Introduction: So watch the joy go on and on!
2022 is the silver anniversary of the Broadway musical, Steel Pier which opened on April 24th 1997. To celebrate, this blog continues the discussion of this gorgeous musical on a variety of different topics. The first blog I wrote to celebrate the show’s twenty-first anniversary in 2018 has been updated, improved and grammatically corrected. If you haven’t already read the first blog, Click here!
STEEL PIER at College: Who ever gets a second chance?
Although Steel Pier has never been revived in New York either by a Broadway revival or by City Center Encores, the musical has recently been picking up steam in the theater departments of colleges throughout the country. Steel Pier seems tailor made for colleges because it allows many students opportunities to shine with to the various roles the show has to offer besides the leading characters such as Shelby Stevens, Happy McGuire and Buddy Becker to name a few. From a design and dramaturgical perspective, the show allows students in those areas of study to dive into the decedent world of the 1930s and of the dance marathons. Here are two video clips of two different universities performing Steel Pier as part of their theater season:
I had the privilege of seeing two productions of Steel Pier within the state of California, at UCLA in the spring of 2018 and at San Diego State University in the winter of 2021, which featured a brilliant concept of changing their theater stage into an immersive seating experience that made the audience the attendees of the Steel Pier marathon.
Both productions of Steel Pier made tiny arrangements to the musical, most notably trimming the first opening scene of the musical in which Bill Kelly is found on the floor surrounded by ethereal dancers in white. In UCLA’s production, “The Overture” was cut and started with “The Prelude” without the ethereal dancers. In SDSU’s production, “The Overture” was kept intact but skipped over Bill Kelly’s opening moment. The show began with Rita Racine walking on the beach, making it apparent that SDSU’s production was focused on the story being Rita’s narrative. Both productions omitted a small scene in Act One, Scene Five in which an Egg Dance was held in addition to a small section of Act One, Scene Ten in which Bill falls into the Diving Horse tank and scares Rita for a moment, thinking that Bill might have drowned. UCLA cut “The Entracte” and “Running In Place” in half, while SDSU cut the cameo of Mr. Peanut in Scene Ten in addition to reducing the orchestra to five players (wonderfully orchestrated and helped contribute to the honky-tonk atmosphere of the marathon).
Both productions featured a minimal one unit set, a half symmetrical neon light STEEL PIER sign and brought in small set pieces for scenes that did not take place within the Marine Ballroom. This begged the question for me of whether or not the original Broadway production might have benefited from a smaller design. Although Tony Walton’s set for the original production was praised by critics and was nominated for a Tony Award, from production photos, the set makes the story feel over blown and too epic. Although it was not as big as other musicals of the 1997 season, the overwhelming design of the show might have thrown audiences off with the genuine love story and grittiness of its subject material. The blame could also have been that the original Broadway production played at the gigantic Richard Rodgers Theater. Furthermore, the scaling down of Kander and Ebb musicals such as Flora The Red Menace, The Happy Time, Cabaret and Chicago have all proven to be superior and to work better than their original Broadway counterparts with minimalistic scenic designs. Seeing Steel Pier at those two universities with a paired down set in smaller theaters proves this point to be true.
STEEL PIER Remembered: You remember?
A second rendition of a Kander and Ebb revue (the first being And The World Goes ‘Round) was named after the pinnacle love song from the show, First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb. The revue premiered on PBS in 2015 after having performed at the Signature Theater in 2009 and The Kennedy Center in 2012. The song, “First You Dream” was the finale of the show and featured the beginning selection from “Leave The World Behind”.
Steel Pier is a part of the gold standard of Broadway flops. It has been featured in the grand catalog of flops in two other shows; [title of show] in the number “Monkeys and Playbills” and Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation in the parody number “The Place Where The Lost Shows Go”.
The song “First You Dream” has been covered by artists such as Audra McDonald and Peter Davenport. The song “Second Chance” was covered by Brent Barett for his Kander and Ebb album.
Various media influencers have commented on Steel Pier, all with positive responses for the score.
STEEL PIER’s Relevance Today: Real life mixed with real show business.
