Monday, June 13, 2016

The Tappin’ Life: What the Eye Hears, Shuffle Along, Tappin’ Thru Life

Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

Brian Siebert’s hefty (612-page), comprehensive book on tap dance, published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, carries the poetic title What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. The author lays out his premise in the introduction:
Most dance arises from an interaction between music and movement. But because tap can be both dancing to music and dancing as music, it’s especially concerned with the combination. As the tap dancer Paul Draper once explained, “What the eye sees is sharpened by what the ear hears, and the ear hears more clearly that which sight enhances.” A dancer jumps up at tilt with bent knees, shaping his legs into a bell; when, still in the air, he brings his heels together, that bell rings. 
And he slams that premise home in every conceivable way, some of them incidental and quirky, like his evaluation of tap on vinyl (a paragraph on Fred Astaire’s tapping on mid-1920s recordings of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Crazy Feet” offers an evocative example) and his parenthetical claim that “the right hand of the bop pianist Bud Powell produced, to my ear, some of the [1940’s] era’s greatest tapping.” The Illustrated London News, reviewing a performance by the great mid-nineteenth-century black dancer Juba, or Master Juba, proclaimed him “a musician as well as a dancer,” and that’s how Siebert talks about the hundreds of dancers he memorializes in this marvelous book – as men and women who make sublime music with their feet.

But their music is what the eye hears, so the work of the artists he reveres give rise to some of the most elegant and imaginative descriptive prose I’ve read in any work of criticism. Here he is on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson executing one of his trademark stair dances:
He starts on the ground with a time step, marking accents with sharp nudges to the face of the bottom stair. Adjusting the angle of his bowler, he hops up a couple levels and back. Then he repeats the rhythm by swinging his right leg up and skipping it down, turning the stairs into a tilted xylophone. 
On Astaire:
Astaire makes it look easy . . . Less acknowledged is how he doesn’t make it look too easy. His percussive bursts are a bit rough, his spins a bit wild. The number [“A Needle in a Haystack” from The Gay Divorce, 1934] builds to a trio of cabrioles – pigeon-wing jumps during which the legs beat together in the air. These typify Astaire’s borrowings from ballet: the time off the ground is but a breath in the rhythm before a barrage of noisy turns. In those turns, he lifts his torso and arms as a ballet dancer would, but he doesn’t set them. Ever so slightly, they flail, conveying naturalness. 
On Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain:
To attend to Kelly’s numbers in bulk is to notice not just the same few steps and rhythms over and over, but the same shadings, the same emphases. One can say of Kelly, as one can’t of Astaire, that he has a step: a series of Maxie Fords, assertively lunging from side to side, that appears, along with the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm, in nearly all his routines. Both show up in Singin’ in the Rain’s “Moses Supposes” duet, a fine example of how much fun Kelly could spark with his restricted lexicon. Because Donald O’Connor is trying so hard to follow Kelly’s example in their revolt against an elocution lesson, he gets close enough to put his model into relief: almost getting the easy-swimming arms, the coquettish twisting of manly shoulders, the self-satisfied uptilt of chin. When the routine starts really moving, O’Connor loses his grip on the upper-body styling. Kelly doesn’t. He lays on the personality, and your eye goes to him. 
And on Jimmy Slyde (this is my favorite paragraph in the entire book):
Slyde: the name advertises the specialty, the spelling signals the manner, as laid-back as a lowercase y. Out of what could be a gimmick, he fashions an entire expressive idiom. His slides go in all directions, now as if pushed, now as if pulled. They come in all sizes, too, all parts of speech, from connective scoots to long, stage-traversing slalom runs. Feet flat on the floor, he pulls up from the hip to get moving, regulating momentum by bending his knee. His reedy frame tilts in opposition, twisting for balance and achieving beauty. Visually thrilling in their elongation and slant, Slyde’s slides are equally musical. He uses them to tease the beat, to suspend it, to fall behind and to catch up. The slides are silences, dancing rests, but those same silences, stretched in a slide, also imply sustained notes, just as Slyde’s physical dynamics, speeding and slowing, imply crescendos and diminuendos. He would stress that slides couldn’t be metered out exactly; there was an aleatory element that kept him and his public alert. He often described the function of slides in aural terms – as a breath, a hush – and their variety could be detected in the sounds they elicited: giggles, gasps, sighs of wonder, wild applause. 
The first roughly hundred pages of the book, a section called “First Steps,” traces the early history of tap dance, including the complex topic of minstrelsy and blackface (which Siebert handles complexly). It’s intriguing and extremely informative, and it sets out the notion of legacy: dancers borrowing ideas from each other but modifying them because “one-upmanship was the ladder to respect.” The theme of passing the baton acquires more emotional resonance much later on in the book, when the death of Bojangles and the popularity of ballet choreography in Broadway musicals imperil the survival of tap, and in another way when Savion Glover, the most celebrated contemporary proponent of tap, forges a career in tribute to his mentor, Gregory Hines, who died suddenly at fifty-seven in 2003.

But it’s when Siebert’s chronicle enters the twentieth century in Part II (“Everybody’s Doing It Now”) that the book really begins to soar. He covers vaudeville, both the white and the black circuits, and the early all-black musicals, such as the pioneering 1921 Shuffle Along and the later Blackbirds series of revues produced by a white man named Lew Leslie. (Columbia compiled all the singles released of the wonderful score from Blackbirds of 1928, recorded by such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall and Ethel Waters and including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” I cherish my vinyl copy; it’s never been transferred to CD.) He explores the contributions of Robinson and the all-purpose Irish-American showman George M. Cohan, who began in a vaudeville act with his parents and his sister Josie and ended up starring in his own Broadway shows – as anyone knows who has seen Jimmy Cagney play Cohan in the dynamic 1942 movie musical Yankee Doodle Dandy. The only movie Cohan himself made,The Phantom President (1932), reveals a slicker, less bumptious personality than Cagney’s fantastic performance suggests. ( The Phantom President has a score by Rodgers and Hart, written at the beginning of a brief sojourn they enjoyed in Hollywood; half a dozen years later they scored his comeback Broadway musical, I’d Rather Be Right.) But Siebert’s report on the way Cohan presented himself on stage certainly makes him sound like Cagney was on the right track: “[I]nstead of clogging in place, Cohan snapped his head back and ran up a wall. Or he started out lazy and let the music send him into a frenzy. His secret was his enthusiasm, energy unbound.” Siebert calls this sort of performer an “endurance dancer.”

Harold and Fayard Nicholas in Sun Valley Serenade (1941). (Credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

Siebert’s expertise is both broad and deep, but he’s most fun and most exciting to read when he deals with the artists who excite him the most, like Robinson – there are three separate sections on him – and Astaire. Also John W. Sublett (Bubbles, famous as half of the duo Buck and Bubbles and then as the original Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) and the eye-popping African-American athletic dancers Harold and Fayard Nicholas, whose collaboration with Gene Kelly in the “Be a Clown” number in The Pirate (1948), was, as Siebert points out, a huge step forward in the integration of movie musicals but, ironically, marked the last time the Nicholas Brothers ever appeared together in a Hollywood motion picture. They began as child performers in the mid-twenties and got into the movies in the early thirties, first in Vitaphone shorts like Pie, Pie Blackbird, and by the late thirties they were appearing regularly on screen as well as on stage in Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms. Shockingly – but not surprisingly – they are uncredited specialty dancers in movies like Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives, where their routines (they were famous for doing splits on staircases) still have the power to take your breath away. In Sun Valley Serenade they perform in the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” number with the stunningly beautiful young Dorothy Dandridge, to whom Harold was married for about a decade. He was the younger of the two brothers and had a more visible solo career, starring, for instance, in the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer stage musical St. Louis Woman.

