During this summer when the weather allows us to wear soft shoes instead of snow-fighting boots, shall we give some thought – as well as some listens – to some of musical theater’s best soft-shoe numbers?
In alphabetical order :
“Don’t Follow in My Footsteps” (The Goodbye Girl) – You wouldn’t necessarily expect a soft-shoe from a song in which a mother cautions her daughter to not replicate her mistakes. But until the orchestra swells up and starts swinging – something we all adore in musicals – this is really a soft-shoe, which makes sense. The best mothers know that taking a hardline approach never works and that they’re better off trying a soft one.
“Go Visit Your Grandmother” (70, Girls, 70) – In this show about growing older and yet growing younger at the same time, this soft-shoe was originally David Burns’ number. After performing it one night during the Philadelphia tryout, he had a heart attack and later died. The song went from one of the oldest members in the cast to the youngest: Tommy Breslin, twenty-one years old, who shared it with sexagenarian Henrietta Jacobson. (Don’t miss the Fire Island joke.)
“Hello, Dolly!” (Hello, Dolly!) – Granted, most of this number is a razz-ma-tazz barn-burner, but there is that amiable section in the middle where Dolly leads the waiters in, if not a little soft-shoe, then a little soft-knee. She pats each of hers and they answer before they return to build to the exciting climax and ride-out of one of Broadway’s great showstoppers.
“Hurry! It’s Lovely up Here!” (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever) – True, neither Daisy Gamble nor Mark Bruckner dances in this number, but that didn’t keep Burton Lane from writing what is technically a soft-shoe – especially when we get to Betty Walberg’s instrumental break.
“I Could Get Married Today” (Seventeen) – Willie Baxter, our hero who’s just turned – oh, you guessed! – seventeen, is astonished to learn that Genesis, his family’s handyman was already married at his age. Composer Walter Kent and lyricist Kim Gannon knew that a soft-shoe would subtly suggest that Willie is in no hurry to get married, no matter how much the idea appeals to him. Kenneth Nelson, who would much later originate roles in two landmark properties – The Fantasticks and The Boys in the Band – charms us as does Maurice Ellis as Genesis.
“I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” (The Pajama Game) – Mabel chides Hinesy for his Othello-like tendencies in not trusting his girlfriend Gladys. She’s gentle about it, though; the melody wouldn’t be a soft-shoe if she weren’t. Reta Shaw and Eddie Foy, Jr. make such a perfect pair that producers who saw them in this Tony-winning hit must have been jealous time and time again that they weren’t in their shows.
“Isn’t It Kinda Fun?” (State Fair) – Soft-shoe is a fine way to show a couple that’s easing its way into love. You can feel it in Richard Rodgers’ melody when Scott Wise and Andrea McArdle do it on the 1996 original cast album; you won’t feel it from the 1962 soundtrack where Ann-Margret instead sizzles.
“Rosie” (Bye Bye Birdie) – Rosie, courtesy of Chita Rivera in her first big role, finally lands her man. Albert, composer-lyricist that he is, writes a song to commemorate the occasion. Whether you hear the 1960 original cast album or the 1963 soundtrack, you’ll hear Tony-winner Dick Van Dyke ease out the tune with a little editorializing from Rosie. If you get the soundtrack, you’ll get Janet Leigh in Rivera’s stead, but there’s also a little lagniappe, for lyricist Lee Adams added some nice sentiments for Kim (Ann-Margret) and Hugo (Bobby Rydell).
“A Secretary Is Not a Toy” (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) – Frank Loesser’s number starts off as a serious-sounding waltz: Mr. Bratt chides those male bottom-feeders who were, in the unenlightened early ‘60s, female bottom-pinchers. But the orchestral break, nicely accented by clicking typewriters, is soft-shoe at its finest.
“Siberia” (Silk Stockings) – Ninotchka was a staunch Communist until she learned how to love American style. How will Soviet Union agents Ivanov, Brankov and Bibinski explain her defection to their bosses? They know they’ll be thought guilty and not proven innocent but they accept their fate in this charming soft-shoe. Cole Porter had them rationalize: “When it’s cocktail time, ‘twill be so nice just to know you’ll not have to phone for ice.”
“Take Me Along” (Take Me Along) – Why, you may ask, is a musical version of Eugene O‘Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! called Take Me Along? The answer: Bob Merrill wrote such a terrific song that it just had to be the title tune. Two ol’ pros – Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon – know how to sell it, too.
“Wendy” (Peter Pan) – When the show began its pre-Broadway tryout on the west coast in 1954, this song wasn’t in the show. Back then, the entire score was by composer Mark “Moose” Charlap and lyricist Carolyn Leigh. But director Jerome Robbins wanted more, so he called Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had provided the book and lyrics for his first hit: On the Town. A phone call also went out to Jule Styne, with whom Robbins had worked on High Button Shoes. (Selections from both shows – and Peter Pan – would show up many moons later in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.) Styne, Comden and Green came up with eight songs, including this soft-shoe – a perfect style to indicate that Peter Pan was on his way to settling down into a more domestic and less rough-and-tumble life (at least temporarily).
“When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” (Finian’s Rainbow) – Like “Hello, Dolly!” this one only goes into soft-shoe in its mid-section. But both Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg knew that their showing how rich people get off the hook and poor people don’t would go down better with a spoonful of soft-shoe.
But let’s abandon the alphabet to stress the ultimate soft-shoe number: “Very Soft Shoes” (Once Upon a Mattress) Here a Jester sings that he literally has them, specifically the cloth-soled footwear that was the style (out of necessity) in those days. And considering that this clown was a second-generation jester in the court of King Septimus and Queen Aggravain, don’t you love when he says that his father “played the palace?”
By the way, wouldn’t you think that two musicals with podiatric-centric titles – On Your Toes and On Your Feet! – would each have at least one soft-shoe number?
Nope – not a one. Thankfully, many other musicals have taken up the slack and have contributed to the time-honored genre.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.