous.)
After that, Fred Astaire never returned to Broadway any more than Adele did. The closest he came was doing the film versions of such Broadway musicals as Roberta, The Belle of New York, The Band Wagon, Funny Face (another of his stage hits), Silk Stockings and Finian’s Rainbow.
If Broadway lyricists were insulted, they sure didn’t show it. Although Astaire died in 1987, he was much remembered by another Fred (Ebb), who honored him in “Dance with Me” in Steel Pier when he wrote “Fred and Adele never glided as well.”
There are dozens of other Astaire rhymes. Granted, one reason that Astaire has been mentioned by so many Broadway lyricists is not solely because he was for years a synonym for elegance and fine dancing. The plain truth is that Astaire rhymes with air, bare, bear, Blair, blare, care, chair, Cher, Claire, dare, Eyre, fair, fare, flair, flare, glare, hair, heir, lair, mare, ne’er, pair, pear, prayer, rare, scare, share, spare, square, stair, swear, tear, there, they’re, wear and where. And those are just the single-syllable ones. We haven’t even got to affair, aware, beware – well, I could go on, but you get the point.
So as much as we all loved and admired Fred Astaire, there’s a good chance that he wouldn’t be mentioned in nearly as many songs if he had retained his real name. I mean, what rhymes with Frederick Austerlitz?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.