's Sneak Peek at the New
Kander and Ebb Musical
After attending a March 4th open rehearsal of Steel Pier I was reminded of this
bit of homespun
logic: "It looks like a duck. . .it waddles like a duck. . . it quacks like a duck. Ergo, it must be a
duck!" Steel Pier neither waddles or quacks, but . . .
It feels like a hit
It sounds like a hit
It looks like a hit
Soooo...is it going to be a hit?
This being a preview, not a review, I can only attempt to share with you the flavor of the hors
d'oeuvres I got to sample during the rehearsal of the show. The setting was a bare-bones studio
near the Hudson River. The only costumes, (William Ivey Long is the show's designer), and sets
(by Tony Walton), I saw were a few renderings, and a smattering of props which included a
basket chair that wheeled Debra Monk onto the still imaginary boardwalk.
The voices I heard were un-miked (in an ideal world, the only way to
hear people sing), and the "plot" for the four numbers that were performed was synopsized by
choreographer Susan Stroman and director Scott Ellis . This kind of use-your-imagination
experience is actually a great way to
attune one's eye and ear to the music and the performers. Here then
four pieces of "evidence" to back up the it's a hit sense I took away from the March 4th sneak
peek, plus some bits and pieces about people in the show.
1. A Book That Gives A Romantic Spin to a Familiar and
Fascinating Historic Situation
2. The Classic Sound of the Hit-Making songwriting
Duo, Kander and Ebb
3. Lots of High-Stepping Dances Choreographed
By the Multiple Award-Winning
4. An Air of Congeniality and High Spirits Throughout
this "Family" Forged from
Months of Rehearsals
Bits and Pieces About People In the Show
A Book That Gives a Romantic Spin to a Familiar and Fascinating Historic Situation
And Place. "Most people associate dance marathons and the Great Depression with
people being desperate for money and nobody having a good time," David Thompson who wrote
the book, told me during an interview after the presentation. "But in 1933 Atlantic City was also
a magical place where all the big bands came to play. Fred Ebb remembers being taken there as
a child and how elegant it was." (A friend of mine, who's about Ebb's age and grew up in
Philadelphia, told me the next day that Atlantic City was indeed a magical destination during her
When I asked Thompson if his story had any of the elements of the movie They Shoot
Horses Don't They, he emphatically stated that this show is a complete turnaround of
that picture's darker vision. "We wanted to show how for many people the marathons were fun
and romantic and represented hope." He mentioned the part Debra Monk plays as an
example. "Her character, Shelby, just loved those dances." Since the
show is based on an
actual place and events, it involved lots of research, including
interviews with people who took part in the marathons and trips to Atlantic City where a remnant
of the Steel Pier still stands. Most of all, it's a love story--a triangle in which Rita, (Karen
Ziemba), is torn between Mick (Gregory Harrison) a tough show biz entrepreneur who could be a
son or nephew of Chicago's Billy Flynn, and the gentle flier Bill, (Daniel
McDonald)--or, perhaps trying her wings without either. To add a dash of intrigue to the
triangle, Rita and Mick are secretly married and being the win-win-win minded guy he is, Mick's
it all fixed up that she'll be the last one standing at the end of the marathon around which the show
The Classic Sound of the Hit-Making songwriting Duo, Kander and Ebb
The two have been a win-win-win team longer than anyone writing music for
Broadway today, and if Steel Pier lives up to my gut feelings, it will be their
second mega hit musical of this season, (Chicago).
The updated version of their Flora, the Red Menace gave three of the key
Pier-ers-- Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson --their big breaks. And it
desire to do something fresh and new with Kander and Ebb, that, according to Thompson, started
the ball rolling for the current show.
What exactly is the classic Kander and Ebb sound? To quote Thompson
once again: "a little sassy and with mustard." Judging from the few
numbers I heard, the two songsmiths are still cutting the mustard. In the Act one,
scene two song "Winning" Mick's character evolves loud and clear as he sings:
"It's a wonderful remedy--winning
You know where the good lies--winning"
and...spreading on the mustard:
"Let scruples melt
Hit them hard below the belt"
The set-up songs also showed a bit of the triangle in the making. We see Mick dancing with
Karen as Bill looks at them yearningly and sings:
"The last girl I'll ever love is over there
Dancing in someone else's arms
She dazzles like a mirror in the sun. . ."
Lots of High-Stepping Dances Choreographed By the Multiple Award-Winning
Like many other musical theater goers, I've admired Stroman's work in hit shows
like, Crazy for You as well as Kander and Ebb's revue, And the World
Goes 'Round, ( in which David Thomson and Karen Ziemba also participated). However
I never met Stroman
until this rehearsal and as I watched her work with the Company before the morning's events got
under way, I was also taken by the genial yet authoritative leadership. Not to mention her
ebullience which somebody ought to bottle and sell as an anti-depressant.
