Remembering Steel Pier
The composing team of Kander and Ebb were often attracted to properties that allowed them to tell a show-within-a-show story, often using the show or entertainment style within to provide commentary on the show the theatre audience is watching. Cabaret (cabaret), Chicago (vaudeville), Kiss of the Spider Woman (film), Curtains (musical theatre), The Scottsboro Boys (minstrel shows) and, even to a degree the village storytellers in Zorba employ this conceit. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the team found a way to utilize the dance marathons in Atlantic City of the 1930s to similar effect in the short-lived musical Steel Pier.
Going into the 1996-1997 Broadway season, Steel Pierwas an eagerly anticipated property for Broadway, but then any Kander and Ebb musical was something to get excited for. The duo had come off a critical success with Kiss of the Spider Woman which won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical, surely their next outing would be just as uniquely brilliant. Unfortunately, an uneven result left those anticipating another Kander and Ebb hit with unfulfilled expectations. This is not to say that there wasn’t much to admire in Steel Pier, merely that those crumbs of perfection didn’t add up to something bigger and better.
Steel Pier told the story of Rita Racine, an aging competitive dancer who is hoping to make her next marathon, her last. When her dance partner is a no-show, she quickly turns to a stunt pilot named Bill Kelly who offers to step-in. Rita quickly becomes smitten with the charming Bill, and when the marathon’s emcee and judge Mick Hamilton gets things underway, she and her new partner take to the floor. Soon we learn that Rita is a part of Mick’s scheme: he makes sure she wins and she splits the prize money with him. We also find out that she is in an abusive marriage with Mick and he has no intention of letting her give up the marathons. Bill and Rita are clearly falling in love, which doesn’t sit well with Mick. But Rita remains resolute that she is done with both the dancing and her marriage. Mick does everything he can to thwart her efforts, but Bill somehow keeps saving the day. By the end of the show, we find out that this handsome, sweet, and protective stunt pilot is actually a ghost who died in a plane crash. Despite being broken-hearted, Rita picks up the pieces of her life and finally leaves Mick, given hope and clarity from this visitor from heaven.
The book for Steel Pier was written by David Thompson, and at its heart there was an outline of a good idea, but the characters were never developed in the detail that they deserved. Kander and Ebb provided a handful of ditties that worked for the show, particularly the hopeful “Willing to Ride”, the saucy “Everybody’s Girl” and the mounting “Everybody Dance.” However, a lot of the score proved to be second-tier Kander and Ebb: fine, sometimes bordering on good, but never as deeply probing as it could be. It almost seemed that, outside the confines of the marathon scenes, the opportunities for character-developing musical numbers were just not there. They team seemed uninspired, as if the lack of direction also led to a lack of prompting toward infectious melody and strong lyrics.
The true highlight of Steel Pier was Susan Stroman’s inventive (and relentless) choreography. With whirls, dips, and lifts, Stroman punctuated the musical’s plot with an almost frenzied fervor, paralleling the desperation to “get out” that Rita was feeling. It was a kaleidoscope of jitterbugging, bunny-hugging, lindy-hopping, and just about every other popular 30s dance style you could think of, all executed with startling precision and crackling electricity.
Steel Pier opened at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre on April 24, 1997. Under the direction of Scott Ellis, the cast included Karen Ziemba, Daniel McDonald, Gregory Harrison, Debra Monk, and, in her Broadway debut, Kristin Chenoweth. Despite eleven Tony nominations including one for Best Musical, Steel Pier went home empty-handed. Titanic,The Life, and the revival of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (which continues to run on Broadway today) took most of the evening’s prizes. Steel Pier folded just a few weeks later after 76 performances.