The first collaboration between composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn was the musical Glad to See You, a show that folded on the road. Their second collaboration made it to town, though, and became a hit.
It was High Button Shoes, which opened at the New Century Theatre in October, 1947 and ran a healthy 727 performances transferring to the Shubert and the Broadway Theatres. The show's book was originally by Stephen Longstreet, based on his autobiographical novel The Sisters Liked Them Handsome. But the libretto was extensively rewritten by the show's expert director, George Abbott.
Set in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1913, High Button Shoes focused on con artist Harrison Floy, who returns to his home town with an accomplice, Mr. Pontdue. Floy ingratiates himself with the Longstreet family and pretends that he can sell their swamp land, intending to abscond with the money. Floy elopes to Atlantic City with Mama Longstreet's sister, an uproarious chase occurs, and Floy is ultimately persuaded to shift his con act to another town.
A mix of nostalgia, vaudeville, burlesque, and contemporary musical comedy, High Button Shoes had several major attractions, especially its pair of stars. In his second Broadway musical, Phil Silvers' clowning carried the evening, while Mrs. Longstreet was played by the vivacious Nanette Fabray. Silvers apparently contributed to the book with his ad-libs; as the star wrote in his autobiography, "By opening night, not one line of my part remained from Stephen Longstreet's original script." The cast also included Silvers' old burlesque pal, Joey Faye, as Pontdue; Lois Lee as mama's sister; Mark Dawson as her football-playing love interest; Helen Gallagher as the Longstreet maid; and Donald Saddler as mama's brother. The latter pair shared a show-stopping tango. Saddler would go on to choreograph Gallagher's 1971 comeback hit, No, No Nanette.
But the most talked-about aspect of High Button Shoes was choreographer Jerome Robbins' second-act, Atlantic City "Mack Sennett Ballet," a masterpiece of choreography in the style of silent-film comedy, with principals, Keystone Kops, and Bathing Beauties whirling through an exhausting routine. The number was also a highlight when it was recreated for the 1989 show Jerome Robbins' Broadway.
High Button Shoes wasn't of the caliber of such then-current hits as Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, Finian's Rainbow, or Brigadoon, but it was a crowd-pleaser. With reservations about the script, the critics mostly approved, and everyone cheered the Sennett ballet. In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson described it as "an immensely likable musical show. Phil Silvers is an uproarious comic. You don't have to be a college graduate to enjoy it." John Chapman in The Daily News called it "a happy romp for people who just want to see a show without getting all cluttered up with art."
The national touring company of High Button Shoes was headed by Eddie Foy, Jr., a payback for his having starred in the unfortunate Styne-Cahn Glad to See You. Lew Parker headed the 1948 London company 291 performances. Curiously, there was no film version of High Button Shoes, but there were two television productions. The first, in 1956, had Fabray and Faye repeating their original roles, joined by Hal March and Don Ameche. In 1966, the show became the basis for an episode of "The Garry Moore Show," with guest stars Maureen O'Hara, Carol Lawrence, Jack Cassidy, Jerry Lanning, and Ruth Buzzi. High Button Shoes was revived at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1982.
Styne's first Broadway score had two hit songs, both for the Longstreets Fabray and Jack McCauley, "Papa, Won't You Dance With Me?" and "I Still Get Jealous." The latter was also featured in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, performed by Jason Alexander and Faith Prince. Also highly attractive are two duets for Dawson and Lee, "Can't You Just See Yourself in Love with Me?" and "You're My Girl."
Those numbers can all be heard on RCA Victor's High Button Shoes cast album, which consisted of four ten-inch 78s, preserving only eight of the show's songs. Omitted were such numbers as the opening/closing "He Tried to Make a Dollar"; "Next to Texas, I Love You" Dawson, Lee; "Security" Fabray, Lee; and "Bird Watcher's Song" Fabray. Unheard on the cast album, the Sennett ballet found its way onto Lehman Engel's Ballet on Broadway disc and later onto the cast album of Jerome Robbins' Broadway.
If it's brief, the High Button Shoes cast album is entirely pleasant. Because of its length, Sepia has combined it on a single disc with the CD debut of another RCA Broadway cast recording, that of the 1951 musical Seventeen, based on Booth Tarkington's popular 1916 novel of teenage romance.
The novel had already been made into a stage play, two movies, and a previous Broadway musical Hello, Lola, 1926 when it became the Broadway musical Seventeen, co-produced by "Mr. Television" himself, Milton Berle. The book for Seventeen was written by Sally Benson Meet Me in St. Louis, with songs by Hollywood writers Walter Kent music and Kim Gannon lyrics.
Set in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1907, Seventeen offered a charming depiction of the pain of young love, focusing on the uproar a town is thrown into by the summer visit of the flirtatious young Lola Pratt, who speaks in baby-talk and carries her dog, Floppit, everywhere she goes. Kenneth Nelson, who would create the role of Matt in The Fantasticks nine years later, was hero Willie Baxter, and the cast also included Ellen McCown, later the heroine of Greenwillow.
Seventeen got the choice Broadhurst when Flahooley closed prematurely. Seventeen's best review came from Atkinson in The Times, who felt it was "still a touching and uproarious portrait of the torture of adolescence." Otherwise, the reviews were mixed, and the show was not helped by opening in June, which was unusual at the time. Then too, while the show was enjoyable, it faced competition from more high-powered Broadway musicals, including Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I, Phil Silvers in Top Banana, plus South Pacific and Guys and Dolls.
Seventeen closed after 180 performances, but was, for a time, frequently mounted by schools and community theatres. A terrific score might have made the show a hit, for its book is a successful adaptation of Tarkington. But as the recording reveals, the songs, while always pleasant and catchy, just miss distinction. Two duets stand out: "This Was Just Another Day" Nelson and Ann Crowley as Lola and "After All, It's Spring" McCown and Dick Kallman.
Seventeen is appealing but slightly dull. Still, Sepia's combination of Seventeen and High Button Shoes, scheduled for release on April 5, is a must for collectors who have been waiting for CDs of these Victor titles. The CD's bonus tracks include Gordon MacRae's single of "I Still Get Jealous" and Doris Day's of "Pappa, Won't You Dance with Me?"