When I saw Steel Pier at San Diego State University, a colleague of mine who also attended the production questioned the relevance of the piece within today’s society. Although Steel Pier is not a political battlecry as most theater pieces are now required to be in today’s theater scene, the musical still comments on the condition of human suffering as a form of entertainment and the everlasting power of love.
The love story of this musical is timeless, most impart on the story being based on the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. There are many people who are trapped in their own personal underworlds by their own Hades. For Rita, she was trapped by her Hades, Mick, in the underworld of the dance marathon. The way Rita escapes her predicament is through Bill, the story’s Orpheus. Like Orpheus, Bill teaches the lesson on the importance of not looking back and letting love guide the way. As he says to Rita in Act Two, Scene 6A; “Just don’t look back. When you’re flying, you never look where you’ve been. You can only look where you’re going. Ever see a bird look over his shoulder? No. There’s only one way to go. Straight ahead.” (Thompson, pg.98).
The story of Orpheus, Eurydice and Hades is once again being told on Broadway in the Tony-Award winning musical, Hadestown, reinstating the timelessness of the Orpheus myth. With Hadestown being the toast of the town with audiences and critics alike who are becoming enamored with the musical, it could be theorized that today’s audience might be more accepting of Steel Pier’s story if the musical was ever to be revived in New York now that audiences have a contemporary comprehension of the Orpheus myth through Hadestown.
Dance Marathons are still put on today, mostly through fun high school charity events and the ugly underbelly of the marathon still lingers today as well. There still are selfless promoters like Mick Hamilton still thriving off the back of the unfortunate and the blur between real life and the exploitation of show business still occurs. We can see this blur in reality TV shows like Wipeout in which ordinary people fight their way to the top for a grand cash prize by performing humiliating and painful obstacles.
The ideals of Dance Marathons being endurance obstacles and a “survival of the fittest” competition still continue with the popular TV drama Survivor, which is still continuing in its 41st season.
We also see Marathon habits, such as sponsored weddings and staged discord, creeping their way into reality dating shows. As Carol Martin stated in his book, Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture in the 1920s and 1930s, “Dramatic vignettes…helped break up the long hours of the contest…Members of the audience returned day after day to see new developments. It didn’t matter that the [dramatic vignettes] were ‘real’ or not because once narratives….were introduced, contest and theater overlapped.” (Martin, p.31). We see this played out today in shows like The Bachelor where everyday women are pitted against each other in order to obtain a “happy ending” with their “soul-mate”. The women are dropped like files and television audiences tune in each week to see who would win the heart of the wealthy stud. The winner is not usually picked by the bachelor himself, but rather by the team behind the show. In Steel Pier, we get a small glimpse of how the pressure of the dance marathon led to rivivaliers against contestants such as Buddy Becker with Johnny Adel and when Precious McGurie upstages Selby Stevens’ big number .
Jimmy Donaldson, known on the internet as MrBeast, is one of the highest paid Youtuber content creators with over 80 million subscribers in addition to his own burger chain. MrBeast through his series of youtube videos has indirectly continued the tradition of dance marathons. His clickbait videos entice his Youtube audience with difficult and wacky competitions for an extreme cash prize.
His video posted on August 31, 2021 entitled, “Last To Leave Circle Wins $500,00” (with over 100 million views on Youtube) is essentially the same as a Dance Marathon. Over 100 people fought for the chance to win a grand cash prize by standing in a circle and performing various acts such as standing for 24 hours straight without sitting down. MrBeast served as the Mick Hamilton-eque MC for the video and continually tricked his contestants to leave the circle for smaller prizes, the same way Mick tricks Dora into leaving the marathon to supposedly model fashion in New York. MrBeast’s friends served as the Floor Judges who checked who stepped out of the circle throughout the competition. During the competition, a marriage proposal was held in the circle, not dissimilar to marriage proposals and weddings that occurred during dance marathons. The video also heavily advertised MrBeast’s Burgers establishment and was sponsored by their “Fralinger’s Taffy”, Bitcoin. The “Leave The Circle” Marathon lasted over twelve days when only ten contestants remained standing and was only the FIRST part of the competition. The contestants later had to be subjected to a grueling game of Extreme Tag.
MrBeast also hosted his own version of a marathon derby in which the last contestant to stop running on the treadmill wins $1,000 per mile they run.
