THE POINT in bringing back "On Your Toes" -- the Rodgers and Hart George Abbot Abbott-George Balancinemusical comedy currently in revival at the Kennedy Center Opera House -- is not that it was such a marvel to begin with, but that, in 1936, it was a genuine landmark -- especially from the dance standpoint.
Almost every commentary on the original show takes note of its innovations, the principal one being the wedding of classical ballet and musical comedy in an integrated format -- a development that anticipated Agnes de Mille's contribution in "Oklahoma" seven years later. But "On Your Toes" was a "first" in other respects:
* It was probably the first Broadway musical to use two outstanding dancers from opposite worlds, ballerina Tamara Geva and tap dancer Ray Bolger.
* It was Bolger's first big success (he was later to work with Balanchine again in "Where's Charley?").
* It was Monty Woolley's first appearance on stage, recruited from a Yale professorship by Lorenz Hart for the role of the Russian ballet impresario.
* It was the first show to display the term "choreography" in its playbill, at Balanchine's request.
* And it was the first show to spoof the Russian ballet, which was, in that era, the ballet as far as the American public at large was concerned.
Consider the comments of Tamara Geva, now 74, the Russian ballerina who made a huge hit in the original 1936 production: "It was a milestone -- for me and for musical comedy. Nothing like it had ever been done before. In earlier musicals, the dancing never had any connection with the story, but in 'On Your Toes' the dancing came right out of the play. And in the 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Ballet,' I was a Russian ballerina as a character, but I came out and did a striptease number just like Gypsy Rose Lee!"
And from Natalia Makarova, the outstanding Russian ballerina who is making her musical comedy debut in the present "On Your Toes" production: "It's something I've never done before in my life. All through the rehearsals I felt like I was coming not just to do plodding work, but to celebrate something. Just learning about this Broadway world is reward enough."
And Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet, who remounted Balanchine's choreography for the new "On Your Toes": "What's great about it is that it's something I've never done before. It's so interesting to see another side to my craft, one that you never get in ballet, and I feel it's important to know them both."
"Never done before" -- that's the refrain, and it's also a major motivation for the present production, aside from the sheer tickle of having two old pros like Abbott, age 95, and Balanchine, age 78, collaborating again on a show that first trod the boards more than four decades ago.
The original production was a tremendous commercial success, running for 315 performances and switching from one Broadway house to another. Bolger was called "a jazz Nijinsky" by one critic, a natural compliment since it was Nijinsky and his role in "Le Scheherazade" that were so deftly satirized in the "Princess Zenobia" ballet that ends the first act of "On Your Toes." And the novelty was instantly recognized by contemporaries. A Theatre Arts Monthly review termed "On Your Toes" "a successor to the old musical form . . . The best talent, the highest vitality, most of the beauty and all of the gayest humor is not in the words but in the design and movement of the dance."
What's more, dance is not only an integral element of the show, it's also the subject of the plot. The story, in essence, is that of a vaudeville hoofer who brings a friend's jazz ballet (the "Slaughter" number) to a Russian ballet troupe which has lost its key male dancer, and then takes the role himself to save the day (and win his true sweetheart, an American coed).
The main dance numbers in the present revival are three: the "Princess Zenobia" takeoff, reconstructed from Balanchine's ideas but largely choreographed anew by Peter Martins; the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" finale, restaged by Martins with advice from Balanchine (he's been in the hospital recovering from fractures) and help from New York City Ballet colleagues; and the title number, "On Your Toes," a singing production number in the original show but a full-fledged dance opus in the Kennedy Center revival. The last was created by choreographer Donald Saddler, who was in charge of staging all the musical numbers and most of the tap sequences, and from a dance perspective it turns out to be the soul of the show. "Slaughter" was the big innovation of the original, and became a legend of a kind -- in reviewing the 1954 Broadway revival with Vera Zorina and Bobby Van, Walter Kerr refers to "the historic 'Slaughter on Tenth Avenue' ballet." But Saddler had the brilliant inspiration of making a "challenge dance" that would pit a ballet ensemble against a chorus of tap hoofers, and in so doing he epitomized the contrast and confluence of styles that gave the show its individual stamp.
To grasp what was new about "On Your Toes" from the standpoint of 1936, it helps to fill in the background a bit. Though there wasn't quite the "ballet boom" of today, Americans had been heavily dosed with ballet from abroad by 1936, and Russian ballet in particular -- the Diaghilev troupe had appeared here, with Nijinsky, in the teens; Anna Pavlova had made innumerable converts with her many tours; and by 1933, the successor company to Diaghilev, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, was becoming a regular annual visitor. "Modern dance" had reared its revolutionary head, too, with such imports as Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss and Harald Kreutzberg, and with native rebels who were making their mark, like Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Helen Tamiris, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman -- all but Graham worked in the legitimate theater at some point in their careers, mostly in musicals.
