The Killer Ballet that Changed Broadway: Reviving “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”
By Susan Reiter
In 1936, George Balanchine was a young Russian choreographer who had been in the United States for three years. He had launched a ballet school and was trying to establish a permanent company; Broadway musicals were hardly familiar terrain.
But he came to the attention of Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and George Abbott, who recognized his talents and wisely brought him onto the creative team for a musical called On Your Toes.
The show’s plot revolved around a Russian ballet troupe and the scenario included two major ballets, one at the end of each act, that were integral to the plotline and characters—not a fluff y distraction from the main drama, as was typical of musical theater at the time. “Once Larry and I had seen his work, Balanchine was the man we wanted,” Rodgers wrote.
The first of the ballets in On Your Toes was “La Princesse Zenobia,” a witty send-up of the heavily sensual exoticism of Scheherezade, a Ballets Russes staple. The Act Two ballet was the justly celebrated “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the jazz ballet on which so much of the musical’s plot pivots. Richly textured and rhythmically vibrant, it evoked the tawdry speakeasy where danger lurks amid the celebration, and death is never far away.
Though Balanchine’s original choreography for the 1936 production has been lost to time, his later work on “Slaughter”—in 1968 for New York City Ballet and in 1983 for the Broadway revival—endures. It will be staged for the Encores! production by Susan Pilarre, a former NYCB soloist who was one of the ballet mistresses for the 1983 revival. Warren Carlyle, the production’s overall director/choreographer, will create a new version of “Zenobia.”
The staging of “Slaughter” for Encores! has been underwritten by Frederic M. Seegal, a member of New York City Center’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee. “This is a natural outcome of all the other things that I’ve done, in terms of sponsoring and underwriting dance-related activities at City Center,” said Seegal, who is the organization’s leading supporter of dance programming. Among the many programs and performances he underwrites is the New York City Center Choreographic Fellowship, which he created last year as a way to support dance makers at critical stages in their careers.
Back in the 1930s, Balanchine found himself at a critical stage in his career. In his twenties, he had created landmark works for Serge Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballets Russes (two of those, Apollo and Prodigal Son, are still widely performed today). But that iconoclastic impresario’s death in 1929, and his company’s sudden demise, had left Balanchine at loose ends. He worked in major European cities with varying degrees of success but dreamed of founding a permanent, enduring ballet institution. With the help of Lincoln Kirstein—a moneyed, visionary young American who recognized the choreographer’s transcendent gifts—Balanchine made his way to New York in 1933.
Balanchine’s first brush with commercial theater came in January 1936, when he was hired to create dances for the latest edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies. His task was to provide material for none other than Josephine Baker. On Your Toes was set to open three months later.
Although Balanchine seemed to be the perfect choreographer for the job, Rodgers was initially wary of the collaboration. “I expected fiery temperament,” the composer is quoted as saying in Bernard Taper’s Balanchine biography. “He was Russian, artistic, a genius. I was scared stiff of him.” What Rodgers hadn’t realized was that for Balanchine, the music was everything in terms of choosing projects. He recognized the genius of Rodgers’ score in no time; for him it was about quality, not categories. “He used the music just the way I had written it, and created his dance dance patterns to conform,” Rodgers wrote.
Balanchine filled the pseudo-Russian ballet at the end of On Your Toes’ first act, “La Princesse Zenobia,” with in-jokes that registered most keenly with those who knew ballet from the inside. Vera Zorina, the glamorous ballerina-actress (and future Mrs. Balanchine) who starred in the 1937 London production, the 1939 fi lm and the 1954 Broadway revival, attended the Broadway opening night with her fellow ballet dancers. In her autobiography, she called “Zenobia” “a delicious satire of ballet” recalling that “the loudest laughter came from us.”
In the show, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is proposed as something new for the company—a “jazz ballet.” The Russian company director (originally Monty Woolley) and the self absorbed lead danseur want nothing to do with it, while the tempestuous Russian ballerina Vera Barnova—who gets to portray a striptease girl involved with gangsters—and others embrace it. Rodgers composed an extended orchestral piece for the ballet, and Balanchine’s two lead dancers certainly provided ample inspiration. Tamara Geva, who played the leading role of Vera Barnova, had been a fellow student of Balanchine’s in Russia and the two had married in their teens, joining Diaghilev’s troupe soon after. By 1936 they had long gone their separate ways, but they resumed their professional connection with this musical.
