High Button Shoes opened on Broadway 70 years ago with Phil Silvers

Seventy years ago on 9 October “High Button Shoes” opened at The New Century Theatre in New York.   It was composer Jule Styne’s first Broadway musical – indeed his first of his many hits, running for 727 performances.  The show was based on a 1946 novel by Stephen Longstreet called The sisters liked them handsome, thought to be semi-autobiographical.  George Abbott had read it and had seen the possibilities of making it into a musical and Stephen Longstreet agreed as long as he wrote it.   

Jule Styne’s lyricist was Sammy Cahn with whom he had started writing in Hollywood for the likes of Frank Sinatra.  They had already written one show “Glad to See You!” which closed Broadway bound  in 1943 in Philadelphia.  Cahn would return to Broadway three times, once again with Styne, but none of those shows were as successful as “High Button Shoes”.  London born Jule Styne on the other hand would go on to write some of the most important shows of Broadway’s golden period.

“High Button Shoes” was not a show to survive the years.  There have been few revivals.  It was originally noted for its comic side and its choreography.   Its book was amusing – but slight – concentrating on the happening amongst the Longstreet family and a couple of con men in Atlantic City.  The stars were Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabrey, neither at that time Broadway names.  Silvers had started in Vaudeville but had begun to find success in Hollywood.  Fabrey was almost totally a Hollywood product but one who would successfully change course for Broadway.  Silvers played one of the con-man and Fabrey the loving wife in the Longstreet family.   

So, when “High Button Shoes” went into rehearsals there was little or no Broadway experience with the show writers or stars.  However, the director George Abbott had already spent decades on Broadway and he brought in others who were tried and tested.  As his choreographer he chose Jerome Robbins whose work in ballet and on shows such as On the Town was modern and exciting.  Also the designers Oliver Smith and Miles White had the necessary experience.

Stephen Longstreet’s script was, it appears, almost totally unworkable.  He was a talented and successful author and had already worked in the film industry.  But, he had no stage experience and it showed.  Phil Silvers was in particular horrified as he knew comedic stage craft and began to work especially on his role.  Soon George Abbott stepped in, but only after getting from the producers additional rights, allowing Longstreet to get full billing.  The book that materialised was recognised as workable but not remarkable.

What brought the show hit status was the choreography by Jerome Robbins together with the stars’ performances and no doubt Abbott’s direction.  Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabrey proved themselves stars and would have other hits on Broadway.  Robbin’s choreography won him that year’s Tony Award.  His masterpiece being ‘The Bathing Beauty Ballet’ early in the second act, set on Atlantic City’s boardwalk.  He used the music for ‘On a Sunday by the Sea’ but had added sections of Offenbach’s Can-Can and Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody to create a slapstick silent film style piece much in the Mack Sennett tradition set on the boardwalk and amongst the changing huts.

“High Button Shoes” was presented in London on 22 December 1948 and ran for 291 performances at the London Hippodrome.  However, its place in London Theatre history is more because in the chorus was Audrey Hepburn.  Lew Parker played the Silvers’ part.  It was described as the ‘new song & dandy show’ and played twice nightly.

While no revivals have occurred in the UK it was revived at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1982 and in 2007. There was also an American television production on NBC that was broadcast live on 24 November 1956.       

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive