Introduction: Life’s a party, why don’t you come to the Steel Pier?!
21 years ago, Steel Pier: A New Musical premiered on Broadway. To celebrate one of my all time favorite shows, this blog will discuss all you need to know about this very special musical. So dip your toes into the ocean, be willing to ride, and welcome to the Marine Ballroom on the world famous, Steel Pier!
Musical Background: So watch the joy go on and on!
Steel Pier is musical with music by John Kander and Fred Ebb. It has a book by David Thompson with Direction by Scott Ellis and Choreography by Susan Stroman. It is an original musical based on the concept of the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and the Orpheus myth. It starred Karen Ziemba, Debora Monk, Casey Nicolaw (who later become the director of such Broadway hits as Drowsy Chaperone, Something Rotten and MeanGirls) and a young Kristin Chenoweth making her Broadway debut. It opened at the Richard Rogers Theater on April 24, 1997. The show received mixed reviews and ran for only 76 performances.
Historical Background: All Atlantic City is proud of the Steel Pier!
Steel Pier is a 1,000 foot long boardwalk built over the ocean of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It is Atlantic City’s oldest theme park and in its heyday featured a diving horse act, water skiing puppies, flagpole sitters, high wire acts and was the place where the Miss America Beauty Pageant took place in the Marine Ballroom. It was particularly popular during the summer seasons as a way of escape the heat and the crowds of the nearby industrial cities.
Dance Marathons were a popular form of entertainment during the 1920s and ’30s in which couples danced day and night to big brass bands on end in order to achieve a grand cash prize and publicity. Some of the marthons’ cash prizes went up to $5,000 ($96,282.28 in 2017 inflation). The main rule was to keep dancing, swaying or moving on the dance floor. If a contestant should stop moving, feel asleep or fell on the floor from exhaustion, you were disqualified. Contestants would get one fifteen minute break every hour in addition to food and beds. Spectators threw coins at the marathon dancers and could even sponsor their favorite couple.
Although Dance Marathons supplied contestants food, a roof over their head and gave spectators free entertainment during the time of the Great Depression, there is a dark sadistic side to the marathons. I will later discuss about this later in the blog.
Plot: Here I go again, willing to ride!
Steel Pier, August 12th 1933. Rita Racine, a charismatic young woman full of life, is waiting for her partner to show up so they can enter Steel Pier’s dance marathon. Rita is known as “Lindy’s Lovebird” for she was the first woman to kiss Lindbergh when he returned from his famous flight. Rita, finding out that her partner never showed up, decides to dance instead with Bill Kelly, a daredevil stunt pilot. He tells her about the time he won a raffle ticket to a kiss and dance with “Lindy’s Lovebird” at the Trenton Air Show but couldn’t make it in time. Although he has two left feet, Bill dances his best for her and has has become very smitten with Rita.
Rita is secretly married to Mick Hamilton, the Master of Ceremonies of Steel Pier’s dance marathon. He organizes, schemes and rigs the contests in insure that his wife will be the winner. Mick promises Rita that this will be her last marathon.
Back at the Marathon, the contestants dance and drop from the Shag to the Two Step. The audience is also introduced to some of the contestants including Shelby Stevens, Johnny Adel, Betty and Buddy Becker in addition to Precious and Happy McGuire just to name a few.
Mick hatches a plan to Rita to promote herself, in spite of her approval. Mick decides to create a fake wedding between Bill and Rita in order to get a taffy sponsor for the marathon. Despite her resentment, she willingly agrees.
Back at the Marathon, Mick decides it’s time for the constants to run The Sprints in order to knock out some of Rita’s competition. However, it is Rita who falls in the sprints. Bill manges to stop time and run time back again so she doesn’t fall. The marathon continues.
Steel Pier, August 26th, 1933. Rita falls asleep during her fifteen minute break where she dreams of Bill taking her to the skies in his airplane. She wakes up only to find Mick telling her to get back out on the dance floor.
