SAY HI TO HIGH BUTTON SHOES By Peter Filichia
With HIGH BUTTON SHOES about to have a revival at Encores! (May 8-12), Masterworks Broadway is now making the 1947 original cast album digitally available.
In 1946, popular novelist Stephen Longstreet had penned THE SISTERS LIKED THEM HANDSOME, a reminiscence of his own family. On the flyleaf he wrote “I can remember when there had been no World Wars … when we all lived in a calm era, 1900 to 1914 … when my Aunt Fran wore ostrich feathers in the old Waldorf and gave the sports a thrill as she showed four inches of a very beautiful leg in high button shoes.”
There’s your title!
Alas, there was no such thing as a long-playing record in 1947, so original cast recordings were limited to 78 rpm records. Four were made of Jule Styne’s music and Sammy Cahn’s lyrics, so we can at least savor eight of the score’s twelve songs.
HIGH BUTTON SHOES takes place in that era when multigenerational families all peacefully cohabitated. Sara’s father lives with her and her husband Henry, their son Stevie and the aforementioned Aunt Fran – Sara’s sister and Gramps’ daughter.
Usually in cases such as these, the aunt is well on her way to spinsterhood. As our novelist (who also served as the musical’s bookwriter) stated above, Fran Longstreet was no shrinking violet. She’s wildly pursued by Hubert “Oggle” Ogglethorpe, a star college football player of whom Sara disapproves. “I told you this house was too close to Rutgers,” she grouses.
Yes, with 1776 dropping its scene where Adams, Franklin and Chase went to New Brunswick, New Jersey, HIGH BUTTON SHOES remains the only musical to take place in that town (where the esteemed university has its main campus). In 1914, it was a place where, Cahn alleged, “people were glad to be known as hicks.” And yet they do see it as a metropolis and occasionally like to “Get Away for a Day in the Country” as a Styne-Cahn waltz establishes.
“Can’t You Just See Yourself in Love with Me?” Oggle sings to Fran, who indeed can. But Sara would prefer that her sister become romantically linked with traveling salesman Harrison Floy.
Sara doesn’t realize that Harrison is an utter con man. He says that Ford Motors gives one away to the most prestigious family in every town, that the Longstreets are the lucky recipients in New Brunswick and that “There’s Nothing Like a Model ‘T’.”
We’ll soon see that there’s no such thing as a free Ford.
Listen closely to the song, and you’ll hear a specific reference to a more famous ditty that deals with transportation. Similarly speaking, when you hear “I Still Get Jealous,” the show’s biggest hit song that Henry sings to Sara, see if you can catch a whiff of a famous Irish air that Styne inserted into it.
Harrison Floy was played by Phil Silvers, an entertainer who almost always played a con man. For some inexplicable reason, we wanted to see him get away with his schemes, lovable rascal that he was.
Sara, though, is too innocent to see that Harrison is a huckster. She’s delighted when he takes Fran in his arms and starts to polka. That’s when she sang the show’s second-biggest hit song: “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?”
You might assume that this song has a daughter imploring her father to join her on the dance floor, but that isn’t the case at all. In those days, married couples who became parents often saw the husband call his wife “Mama” and the wife dub her spouse “Papa.”
Some of Longstreet’s lines are still timely. Oggle makes no bones that college football players enjoy privileges and are paid under the table. Gramps complains about the nation’s current president. Sara insists that “telephones were invented for people who are always unavoidably detained” – a statement now often made about cells. And that “free” Ford means $100 shipping charges – not unlike those fees you’re asked to give from entries in your spam folder saying that millions can be had from a Nigerian prince.
Fran takes her sister’s advice and discards Oggle in favor of Harrison. He gets the unknowing family into a real estate scam. (As Gramps wisely says, “Marriage is more than four legs in a bed.”) Now she realizes what a mistake she’s made. Oggle is big enough to forgive her and sings that “You’re My Girl.”
Harrison escapes to Atlantic City “On a Sunday by the Sea” where choreographer Jerome Robbins created his famous ballet. If you want an even better feeling for this song, check out JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY, the 1988-89 Tony-winning retrospective. It takes it from 2:38 on the HIGH BUTTONS SHOES album to a much more generous 9:43.
On that album, too, you’ll hear future Tony-winners Jason Alexander and Faith Prince do “I Still Get Jealous” in a selection that’s more than a minute longer than it is on HIGH BUTTON SHOES.
“The Bathing Beauty Ballet” within “On a Sunday by the Sea” has often been called “The Keystone Kops Ballet,” because those Mack Sennett creations pop in and out of it. Those policemen were never known for their intelligence, and one of them mistakes Sara for a hardened female criminal, arrests her and takes her to jail.
In order to get the necessary monies that will exonerate her, Harrison tries to bribe the college football players into losing the Big Game with Princeton. “Nobody Ever Died for Dear Old Rutgers,” he insists in song. Although he can’t get the players to throw the game, somehow the musical all ends happily.
When HIGH BUTTON SHOES closed after 727 performances, it was the sixth-longest-running book musical in Broadway history. That was a nice vindication for Styne and Cahn, whose first musical in 1944 was one of the most jinxed in Broadway history.
It’s a tale worth telling. They and bookwriter Fred Thompson were specifically writing a vehicle for Phil Silvers. Want proof? Because one of Silvers’ many catchphrases in his act was “Glad to see you!” the show was actually named GLAD TO SEE YOU.
Then Silvers couldn’t get out of his contact with 20th Century Fox to film DIAMOND HORSESHOE. So they went with Eddie Davis.
Leon and Eddie’s was a popular nightspot on “Swing Street” – Fifty-Second between Sixth and Seventh Avenues when it was an entertainment haven. As the club’s co-owner, Davis had a platform to perform. GLAD TO SEE YOU producer David Wolper was a fan of him and his ribald song “Myrtle Isn’t Fertile Anymore.” He decided to take a chance on him.
Also signed was Lupe Velez, who was famous thanks to the “Mexican Spitfire” series of films. Just before rehearsals were to begin, Velez learned that she was pregnant. That the child would be illegitimate so depressed Velez that she decided to quit the show.
Five days after opening in Philadelphia, Davis got into an automobile accident and could no longer perform. Until Eddie Foy, Jr. could get ready to take over, Cahn actually played the lead.
Less than a month later, the thirty-six-year-old Velez committed suicide. And less than a month after that, GLAD TO SEE YOU also died. Boston was its last stop for it never saw Broadway.
Thus Styne and Cahn must have really appreciated that their next show was a hit and that it starred the leading man they’d missed in their first show.
What’s often been alleged is that the reviews for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO, which debuted the day after HIGH BUTTON SHOES had opened, suffered with the critics because they’d had such a good time the night before.
ALLEGRO was part of Encores! first season and now HIGH BUTTON SHOES will be the final offering of Encores! current season. If you can’t get there to hear the show’s dozen songs, at least don’t miss the eight by the original cast.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday atwww.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.