Playing the tricky role of Phil Dolan III—the vaudeville hoofer-turned-music professor who winds up partnering Vera Barnova in “Slaughter”—was Ray Bolger, whose blend of charm, eccentricity and technical skills were on full display. (In 1948, he had another triumph in a Balanchine-choreographed hit, Where’s Charley?.) He put his distinctive stamp on “Slaughter,” helping to make it a show-stopping sensation. “When it came to the end of the ballet, where I have to do my own thing, I did a lot of eccentric jumping-up steps, anything I liked, a hodgepodge. Balanchine just let me go,” he recalled in a 1980s interview.
(An interesting side note: The On Your Toes creative team, which had spent the previous years focusing on film projects, had initially conceived the show as a vehicle for Fred Astaire. But after Rodgers and Hart presented Astaire with an outline and a few songs, Rodgers wrote in his autobiography, “[Astaire] was afraid his public wouldn’t accept him in a role that would not allow him to wear his trademark attire of top hat, white tie and tails.”)
On Your Toes not only demonstrated how brilliantly Balanchine could blend the classical and commercial, it set a new standard for dancing in Broadway musicals. Balanchine insisted that his credit should be “choreography by”—the first time that appeared in a Broadway program. Thanks to his contributions, the show is considered the first in which choreography was fully integrated into the action, paving the way for Agnes de Mille’s further achievements starting with Oklahoma!. Balanchine himself went on to choreograph three more Rodgers and Hart musicals: Babes in Arms, I Married an Angel, and The Boys from Syracuse.
Balanchine returned to “Slaughter” in 1968, creating a new version for the New York City Ballet. The Striptease Girl was performed by his favored ballerina of that era, Suzanne Farrell. In her autobiography, she recalls that Balanchine “was in very high spirits” as he restaged the work 32 years later, bringing Rodgers and Bolger into the studio. But Geva, in an interview, has claimed the 1968 choreography is quite different from what she and Bolger performed. Balanchine retained the spirit of the original but drew on the individual qualities and talents of Farrell and Arthur Mitchell, who took on Bolger’s role.
As Farrell notes, dance critics were not so taken, preferring Balanchine in his more elevated mode. But audiences responded, and “Slaughter” remained in NYCB’s repertory for several years, returning in 1986 after Farrell re-joined the company. (It is revived periodically, and recently received performances this spring as part of NYCB’s American Music Festival.)
In 1983, Natalia Makarova joined the list of illustrious ballerinas who portrayed Vera Barnova when On Your Toes had a hugely successful Broadway revival. George Abbott, then 95, directed once again. Balanchine was seriously ill but was able to cast Makarova for the role, and she went on to win the Tony Award. The revival ran for 505 performances.
Pilarre recalled that Balanchine’s participation in 1983 was limited to some casting choices and looking at costume designs. The version of “Slaughter” that she staged for that revival drew on NYCB’s 1968 version, but one charming bit was added—something Pilarre noticed in the 1939 fi lm, with Zorina and Eddie Albert performing “Slaughter.” Two waiters engage in some deftly timed byplay, simultaneously lighting each other’s cigarettes. “And now it’s back in City Ballet’s version. It wasn’t there in 1968,” she notes.
The large dance ensemble for the Encores! production includes those who can handle the ballet requirements of “Zenobia,” the jazziness of “Slaughter,” and the all-American verve (and tap dance material) of several extended musical numbers. “So many people are on Broadway now who were ballet dancers, in ballet companies,” says Pilarre, a longtime faculty member at School of American Ballet. “Dancers nowadays can do anything.”
The remaining choreography is up to Carlyle, the busy choreographer/director whose Cotton Club Parade will move to Broadway this fall. “I did the choreography for Encores! On the Town, and that was almost an hour of dance music. On Your Toes comes a close second to that,” said Carlyle, who took time for an interview during the week when his choreography for another Rodgers show, Carousel, was seen at the New York Philharmonic.
The British-born Carlyle has the ideal background for On Your Toes; he trained as a classical dancer and performed briefly with a company before moving into musical theater. For “Zenobia,” his intent is to set up a strong contrast with “Slaughter.” “It’s this very Russian, creaky old ballet, with some comedy in it once Junior gets involved. I love the difference between the two.” Both he and Pilarre promise that, despite the presence of the substantial Encores! Orchestra, the stage will be designed to allow maximum space for the dancing.
“I think it’s going to be very interesting for the audience to get a glimpse at what a ballet company is like. It won’t be tongue-in-cheek… but it will be heightened. These are larger-than-life characters. It’s really fun to jump into that world. I think [the show’s] ballet world will be true, but heightened.”
Susan Reiter is a frequent Playbill contributor
whose articles on the performing arts appear in
the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and
many other publications.
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