The marathon drags on with contestants dropping out and one, Buddy Becker, having a mental breakdown screaming, “I want a job!”. Another contestant, Happy McGuire, who dropped out of the marathon is confronted by Shelby Stevens who tenderly asks him to take her with him back to Utah. He declines and Shelby is left heartbroken.
September 2nd, the night of the phony wedding. Mick, suspecting that his wife is beginning to have feelings for Bill, decides to create a break up between them right after their marriage. Rita agrees in order to finish this marathon so she can go home for good but instead finds her world coming apart.
The phony wedding happens with a song sung by Presious McGuire. Bill and Rita are sent to their honeymoon tent. Knowing that this tent will be ripped away for a taundry stunt pulled by Mick, Rita wishes that she could escape. Bill tells her that anything is possible in their dreams and takes her away on his plane telling her not to look back. But Rita does look back when Bill informs her that he has to leave for good. The tent is lifted with Rita and Bill going their separate ways, both hurt and confused.
Later that night, Rita is informed by Mick that not only will she be dancing in the St. Louis Dance Marathon but that her dream to go home is destroyed by Mick who sold the house a long time ago and never told her. In return, Rita disqualifies herself by standing still on the dance floor. Mick, infuriated, reminds her all that he has done for her including her failed act at The Trenton Air Show in which a pilot got killed in a horrible plane crash and took all the publicity from her. “He died”, Rita replies shocked. She realizes that the man she has danced with and fallen in love with, Bill, died in a plane crash and came back from the dead.
Rita slowly begins to realise the loveless trap her marriage has been with Mick. Suddenly, Bill appears and tells her to take a chance on life away from the marathon. He asked for the kiss and dance that he won at the Trenton Air Show raffle. After the dance, he is taken away to the other world while Rita finds herself around the exhausted and used marathon constants. With love in her heart and the determination to create a new dream, she leaves the Steel Pier and Mick for good.
Music: Common boys! Let’s make it hot, sweet and sassy!
The score is created by the songwriting team of Kander and Ebb who have brought some signature tunes as “New York, New York” and “Maybe This Time”, just to name a few in their immense catalog. There musicals are known for the use of pastiche, a song/score that indirectly and flatteringly mimics another song, musical style or performance style. Kander and Ebb use pastiche to help the draw attention to the theatrical or musical setting in which the story is presented.
The pastiche is Steel Pier is a combination of different musical styles of the 1930s. In “The Overture”, we can hear the pastiche of George Gershwin in the piano part.
The song “Dance With Me”, is a pastiche of the kind music heard in the grand sweeping Fred Astaire movies. The lyrics even nods to Astire in the song, “Fred and Adele never gilded as well as we do when you dance with me”.
Here’s Fred Astaire singing “Let’s Face The Music and Dance”
Here’s Kander & Ebb’s pastiche, “Dance With Me”
The lyrics of the song, “Everybody Dance” call back to the songs lyrics of “Shakin’ The Blues Away” and “Forget Your Troubles C’mon Get Happy”. “The Shag”, “Two Step” and “Harmonica Specialty” are all based on the music Big Bands played at Dance Marathons during that time in addition to music that went along with the zany dance steps of the time such as the Suzy-Q, the Turkey Trot and the Moochi.
Shelby Steven’s number, “Everybody’s Girl” is an obvious pastiche of Mae West and Sophie Tucker, famous broads known for their naughty double antrandra.
Here’s Sophie Tucker singing “You’ve Gotta See Your Mama Every Night”
Now here’s Kander & Ebb’s take on Tucker and West with “Everybody’s Girl”
The song “Wet” I find to be a pastiche of the song “Singing in the Rain”. The song “Two Little Words” is pastiche on European Operetta, a popular form of theater music from the 1880s-the 1940s that featured melodramatic arias sung with operatic gusto.
The music of Steel Pier also contains two musical phrases that are used as the love theme in the show. The first one is Rita’s Theme as shown below.
The second is Bill’s Theme. His theme is also the basis of his song, “Second Chance”.
Throughout the show these two themes play and whenever Bill helps or shows his love to Rita, such as in “The Sprints” or “Final Dance”, the two themes are intertwined to create the musical love theme.
