Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! onto Broadway Seventy Years Ago

Seventy years ago on 28 January 1948 at the Adelphi Theatre on Broadway a new musical comedy called “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” opened. It received rather mixed reviews and only managed a run of 188 performances and has hardly been seen or thought of since. But it is well worth re-visiting when considering the people involved with it. The great George Abbott produced and directed it and the choreographer was Jerome Robbins who also ‘conceived’ it. Add to this a book by Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence, a score by Hugh Martin and a cast that included Nancy Walker and Harold Lang.

Jerome Robbins had come from the world of ballet to Broadway mainly due to his Fancy Free ballet that became the inspiration for the Broadway hit On the Town. He had gone on to win a Tony for his work on Best Foot Forward and to be involved with a flop (Billion Dollar Baby). The idea of a musical with a ballet background had been with him for many years and he had started to work on the idea with Arthur Laurents but that earlier planned production fell through.

George Abbott was originally contracted as the director but when the show came back to life he became the producer as well. Robbins was behind the signing up of Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence who, at that stage had no Broadway schooling (they were to go to be very successful playwrights and it was they who brought Jerry Herman’s Mame to the musical stage).

Jerome Robbins wanted to show the cut throat world of International Ballet and to explore again ballet on the Broadway stage. The show was to be about a mixed nationality ballet company on the road and it was to be almost biographical in that the lead dancer would have much of the young Robbins about him. The book that brought this together invented a young lady – a remarkably rich young lady – who so wanted to be a ballet star that she was willing (with her Father’s money) to pay for the cross-country tour.

The young lady was Lilly Molloy from Milwaukee played by comedienne Nancy Walker. Walker had been in the original company of On the Town. The main dancer and choreographer who sees in Lilly a way of funding his ballet innovations (think Robbins) is the brash Eddie Winkler played by Harold Lang. Lang was himself from the world of ballet and he was beginning to build a Broadway career. What had been the surprise was that fact he could sing – his previous shows had mainly shown his dancing skills. Lang would soon revive Pal Joey, another story about a not too pleasant a character, with huge success.

In the plot Eddie is able to extend his ballet company to none classical works of his choice including a bedroom farce ballet ‘Mademoiselle Marie’ that, because of her money, would star Molloy. The ballet is a surprise hit but Eddie has made himself so unpopular that he loses his girlfriend. It is Molloy who steps in and manages to get him to see sense.

Nancy Walker was to receive excellent reviews for her comic ballet stints and as an all-round comic actress. So too was the choreographic element of the show – again Robbins had shown his talent. What was a disappointment was the score – a fact that Hugh Martin recognises. While the numbers for Nancy Walker work others do not ignite. Martin blames himself for being lazy and Abbott was disappointed as he so wanted a song to match ‘The Trolley Song’ (a past Martin hit for Judy Garland).

Songs from the score were recorded prior to the show starting its out-of-town try-out because of the strike planned by the Musicians Union. So the original 10” 78 box set and later the 10” LP are not quite the show that Broadway saw in content or deliverance. But it still worth listening to for the comic attributes of Miss Walker and to hear a young Harold Lang.

There is a later recording issued by Original Cast Records of a rare revival by the Musicals Tonight! Company in 2000.

RSB                                        Illustrations from the Overtures Archive