Celebrating STEEL PIER

Introduction: Life’s a party, why don’t you come to the Steel Pier?!

Twenty-one years ago today, 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!

The promotional footage for the original Broadway production

Background: No place draws a friendlier crowd than the Steel Pier! 

Steel Pier is a musical written by librettist David (Tom) Thompson, with music by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. It was directed by Scott Ellis and was choreographed by Susan Stroman. Steel Pier based on the concept of the 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in addition to the greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The original Broadway cast featured Karen Ziemba as Rita Racine (the show was written as a star vehicle for her), Daniel McDonald as Bill Kelly and Gregory Harrison as Mick Hamilton. The cast also featured Debora Monk, Casey Nicolaw (who later become the director of such Broadway hits as Drowsy ChaperoneSomething Rotten and MeanGirls), Andy Blankenbuehler (future choreographer of Hamiltonand 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.

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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 and is the world’s first Boardwalk. It is Atlantic City’s oldest theme park (founded in 1898) and helped Atlantic City win the title of being known as the Playground of the Nation. In its heyday, the pier featured a diving horse act (the best-known stunt on the Steel Pier), water skiing puppies, flagpole sitters (the most famous flagpole sitter on the Steel Pier was Alvin ‘Shipwreck’ Kelly who once sat for 49 days atop a flagpole), daredevil acts such as motorcycle stunts inside a 16 foot globe and was where the Miss America Beauty Pageant was created. It was particularly popular during the summer seasons as a way of escaping the heat and the crowds of the nearby industrial cities.

Two prominent food vendors, both of which are featured in the musical, that set up stores of the pier were Joesph Fralinger’s world famous Salt Water Taffy, created in Atlantic City in 1848 and Planters Peanuts which featured a Mr. Peanut mascot costume character who passed out free samples in front of the store.

The composer of the show, John Kander, once visited to Atlantic City’s Steel Pier with his grandparents in the summer of 1933. Has he stated, “The memory of it is still with me…It was quite elegant – very tony and glamorous. Men were dressed in suits and ties. There was music all over the place. It had three movies going, a circus, and in the evenings there was dancing. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra played in a casino there”. (Kander/Currier, et.al, pg.19-20)

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The Marine Ballroom, located at the end of the pier, could hold up to 5,000 people

Dance Marathons were a popular form of entertainment during the 1920s and ’30s in which couples danced day and night 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, fall asleep or fall on the floor from exhaustion, the contestant was 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 become a sponsor of their favorite couple.

Although Dance Marathons supplied contestants with food, a roof over their head, a chance to be recognized by entertainment producers and gave spectators free entertainment during the time of the Great Depression, there is a dark sadistic side to the marathons. Discussion on this matter will continue later in the blog.     

Plot: Here I go again, willing to ride!

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“Cuz if your partner doesn’t show, I’m still available”

ACT ONE

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 Charles 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 “death-defying” 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, Steel Pier’s marathon’s host and master of ceremonies. Mick and Rita have done several other marathons together in which he organizes, schemes and rigs the contests to ensure 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.

In order to promote Rita and to get an important sponsor for the marathon, Mick hatches a plan to create a fake wedding between Bill and Rita. Despite her resentment, she willingly agrees.

Mick prematurely decides its 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.

ACT TWO

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 one by one. Buddy Becker goes “squirrel-ey” and has a mental breakdown from sleep deprivation, repeatedly screaming, “I want a job!”. Another contestant, Happy McGuire, who voluntarily dropped out of the marathon is confronted by Shelby Stevens. Shelby tenderly asks Happy to take her with him, back to his home in 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 Bill and Rita right after their marriage. Rita once again 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 grand aria sung by Precious 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 that she will be dancing in the St. Louis Dance Marathon but that her dream to go home was destroyed by Mick who sold the house 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 it was Bill, the man she has danced with and fallen in love with.

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 asks for the 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 signature tunes to the American songbook such as “All That Jazz”, “Cabaret”, “Maybe This Time” and the theme song from New York, New York just to name a few in their immense catalog. The songs Kander and Ebb write for their musicals are known for their 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.

An example of Kander and Ebb using pastiche are the songs they wrote for their 1966 musical, Cabaret. To draw attention to the theatrical setting of the Kit Kat Club in Weimar Germany, the team wrote songs in the style of the cabaret songs of the 1930’s such as “Willkommen”, “Married” and “Mein Herr”. An example to demonstrate the opposite of pastiche is the 2016 movie musical, The Greatest Showman. Although The Greatest Showman takes place in the mid-1800s, the musical styling of the songs within the film reflects the pop music of today rather than the music of the time the story takes place in.

In regards to Steel Pier, the pastiche is a combination of different musical styles of American music popular in the 1930s.

In “The Overture”, we can hear the pastiche of George Gershwin in the piano part. 

The gentle waltz of “Willing to Ride” gently calls back to carousel tunes on a beachside boardwalk.

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 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 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. One of Mae West’s best jokes (“I had a cattle ranch, but I had to sell it. I couldn’t keep my “calves” together”) is featured in “Everybody’s Girl”. 