Themes: First you dream…
When David Thompson, Susan Stroman, John Kander and Fred Ebb came together to create Steel Pier, they wanted to “create a musical that celebrates a uniquely American view of the world” (Thompson, pg.8). The unique American view can be expressed in the three leads, Rita, Bill and Mick.
Bill and Mick both represent the two different sides of the American Dream. Bill represents an optimistic version, where you truly can get a second chance in life, anything is possible and as long as you hold on to your dreams with the courage of your convictions, anything can happen. Mick represents the dark side in which to achieve the American Dream, one must fight tooth and nail to be at the top, “never be an employee, always be the boss” (from Mick’s song, “A Powerful Thing”) even if it comes at the cost of exploiting and humiliating others.
Rita, represents the audience, who must decide which side of the American Dream they want to pursue in order to find home. In the end, Bill is the man who shows Rita how to achieve her goal.
Cynicism: YOU’RE OUT!!!
Kander & Ebb’s most well known shows such as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spiderwoman deal with dark uncomfortable subjects with a cynical perspective that often ends in one of the characters dying. Steel Pier has been categorized as Kander & Ebb’s least cynical musical and in the same categories as the team’s other lighthearted shows such as Woman of the Year, The Happy Time and Curtains.
This is completely understandable. When one listens to this score, Steel Pier is full of happy, bouncy and romantic tunes piled on top of each other. However, the cynicism in the show can be found libretto and through the history about the darker side of dance marathons. Steel Pier has a lot of cynicism than it’s given credit for.
Although as previously discussed, dance marathons helped Americans “dance their blues off” in addition to giving a chance for economic opportunity with free food and shelter, the marathons exploited the contestants. Furthermore, it gave the spectators the sadistic pleasure of throwing coins at the dancers in order to watch these constants fight to win in a gurgling contest. Some consider Dance Marathons to be an early version of reality TV that blurred real life with the exploitation of show business. David Thompson, the book writer of Steel Pier, called dance marathons “a place where hope-and hopelessness-blurred”. Furthermore, just like Mick Hamilton in the musical, some of the dance marathons were only used as publicity stunts to promote businesses or celebrities and were rigged.
Here are two examples from Steel Pier that show the dark underbelly of the Dance Marathon:
In Act One, Scene 7A (Thompson, pp.46-47), after the big Shag Dance, a constant drops to the floor of exhaustion. Walker, the floor judge, proclaims “Yoooooou’re Out!”. As Walker goes to help the constant up, Mick turns to Walker, “Hold on, Walker. Let everyone take a good look”. Beat as the constant struggles to get up. “Don’t worry folks”, the boastful Mick says on the mic, “Their dreams may be broken, but tomorrow they’ll be as good as new, ready to try again, somewhere else. Because that’s the spirit of this great nation of ours! Right kids?”. The couple is taken away as Mick sings with a smile, “All Atlantic City is proud of the Steel Pier”!
This scene shows the MC exploiting the pain that the contestant is going through just for her get up off the floor, tells Walker not to help or sympathize, (ironically) tells the crowd that their loss is fostered on the American Dream and then proceeds to sing a bouncy song after the couple’s loss.
In Act Two, Scene 3 (Thompson,pp.86-87), Buddy Becker, one of the constants begins to have a mental breakdown from exhaustion in the marathon. “What’s the matter with me?” Buddy proclaims as he begins to crack up,speaking faster and faster, falling to the floor, “There’s nothing the matter with me! Nothing’s ever been the matter with me! I want a job! I WANT A JOB! I WANT A JOB!” The music stops as Buddy turns to find everyone looking at him on the dance floor stunned. He quietly replies, “I can walk out of here myself, thank you”. Bette, Buddy’s sister and partner in the marathon, watches with pain. She grabs the couple number off her back, throws it at Mick’s feet and walks out. Beat. No one moves. Suddenly coins begin to be thrown by the crowd. None of the contestants move. Walker turns to them and barks, “Pick up the coins”. Everyone dives and starts to grovels at the coins.
