Remembering High Button Shoes
Jule Styne was a one of the great composers for the Broadway musical stage, having penned the melodies for such classic scores as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, and Funny Girl. Styne’s first Broadway score, however came in the form of the breezy and bright High Button Shoes, which premiered in 1947. Paired with lyricist Sammy Cahn, the show is best remembered as the musical that introduced that showtune classic “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?” and the clever dance sequences staged by Jerome Robbins.
High Button Shoes had a book by Stephen Longstreet that was greatly retooled by director George Abbott, with many additions made by comedic actor extraordinaire Phil Silvers, before the show opened on Broadway. Set in New Jersey, the musical begins in New Brunswick where the Longstreet family reside. Papa, Mama, Mama’s sister Fran, and her college boyfriend named Oggle find their lives in an uproar when they get mixed-up with a con-man named Harrison Hill and his sidekick Mr. Pontdue. The criminal duo fleece the Longstreet’s in a phony land deal, then skip town for Atlantic City, but before Floy becomes romantically involved with Fran, who goes with them. Once at the seaside with a bag of stolen money, the trio wend their way through a series of complications that include encountering Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and Keystone Cops, a set of twins, beachgoers, lifeguards, criminals, and, get this, a gorilla. Floy thinks he loses all the money when he bets on a Princeton football game. Desperate and about to go to jail, we soon learn that Pontdue, who was responsible for placing the bet for Floy, actually bet on a horse named “Princeton.” The horse wins the race and Floy is able to pay the Longstreet’s and others back the money he stole.
Jerome Robbins seized the opportunity with this cartoonish and crazy musical to create some of his most delightful, comedy-driven choreography. His “Bathing Beauty Ballet,” set to Liszt’s “On A Sunday By the Sea,” as well as his Second Hungarian Rhapsody, and Offenbach’s can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld, perfectly captured the silent film era icons. His staging of the Keystone Cops bordered on musical comedy genius, like a silent film comedy short was unfolding on a Broadway stage.
Opening at Broadway’s New Century Theatre on October 9, 1947, High Button Shoes then transferred to first the Shubert Theatre and then the Broadway. An unqualified hit, the show racked up a total of 727 performances. The cast was led by Silvers and the always charming Nanette Fabray. In supporting roles were Mark Dawson, Lois Lee, Jack McCauley, Clay Clement, Nathaniel Frey, and Helen Gallagher. At the second annual Tony Awards, Robbins was awarded for his showstopping choreography.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His forthcoming book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America,will hit the shelves in October, 2019. Hemaintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.