The musical as an art form was riding high in 1936. "Porgy and Bess" had come out the previous year, as well as Billy Rose's "Jumbo," which brought Rodgers and Hart back to Broadway for the first time in four years. In Hollywood, Astaire and Rogers completed both "Follow the Fleet" and "Swing Time" in peak form, and the year also saw "The Great Ziegfeld," "Born to Dance" and "Show Boat."
Musical comedy wasn't entirely new to Balanchine, either, in 1936. He'd been brought to this country in '33 by Lincoln Kirstein to establish a great American ballet troupe on the European models, but he'd already choreographed for musicals in London. In all, he's choreographed -- and sometimes directed as well -- some 25 musicals, operettas, movies and revues, including "Babes in Arms" and "Cabin in the Sky" with Katherine Dunham. In the '30s, Variety was imposing its approval on him in such lines as "George Balanchine has done an ace job on the terp angle." This is a side of Balanchine we sometimes forget, in the light of his imposing achievements in ballet itself. For him, musical comedy was definitely a sideline, but in retrospect, we can see how his immersion in American popular theater colored his entire later career in "serious" ballet and helped forge his inimitable personal idiom.
What's so interesting about "On Your Toes" from the dance standpoint, even today, is that this immersion is what the show is all about -- the collision of vaudeville and Russian ballet. In the "Princess Zenobia" ballet, Balanchine mocked the traditions from which he himself arose; in "Slaughter," he assimilated the Broadway flavor to his own balletic language. The irony is that the "Slaughter" piece is not "on your toes"; at least, it is not danced in toe shoes, but high heels, by the ballerina. The setting, a sleazy bar, and the action -- the hoofer flirting with the stripper and getting shot at by her jealous boss -- is pure Americana. As one contemporary reviewer of the 1936 "On Your Toes" aptly put it: " 'Slaughter' . . . is as skillfully executed as authentic ballet, and, of course, is much better because it isn't."
The conception of "On Your Toes," including the idea of a backstage ballet ambiance, originated with Rodgers and Hart, who, according to one source, at first hoped to interest RKO in it for Astaire, but were turned down, and thence turned to the Shubert organization, which bought it for Bolger but then bowed out as producer. On Balanchine's own testimony, the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet was dreamed up by Hart, and it garnered the major portion of critical acclaim at the time and in subsequent revivals. Vera Zorina, who, like Tamara Geva, was married to Balanchine for a time, starred in a London production in 1937, and then in the Warner Bros. movie version of 1939 (which rather mutilated the script and cut most of the songs, except as background, but has a teen-aged Donald O'Connor as the hero in childhood) and a 1954 Broadway revival that Abbott directed, with Bobby Van as Junior Dolan, the hoofer, and Elaine Stritch as Peggy Porterfield.
In the Kennedy Center's revival, Makarova follows her predecessors in making the transformation from classical ballet to musical comedy with a sparkling, instinctive flair for the idiom, though her classicism is plainly evident even in the context of her stripper routine. Abbott's adroit hand is everywhere evident in the direction, and former American Ballet Theatre dancer George de la Pen a reaffirms the acting talent he showed in the title role of the film "Nijinsky" in his "On Your Toes" parody of a conceited Russian premier danseur. George S. Irving takes the palm for comedic mastery with his wonderfully bearish portrait of Sergei Alexandrovitch, the Russian ballet master. Lara Teeter is brightly effective, if not quite dazzling, as Junior. Zack Brown's charmingly evocative settings, with their pictures of FDR and the WPA logo and the Art Deco touches, get one right into the period atmosphere, and musical director John Mauceri has the still-engaging score very smartly in hand.
Don't expect to find any strong Balanchine signature in the choreography for the two ballets; even "Slaughter" is slight stuff from a broader balletic perspective. The dancing, like the show as whole, sums up to what critic Eric Bentley called it in 1936--"good light theater" -- no less, no more. What was new about "On Your Toes" in its pristine state has become commonplace in the history of musical theater that followed. From a dance angle, the show is beguiling for what it shows us about Balanchine's artistic pathways in the past, and for Saddler's brisk, new and clever "On Your Toes" sequence. As a theatrical experience, the present revival has some engaging performances and an affectionate production to recommend it to us on terms not inflated beyond its original significance -- it's an enjoyable bit of nostalgic fun.