Naturally, any historically accurate show about the famous Marathons will have to have to include
the dances they were expected to perform. The numbers and Stroman has worked them all into
the show. They fall into three main types:
Ballroom numbers Fox Trot. . .Waltz. . .Rumba. . .Quick Step. . .One
Step. . .Two Step. .
.Polka. . .Lindy Hop (reputedly named by a marathon champion Shorty George in honor of
Charles Lindbergh who epitomized the public's fascination with fliers and flying air shows. A
sample dream sequence from the beginning Act 2 was presented as an illustration of the way the
flying as a metaphor for hope and risk-taking permeates the show).
Non-ballroom numbers: Trucking . . .Shag. . .Susie Q. . .Sugar. .
.Black Bottom. . .Charleston. .
.Shimmy. . .Shorty George. . .Eccentric Dance (Cake Walk). .Cattle Walk. . .Castle Polka. . .Soft
Shoe. . .and, of course, Tap Dancing!
Animal Dances: Grizzly Bear. . .Bunny Hug. . .Turkey Trot. . .Moochie. . .Fish
Tail. . .Monkey
Dance. . .Fast Fox Trot. . .Grind Snake. . .Hips. Created during the Ragtime era, animal dances
were a favorite in the marathons. Couples would hold each other so close that one could scarcely
slip a piece of paper between them (much to the dismay of religious groups and morality leagues).
An Air of Congeniality and High Spirits Throughout this "Family" Forged from
Months of Rehearsals This seemed true of the show's head angel, Producer Roger
Berlind, who wandered around the studio like a proud father, the creative team and
the cast. You often hear about the sense of family that develops during a
show's rehearsal period and this was clearly in evidence before the presentation began and
afterwards. You also hear about shows where tension of the black cloud variety, overhangs the
rehearsal studios. Jerry Herman gives some vivid examples in his memoir Showtune. While the weather in New York was
miserable on March 4th, the sunshine that prevailed inside that windowless studio
seemed too real to be a case of putting on a "front" for the press.
Bits and Pieces About People In the Show
Scott Ellis should not be confused with another director, Scott Elliott. Think of Ellis as the
music man whose work includes
She Loves Me,
Company and And the World Goes Round). Think of Elliott as the
drama man--(Present Laughter, The Three Sisters). To add to the potential for
confusion there's Kenneth
Elliott, who's directing the new Off-Broadway musical Green Heart.
choreographer Stroman's last name were Schulman, she might also find herself in this whirlwind
theatrical sound-alikes. You see, there are three Susan Schulmans: one a literary agent and two
involved with current musicals-- (Susan H. is the director of the new muscial
Violet, and Susan L. the press representative for the new Johnny Mercer
The two leading men in Steel Pier are Broadway newcomers with extensive
television and movie credits. Gregory Harrison (Mick) will probably be best known to television
viewers as "Gonzo Gates" on the Emmy Award-winning series Trapper John, M.
D. Daniel McDonald , (Bill), has appeared on the popular soaps All My
Children and Another World. Neither is new to the stage, however
(McDonald's out of town credits include All My Sons. Harrison has played at
Ahmanson Theater in SanFrancisco as well as the Pasadena Playhoue. In case you haven't caught
them on screen or stage and wonder what they look like. Harrison is dark and medium height;
McDonald tall and blonde. And, yes, I would call both very handsome.
The two key female players are theater rooted. Debra Monk, (Shelby), in drama as well as
won a Tony for Redwood Curtain and a Tony nomination for
Picnic. She's also the co-author of
Pump-Boys and Dinettes. Karen Ziemba's, (Rita), dimpled smile has brightened
a whole laundry list of musicals. Interestingly, Victoria Clark, her co-star in the Rogers and
Hammerstein revue A Grand Night for Singing at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow
and Stars, opens in another big American musical, Titanic, around the same
--(a sneak peek at that
show will be posted shortly after this feature.)©right March 1997, Elyse Sommer,
- In case you're confused about who does what in a Kander/Ebb Song--John Kander is the
composer and Fred Ebb the lyricist.
A Book That Gives A Romantic Spin to a Familiar and
Fascinating Historic Situation
The Classic Sound of the Hit-Making songwriting Duo,
K ander and Ebb
Lots of High-Stepping Dances Choreographed
By the Multiple Award-Winning Susan Stroman
An Air of Congeniality and High Spirits Throughout this
"Family" Forged from Months of Rehearsals
Miscellany About People In the Show
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