Another tradition that MrBeast has continued from Dance Marathons was a specialty act performed at the marathons. “Frozen Alive” was a special entertainment performed to keep spectators enticed during the long hours of the marathon in which a contestant would intomb themselves in a block of ice for an extended period of time. MrBeast did a variation of such an act in his video, “I Survived 24 Hours Straight In Ice”
The examples of reality TV and of Mr. Beasts videos prove that although dance marathons maybe out of fashion, the marathons’ melodramatic theatrics in addition to the public’s desire to view such content will not fade away anytime soon.
STEEL PIER vs. THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY: Yahousah! Yahousah! Yahousah!
The creative team of Steel Pier originally wanted to adapt They Shoot Horses Don’t They? into a musical. They Shoot Horses Don’t They? is a 1935 novel written by Horace McCoy and later adapted to an Academy Award winning movie of the same name in 1969 starring Jane Fonda. The creative team had a difficult time obtaining the rights to Horses, dropped the idea and decided to create their own story. That being said, there are some striking resemblances between the film version of Horses and the musical Steel Pier. Here are the similarities and differences;
- The plotting device that begins the story of both Steel Pier and Horses reveal themselves at the end. Both concern the story’s leading man. Horses begins with Robert Syverton as a child watching his father shoot a lame horse in a field of pasture to put it out of its misery. Throughout the film, the story shows Robert’s imprisonment and speedy trial for an unstated crime of which he claims not guilty of. At the end of the film, his dance partner Gloria Beatty, giving up on her life, begs Robert to shoot her. The image of the lame horse being shot in a field of pasture at the beginning of the film is replaced with Gloria being shot. The film cuts to the police dragging Robert off to jail. When an officer asks why Robert shot Gloria, he states the story’s title, “They shoot horses don’t they?”. The audience now comprehends that the brief moments in which Robert was in jail was the story’s epilogue scattered about the film. In Steel Pier, Bill wakes up off the ground in a tattered coat. He looks at his Trenton Air Show raffle ticket and exclaims, “All right, I understand. I’ve got three weeks. Three weeks!” (Thompson, p.11). Throughout the musical, the audience sees Bill resurrect a dead pigeon, reverse time and create a world of possibility in Rita’s dreams. There are also references to Bill not sleeping nor eating and he himself states twice to Rita that he is death-defying. It is not till the end of the show that the audience and Rita find out that Bill is dead, given a second chance in addition to the power to spend three weeks with the woman he loves.
- Both center around the relationship of a man and woman. Although Bill and Rita’s relationship in Steel Pier is romantic, Gloria and Robert’s relationship in Horses is platonic. Both couples are proposed to partake in a fake wedding. Steel Pier sees this idea through while Horses does not.
- Both feature a sleazy emcee (Mick in Steel Pier, Rocky in Horses) who uses The Depression and the American Dream as an excuse to torutre the contestants. Both discuss how their father is the prime reason for the way they are. Mick and Rocky set up their contestants for humiliation. Mick in Scene 10A sprays a couple with a seltzer bottle and forces everyone to laugh at them. Rocky steals Alice LeBlanc’s dress and makeup in order to make her look as miserable as the contestants around her.
- Both feature a comic relief who is later eliminated in the second act of the story, Buddy Becker in Steel Pier, Harry Kline (“Sailor” as he’s commonly referred to) in Horses.
- Both showcase the passage of time within the dance marathon and a marathon derby race. The film is better at capturing the sleep depravity and desperation of the contestants than Steel Pier does through the use of close-ups, make-up in addition to showcasing the contestants’ clothes gradually deteriorate.
- Both feature a perky young woman using the marathon as a way to gain exposure for her theatrical career. Precious McGuire in Steel Pier is so desperate to become the next Jeanette McDonald and to sing on the radio that she has an affair with Mick Hamilton in order to secure a singing spot for the phony wedding. Alice LeBlanc comes all the way from London in hopes of using the marathon as a way to be scouted by Hollywood talent (the marathon in Horses takes place on the Santa Monica Pier).
- Both showcase contestants getting “squireley” due to sleep deprivation. This is represented by Buddy Becker in Steel Pier who ends up going squirrely and repeatedly screams, “I want a job!”. In Horses it’s represented by one of the female contestants screaming, “They’re crawling all over me!” when there is nothing on her.