Fred Astaire nut that I am, I couldn’t help lingering over the pages on him in What the Eye Hears. Siebert discusses the recording he and his sister Adele made of songs from their Broadway and London hit Lady, Be Good!, on one of which, “The ‘Half of It Dearie’ Blues,” Astaire and the composer, George Gershwin, shout out to each other during Astaire’s dance break. “When Astaire goes into his dance,” Siebert writes, “his rhythms are clear and thumpy. There’s a little Shim Sham avant la lettre and sections that sound like a heavy-footed Bojangles, but Astaire is much less tidy than Robinson, much more apparently impromptu in sound . . . When he almost misses an offbeat, he screams like a motorist swerving to avoid a collision, and when he pulls out the quick stuff he chortles.” The genesis of the “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” number in the 1935 Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat, we learn, is “High Hat” in his other Gershwin stage show with Adele, Funny Face, and then “Say, Young Man of Manhattan” in Smiles, where he mows the male chorus line down with his cane. (That particular legacy didn’t end in Top Hat: in the 1982 movie Pennies from Heaven, choreographer Danny Daniels segues from Astaire and Rogers’ “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from another Irving Berlin film musical, Follow the Fleet, to a recreation of their pas de deux featuring the stars of Pennies, Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters; it incorporates a brilliant variation on the cane-as-a-machine-gun trope.) By the time Astaire had perfected this routine in Top Hat, of course, he was a movie star. “Astaire’s dancing wasn’t ideal for film as he found it,” Siebert observes. “It was ideal for film as he made it.”

As soon as tap makes it onto the large (and then the small) screen, the book begins to abound with detailed references to numbers that convey the styles of individual dancers. I’m familiar with most of the mainstream Hollywood musicals he alludes to, but not all of them, and quite a few are packed away far enough in my memory that I found myself filling the margins with check marks indicating which ones I should seek out or revisit. He assures the reader that some of the little-known footage has shown up on YouTube, that great treasure trove of pop culture, so I expect to fill a few evenings glued to my computer digging up samples of dancers unfamiliar to me like Baby Laurence, Jeni LeGon and Peg Leg Bates.

Siebert is a lot kinder than I would be to Ruby Keeler, a lot tougher on Jimmy Cagney, and I think he underrates both the Mickey Spillane parody “Girl Hunt” in the 1953 Astaire musical The Band Wagon and the 1955 Gene Kelly picture It’s Always Fair Weather, which I consider one of the forgotten gems of the golden age of movie musicals. But nothing escapes his eagle eye and his meticulous research. He’s an invaluable analyst and one hell of a writer.

Audra McDonald (centre) and the cast of Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed is director-playwright George C. Wolfe’s reconstruction of the events surrounding the original production of the historic all-black book musical. It has an amazing cast: Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter as F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, a pair of vaudevillians who wrote the book for the show, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry as the composer and lyricist Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, Audra McDonald as the star, Lottie Gee (who becomes romantically involved with the married Blake). And it has a brilliant choreographer, Savion Glover, who, in this Broadway era of outstanding dance, has dreamed up some of the most imaginative and effervescent musical numbers of recent years. Every time the principals – including McDonald, who, it turns out, can tap – and/or the gifted dance ensemble, eight women and five men, go into their dance, the show is dazzling. The vocal performances are inspiriting, too, especially McDonald’s on “Love Will Find a Way,” Porter’s on “Lowdown Blues” and Stokes Mitchell’s leading the company a cappella on “Swing Along.” Adrienne Warren, who plays both Gertrude Saunders, the original ingénue, and Florence Mills, who replaced her, does a nice job with her second-act solo, “Kiss Me,” and there are cheering vocal contributions from Darius de Haas, JC Montgomery, Arbender Robinson and Christian Dante White as the Harmony Kings. It’s a magnificent-looking show, too, courtesy of Santo Loquasto (sets), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting) and especially costume designer Ann Roth. Her eye-popping array of period outfits include a pair of silver-gray raccoon coats for Henry and Dixon, an orange vicuña coat for Stokes Mitchell and a wild rust-colored checked suit with a black and burgundy vest for Porter – all for the “Everybody’s Struttin’ Now” quartet early in act two, after Shuffle Along has become a hit and its four creators have begun earning pots of money.