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 production number “Leave The World Behind” is pastiche of the big Busby Berkley production numbers made in the early days at Warner Brothers and RKO, in particular the title song from the 1933 movie, Flying Down To Rio.

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) and of singer, Jeanette McDonald who sang one of the most famous of all operetta songs, (the often parodied) “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”. 

The music of Steel Pier also contains two musical phrases that are used as the love theme in the show. The first is Rita’s Theme as shown below.

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Rita’s Theme (Kander, pg.3)

The second is Bill’s Theme. His theme is also the basis of his song, “Second Chance”.

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Bill’s Theme (Kander, pg.13)

Throughout the show these two themes play separately. However, whenever Bill helps or shows his love to Rita, in such numbers as “The Sprints” or “Final Dance”, the two themes are intertwined to create the musical’s love theme.

At 1:46, “Rita’s Tune” begins due to the fact she fell down in the sprints. When Bill comes to rescue her his “Second Chance” theme intertwines. 

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.

For choreographer Susan Stroman the themes of the show were represented through dance and flight, which represent the two leading characters, Rita (dance) and Bill (flight);

“Dance in our story is used to heighten the romance of the love triangle. In Steel Pier, the marathon is used as a metaphor for people trapped in a rut. The rut could be a relationship, a job, or a depression. Not until our heroine is empowered with love does she realize she has the choice to leave.

There are many ‘flying’ references in Steel Pier – hardly surprising as flying, air shows, and pilots were the main news items at the time. Flying symbolizes freedom. Uninhibited dance is also freedom. The freedom and joy of movement; dance as exhibition. Our leading character, Rita expresses her emotions through movement. Risk taking is central to Rita’s story. Will she risk all? Or continue to let life dictate to her? In a dream sequence Rita imagines she is flying – gliding, sliding and dancing towards the future.

Steel Pier is a journey danced from beginning to end. The technique of close partner dancing heightens the sensuality of our love story. Dance as a metaphor, dance as history, dance as romance.” (Stroman/Currier, et.al, pg.11-12)

The American Dream Gone Awry: YOU’RE OUT!!!

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“It was [Historian Thomas} Macaulay’s conjecture that the Puritans objected to bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators” – The New York Times, 12 June 1928, pg.12

Kander & Ebb’s most well known musicals such as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spiderwoman deal with dark uncomfortable subjects with a cynical perspective that often ends with one of the characters dying. Steel Pier has been categorized as Kander and 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. 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. Fred Ebb in conversation about the musical stated, “We were looking for a project that was a challenge and the idea of the dance marathon craze appealed to us. It incorporated all the glitz and glamour of show business but also showed the American dream gone awry. I like our shows to have a dark side.” (Ebb/Currier, et.al, pg.19)

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 pair of contestants drop to the floor from 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. The contestants struggle to get up off the floor. “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 Mick exploiting the pain that the contestants is going through just for them to get up off the floor, tells Walker not to help, (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 embarrassed and broken, “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”. The contestants obey and barbarically grovels for 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 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, audiences either loved it, hated it or were confused by the piece. 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”…{the} anti-”Chicago’”(Leve, pg.227). Historian Ethan Morden also puts the blame on the audience for the failure of Steel Pier; “Perhaps the fantasy felt too contrived for some, or perhaps it was another case of the public’s impatience with well-made story musicals with strong emotional foundation.” (Morden, p.238) Another problem could have been the year Steel Pier was competing in. The season was filled with pop operas filled with over the top spectacle with such shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Cats, Jekyll & Hyde and Titanic. Possibly, the 1997 Broadway audiences just didn’t want to see an old fashioned show where the scenery (like crashing chandeliers, helicopters or tilting ocean liners) wasn’t the star.

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 dead the entire show. The set designer for the original Broadway production, 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). Here is what I personally don’t understand in regard’s to the ending; 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 (which had a successful revival at Lincoln Center Theater three years prior to Steel Pierbut won’t accept Bill Kelly coming back from the dead to help Rita?

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.  

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Bill and Rita 

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 the team’s 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 recording. 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”. (Morden, pg.238).

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…..


WORKS CITED 

Currier, Jameson, et al. Steel Pier: A New Musical (Souvenir Program). Dewynters Merchandising Inc., 1997.

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.

Mordden, E. (2004). The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. essay, Palgrave Macmillan. 

Thompson, David, et al. Steel Pier. Samuel French, 2005.

2 thoughts on “Celebrating STEEL PIER

  1. Wow! This is a great analysis/review of Steel Pier. This caused me to do some of my own research as well. When looking into the dark side of dance marathons, there was an article with pictures of dancers “dead on their feet” (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4599302/Murder-dance-floor.html). That’s what Rita sings in ‘Willing to Ride’. I think if it does get revived again, it can be even more poignant by contrasting these themes. Having only listened to the OBC, I had a limited view, but after reading this I have an even greater appreciation for Steel Pier.

    Thank you!

    Like

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