This scene shows how Dance Marathons brought out the worst in people’s morality. Thompson shows Buddy screaming, “I WANT A JOB!” in order to show the audience that dancing in a marathon was not a noble profession and the desperation these people went through just to have a chance of winning money in order to survive in the Great Depression. The only person who shows humanity in this scene is Bette, who instead decides to stay in the marathon without her partner, disqualifies herself to be with her brother. The scene then goes to show the crowd’s sadistic pleasure from watching someone have a mental breakdown as form of entertainment by throwing coins on the dance floor. At first the contestants are aupaled but when ordered to, they run to grab the coins and fight each other for it. The underscore for this section is a happy bouncy vamp in G major which makes the scene very unsettling.
What happened?: Some hot-dog pilot gets killed in a plane crash and everything falls to shit
When Steel Pier came out 21 years ago, people either loved, hated it or were confused and the musical’s life did not live long enough to find its audience. The musical, although considered to be problematic, was nominated for eleven 1997 Tony Awards, but lost all in year dominated by Titanic and the revival of Chicago. So what went wrong? Well, here is my theory on the matter.
Steel Pier is written in the style an old fashioned musical plays of Rodgers and Hammerstein and departure from their unique style. When people went to go see Steel Pier, they expected Kander &Ebb’s usual style of raunchy provocative material but were thrown off when they instead found a genuine love story. Ben Brantley of The New York Times in his review called Steel Pier, “the anti-”Cabaret”…anti-”Chicago’”(Leve, pg.227). Another problem that could have been was the year Steel Pier was competing in. The season was filled with pop operas with such as Phantom, Miss Saigon, Cats, Jekyll & Hyde and Titanic. Audiences just didn’t want to see that type of old fashioned show with no crashing chandeliers or sinking boats.
Where most critics and scholars put the blame of Steel Pier’s failure was the story’s ending when the audience finds out that Bill was an angel the whole time. Tony Walton said that, “the conclusion of the story begged too many questions and pushed the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the breaking point” (Leve, pg. 227). But here’s what I personally don’t understand. How come a musical theater audience can accept Billy Billglow coming back from the dead with the angels to help his child and wife in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel but won’t accept Bill Kelly coming back from the dead to help Rita in Steel Pier?
John Kander commented that ending of Steel Pier is not supposed to be thought out, “Sometimes you just have to go with your feeling” (Leve, pg.227). I agree with Mr. Kander and just like Bill says to Rita, “Just don’t look back”. Unfortunately a majority of the audience looked back.
Conclusion: Go on, fly!
Although Steel Pier has been criticized for it’s “problematic” ending and being the odd child in the Kander & Ebb musical family, I find it to be their strongest score. I believe what helps makes this score so lush and romantic is the beautiful Orchestrations by Michael Gibson, Vocal Arrangements by David Loud and Dance Arrangements by Glen Kelly. The combination of these creators in addition to cast, truly shimmer and glow on the cast recodiring. Historian Ethan Moore stated that “Those listening to the cast recoding in the future will find it hard to understand why Steel Pier only lasted two months”. (Famous in NY Video, 1:26-1:33).
For those who haven’t listened to the cast recording, I highly suggest going to your local library or digital store to go listen to this musical, I promise you won’t be disappointed. I hope one day this musical will once again shine in the spotlight and be appreciated for what is. What Steel Pier really needs more than anything else is a second chance…..
Famous in NY Video. “”Willing To Ride/ Second Chance” (STEEL PIER).” Online Video
Clip. Youtube. 15 November 2015. Web. 22 April 2018.
Kander, John, and Fred Ebb. Steel Pier: A New Musical: Original Broadway Cast
Recording, Hit Factory Studio 1, New York , 4 May 1997.
Kander, John, et al. Steel Pier: Vocal Selections. Edited by David Loud, Hal Leonard , 2005.
Leve, James. Kander and Ebb. Yale Univ Press, 2015.
Thompson, David, et al. Steel Pier. Samuel French, 2005.