- The key difference between the two pieces is their ending message. Horses wanted to capture the exploitation and danger of the dance marathon world. The film ends with Gloria begging Robert to shoot her to get out of the rut of life. While Steel Pier does showcase the dance marathon’s dark underbelly, Bill represents the story’s message of hope and taking a second chance on life which inturn helps Rita get out of the marathon’s grasp.
STEEL PIER’s Cut Songs: If you’re gunna sing, know the words of the song…
Here on this blog, I proudly present two never publicly heard Kander and Ebb numbers which were cut from the final stage production of Steel Pier. Both numbers are sung by the supporting characters of the musical as they come to grips of the mess they’ve got themselves into and what their motivations will be in order to get through the marathon. Presumably, these numbers where meant to take place during Act One, Scene Four in which the contestants begin to introduce themselves to each other and the audience in their bunker rooms. The same conversations that transpire in the scene are similar to the lyrics of the two songs.
There is also an additional number which was cut called “Dance With Me” which is presumably the first draft of the song of the same title that Mick Hamilton would sing in the final production. Here is a demo recording of the number, sung by the composer, John Kander.
Another song that was cut was written for Rita Racine called “Nobody’s Fault”. This song comes in the second act after Rita once again agrees to go along with Mick’s exploitative plans in order to return to her home. I theorize this song was cut for several reasons. The first being that the song makes the leading lady sound like a self pitying victim, submissive to Mick and incorrectly labeling the blame on herself rather than her conniving husband. The second reason could be that another ballad right after “Somebody Older” might have slowed down the pace of the second act. The song also carries the essence of a Helen Morgan torch song, which might have been inappropriate for the character and the dire situation she is in. This song would be replaced with a brisk uptempo dance number, “Running in Place” which expresses Rita’s frustration on her entrapment in Mick’s world rather than blaming herself for the entrapment. Although the song was cut, a section of the song would stay in the show in the same scene:
Twelve Ocean Drive, right by the shore
Not many rooms, I only count four
But those four rooms spell happiness
My address, our address
Conclusion: Off we go, to the sky!
Let us raise a glass and propose a toast to Steel Pier! A musical that continues to resonate, fascinate and capture the hearts of audiences. Here’s hoping that the next twenty five will continue to give Steel Pier that second chance the musical so rightfully deserves.
I would also like to take this opportunity to answer the age old question many of friends have been asking me; “Why do you love Steel Pier so much?!” The reason why I love this show is mainly for two reasons. The first being John Kander’s incredibly romantic score that continues to move me ever since I discovered the original cast album in 2017. My favorite tracks on the album are “The Prelude”, “Somebody Older” and “Final Dance”. I would like to acknowledge once again Michael Gibson’s orchestrations and Glen Kelly’s incidental music and dance arrangements they created for the score that help Kander’s music to shine. The second reason is the love story between Bill and Rita. Who wouldn’t want a dashing pilot to save us from the rut of life, inspire us to dream and point us in the direction our lives should go? My favorite moment in the show is “Final Dance” where Bill and Rita are forced to part ways but are given a moment to passionately dance in each other’s arm. When Bill finally disappears, Rita discovers Bill’s medal for daring and bravery which he gave Rita as a substitute for an engagement ring. In an earlier scene in Act Two, she asks Bill to give it to her when the time is right. In that moment when Rita pulls the courage to leave the marathon, the time is right.
To end our trip to the Steel Pier, I invite you to watch one of the best Tony Awards performance ever performed in the history of the telecast. There’s so much to marvel at in this five minuet clip; The orchestra’s fantastic sound in Radio City! The banjo! Susan Stroman’s choreography! The incredible ensemble! Mr. Peanut! Kristin Chenoweth’s microphone unknowingly being on as we hear her say in character, “Bye…Hi!” during Bette and Buddy Becker’s solo! And finally, the passion and romance when Bill and Rita whirl around, gaze longingly into each other eyes, ending with a kiss!
This humble little blog is dedicated to the memory of Daniel McDonald, who portrayed the role of Bill Kelly in the original production.
Martin, Carol J. Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s (Performance Studies). University of Mississippi, 1994.
Thompson, David, et al. Steel Pier. Samuel French, 2005.