By Peter Filichia
It opened on April 11, 1936, and MasterworksBroadway is celebrating its 75th anniversary in style. It’s made the first-ever recording of On Your Toes again available.
On Your Toes is the story of the son of vaudevillians who goes into teaching instead of performing. But he inadvertently gets involved with gangsters who plan to kill him. How he avoids his fate is one of the more clever devices found in a ‘30s musical.
The Rodgers and Hart hit was one of the albums that Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson and noted maestro Lehman Engel chose to record in the early ‘50s. Given that original cast albums of Broadway productions hadn’t come into existence until 1943, plenty of earlier scores hadn’t been heard since the shows closed. Lieberson and Engel wanted to right that wrong, so they assembled vocalists and orchestras to make albums of nine heretofore unrecorded scores (including a Bitter Sweet that they ultimately decided not to release).
While it’s one of the esteemed team’s strongest scores, it’s also one of their shortest, with only nine genuine songs. Hart’s writing was especially economical. He delivered only twenty-five lines for the title song: seven in its verse and eighteen in its refrain. For “Glad to Be Unhappy,” he offered one fewer: the verse and refrain each had twelve. Hart’s lyrics for “Quiet Night” – Rodgers’ most Kurt Weillian melody – were the skimpiest of all: six lines of verse and eleven of refrain.
And if we’re quick to accuse Hart of succumbing to a cliché in one song (“Too Good for the Average Man”), we must applaud his putting a new spin on another: “The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye.” The latter song is an unromanticized look at love at first sight. In an example of Hart’s deft wordplay, he had a character refer to her father, a man who liked to put his lips together and tweet out a song. While “Whistler’s mother is a classic,” the character sang, “mother’s whistler was not.”
“Too Good” debonairly points out that being wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean that one is mentally healthy; he’s subject to depression, psychiatry and “waking in the alcoholic ward” – all situations not unknown to the restless Hart.
Rodgers did more work than Hart, because he had to write music for two ballets. “Le Princesse Zenobia” received acclaim, but “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” turned out to be the genuine classic. And while Lieberson and Engel would have loved to have included both on the recording, so-called “long-playing records” didn’t have enough space for both; they were lucky to get these fifty-one minutes and seventeen seconds on a vinyl disc. So while Lieberson and Engel had to dethrone “Princesse,” they were at least able to include eleven minutes of the fifteen-minute “Slaughter.” (Add in the Overture and Entr’acte, and almost seventeen minutes of the disc is sheer music.)
Needless to say, if Rodgers and Hart didn’t provide as much quantity as usual, they certainly came through on quality. In addition to these aforementioned goodies, they wrote one of their most enduring hits in “There’s a Small Hotel” — a song that many of us have sung during a game of Monopoly when we’ve upgraded our four green houses into one red edifice.
For the song much better known as “The Three B’s” — about, of course, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — Lieberson and Engel opted to call it by another title. Hart had also called it “Questions and Answers” for he feared that “The Three B’s” might give too much away. (This type of obfuscation still exists; witness “Dance: 10, Looks: 3” vs. “Tits and Ass.”)
We have to wonder if “The Three B’s” influenced writers of two musicals that debuted five years later. In 1941, Hugh Martin and/or Ralph Blane also wrote a song called “The Three B’s” for Best Foot Forward. That same year for Lady in the Dark, Ira Gershwin started rhyming the names of composers in “Tschaikowsky,” as Hart had already done in this song.
While the original tunestack was spread over seven performers, this recording uses six. Not a great reduction, to be sure, but Engel gave the songs to the people whom he believed would sound most pleasing, and not necessarily to the characters who sang them on stage. Portia Nelson offered a superb soprano, and Jack Cassidy a mellifluous sound – suggesting that he had either toned down his famous bad-guy persona or hadn’t yet discovered it. Rounding out the cast were Zamah Cunningham (who played Maude P. Dilly during the original run of On the Town), Laurel Shelby (an original cast member of Hazel Flagg), Ray Hyson (a camper in Wish You Were Here) and Robert Eckles (who appeared in 21 different Broadway productions of Gilbert and Sullivan works).
Many cast albums are not ideal for late-night listening. At two in the morn, few musical enthusiasts reach for the assaulting razz-ma-tazz sounds of Lorelei. (Don’t try this at home.) But the Lieberson-Engel studio cast recordings were more amenable to those who keep Sky Masterson hours. They walked the fine line between the sound of an original cast album and a pop recording.
So the orchestrations suggest easy listening. Note the sweet clarinet in the middle of “It’s Got to Be Love” and the enchanting piano at the end. Listen closely for a harpsichord sprinkled throughout the songs. And during the finale – in which the title song, “The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye” and “It’s Got to Be Love” are reprised – there’s a most jaunty trumpet in evidence.
So tracks # 2, 4, 6 and 11 will be as welcome after a long day as a nice snifter of cognac. Of course, first thing in the morning when one needs to get peppy in a hurry, that’s the time for cuts 1, 8 and 12 — for the overture, entr’acte and “Slaughter on 10th Avenue.” They’ll revive you quicker than the most caffeinated drinks.
While most of the lyrics are in place, Lieberson and Engel occasionally went the easy-listening route here, too. You won’t hear that Hart rhymed “Make-believe land” with “Adam and Eve-land” and even “Grant and Grover Cleveland” in “There’s a Small Hotel.” But the rest of the song is there.
This recording of On Your Toes wound up spurring a 1954 Broadway revival. It was branded old-fashioned and closed quickly. (Maybe it was too good for the average man.) But some old things do indeed become new again, and a 1983 revival of On Your Toes became the longest-running show that legendary director George Abbott had had in more than 20 years. Time to put On Your Toes on your list.
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.