Recommending Shuffle Along to anyone who cares about dance is a no-brainer. But the show is a perplexingly mixed experience, because Wolfe’s book is a heavy, immovable apparatus that keeps descending on the show and knocking it flat. The show’s producers campaigned to have the musical considered a revival for the purposes of Tony Award nominations, transparently because no one has a chance in the Best Musical category this year against Hamilton. Their efforts failed, and though I guess you can’t blame them for trying, when you actually see the show the idea that anyone would call Shuffle Along a revival is a joke. I don’t think that Wolfe has included three lines of dialogue from the 1921 musical, which was about a southern mayoral election. That’s OK; the story of how the show came into being and what happened to the people who put it together afterwards is certainly worth telling. But Wolfe is a didact, not a dramatic writer. His subject is race, and every time it comes up the musical stops dead for one more lecture: on corking up (Miller and Lyles, who appear in the show as well as writing it, are black men who perform in blackface), on discrimination (even after the show becomes a hit, Sissle still can’t walk in the front door of Harlem’s Cotton Club), on politics (Lyles joins Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement). The book makes you feel you’re being condescended to. The scenes are announced with supertitles above the stage, and Wolfe may feel he’s produced an important Brechtian work on a little known and undeniably fascinating corner of African-American cultural history. But Brecht was a showman, and Wolfe is the one member of the Shuffle Along creative team who doesn’t seem interested in showmanship.

One of the pleasures of Shuffle Along is the opportunity it affords for a twenty-first audience to hear the Sissle-Blake songs. “I’m Just Wild About Harry” was the major takeaway tune from the 1921 musical, and it’s still pretty famous; at the end of act one Blake introduces it as a waltz, but Lottie gets the male dancers to tap it out and together they syncopate it (this is fun), and then we get the fully produced number, with Glover’s knockout choreography. It’s one of the high points of the show. We hear many others from Sissle and Blake’s repertoire, not all of them written for Shuffle Along. “Memories of You,” for example, which has lyrics by Andy Razaf rather than Sissle, comes from Blackbirds of 1930. A plaintive ballad, it’s probably Eubie Blake’s most covered song, with “You’re Lucky to Me” (also written with Razaf and also performed here) just behind it. In Shuffle Along “Memories of You” functions as the eleven-o’clock number, sung by Lottie when she goes to Europe to perform after finally breaking up with the still-married Eubie. There are plenty of others I didn’t know, like “Emmaline” and “Uptown Noir” and “Ain’t It a Shame to Give Up on Sunday?” I can’t wait to get the cast album.

Maurice Hines in Tappin' Thru Life at Manhattan's New World Stages. (Photo: Damon Winter)

In January I saw Maurice Hines’ tap revue Tappin’ Thru Life at New World Stages. Hines and his brother Gregory were a duo from the time they were children; they learned their first tap steps from their grandmother, a Cotton Club dancer who dated Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington before she found Jesus and retired from show business. The revue, which Hines conceived and Jeff Calhoun directed, is completely charming. It consists mostly of Hines, who performs with a kick-ass nine-member all-female band, Sherrie Maricle and The Diva Jazz Orchestra. (Maricle plays drums.) But he has some special guests, to use the old-school terminology you feel impelled to draw on when you talk about a show like Tappin’ Thru Life. Two extraordinary young tappers, John and Leo Manzari, one with afro curls almost down to his shoulders and an impish grin, the other with a military haircut, execute a couple of numbers, and another pair of siblings, Devin and Julia Ruth, who are fourteen and seventeen, appeared in the performance I attended. (They alternate with Dario Natarelli and Luke Spring.)

At seventy-two, Hines has a light, warm singing voice and his tapping chops haven’t faded. His style is ingratiatingly old-fashioned: when he sings, he includes a lot of jazzy improv, and at the end he shakes the hands of the audience members in the front row. He’s an understated yet compelling raconteur; the show is built around his memories of his career and it features anecdotes about Joe Williams, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Judy Garland and others, shaped almost invariably as grateful tributes to these people who boosted his career and his brother’s. Hines is a showman of the first order, so gentle and authentic a presence that he can pull off startling emotional effects that would be manipulation coming from almost anyone else. At one point he introduces Charlie Chaplin’s tears-of-a-clown classic “Smile” after the shocking punchline of a story about his and Gregory’s first encounter with segregation. He sings the Walter Donaldson-Gus Kahn antique “My Buddy” as a tribute to Gregory after admitting that they had a falling out and didn’t speak to each other for sixteen years. Gregory is the ghostly presence that hovers over Tappin’ Thru Life – not quite unseen (there are clips of the brothers together, including one of them in Coppola’s 1984 movie The Cotton Club), not quite unheard. In the show’s most remarkable moment, Hines performs a soft-shoe duet with his dead brother, who is represented by a shadow set of taps and a spotlight. This sentimentally triumphant moment is one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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