Broadway lyricists had it easy with Fred and Adele...
Broadway lyricists had it easy with Fred and Adele...
How many words rhyme with "Noah?" Very few. Protozoa. Boa. And, as you'll remember from Stephen Sondheim's "Remember," so-a, as in "so a-dept." But other than that, there are only a few proper nouns that represent a person (Balboa), places (Samoa, Shenandoah, and Figueroa, that big street in Los Angeles), and things (again, Shenandoah -- a much-overrated musical).

How many words rhyme with "Racey?" A few more but not many. Again, most are proper nouns. Basie, as in Count; Casey, as in Stengel; Gacy, as in John Wayne; Gracie, as in Allen; Tracy, as in Dick; Macy, as in William H.; Spacey, as in Kevin; and Stacey, as in Keach. Of course, while "Spacey" can refer to Kevin, give it a lower-case "s" and you've got a slang term that can be used for someone who isn't too bright and doesn't quite focus. There's also "lacy," but nothing else rhymes with "Racey." (Yes, there's "racy," which means something risqué, but that's actually not a rhyme for "Racey." It's a homonym.)

Why, you ask, is this of any concern? Because Noah Racey is the lead in the new Broadway musical Never Gonna Dance, loosely based on the 1936 movie Swing Time. The film starred Fred Astaire, paired with Ginger Rogers for the sixth time. Many feel that it's their best flick together.

This is, needless to say, Racey's big break. He made his Broadway debut a scant two-and-a-half years ago as a replacement in the 2001 Follies revival (as Young Theodore). The following year, he was not only in but also assistant-choreographed Thoroughly Modern Millie. Now that he's playing Astaire's old role of John "Lucky" Garnett, the 33-year-old has made a quantum leap in a short period of time.

If he keeps going at this rate, Racey may become a genuine idiom for a suave leading male dancer. And if that happens, Broadway lyricists may want to use his name in lyrics the way their forebears used Astaire as a synonym for elegance and fine dancing. The difference is that they won't have as many choices as they did with Astaire -- e.g., air, bare, bear, Blair, blare, care, chair, Cher, Claire, dare, Eyre, fair, fare, flair, flare, glare, hair, heir, lair, mare, ne'er, pair, pear, prayer, rare, scare, share, spare, square, stair, swear, tear, there, they're, ware, wear, and where. And those are just the single-syllable ones. We haven't even got to affair, aware, beware -- well, I could go on, but you get the point.

Would Fred Astaire have been mentioned as much had he retained his real name, Fred Austerlitz? Well, even with that moniker, he was able to crash one lyric: Comden and Green, in their 1964 show, Fade Out, Fade In, found a rhyme for his cumbersome name, though they did concede that "Fred Astaire would have wound up playing bits / With his real name, Fred Austerlitz."

What's so staggering is how long Astaire has remained in the consciousness of lyricists. Lorenz Hart used his name both in the '30s ("Look up to some rare male like that Astaire male" goes a line in the title song of On Your Toes) and '40s (in Pal Joey's "Do It the Hard Way," we hear that "Fred Astaire once worked so hard, he often lost his breath, and now he taps all other chaps to death"). The 11 o'clock number in Look Ma, I'm Dancin' contended that "We'll never dance like Adele and Fred Astaire."

Lyric references to Fred continued into the '50s. Though audiences wouldn't hear the line for decades, it was during that decade that Sondheim wrote the lyric "It took Fred Astaire years to learn to tap out that tattoo" for Saturday Night's "A Moment with You." In Bells Are Ringing, Ella wonders of her phone crush, "Can he dance like Fred Astaire?" In Fiorello!, Mitzi claims that Mayor Walker is "as graceful as Fred Astaire" in "Gentleman Jimmy." In Gypsy, Tulsa cries "Astaire bit!" in the midst of "All I Need Is the Girl." Oh, and "If you've seen Astaire" is a quick quip in Mr. Wonderful's "Charlie Welch."

...but how will they fare with Noah and Nancy?(Photo © Andrew Eccles)
...but how will they fare with Noah and Nancy?
(Photo © Andrew Eccles)
That last-named show starred Sammy Davis, who, nine years later in 1964 in Golden Boy's "Can't You See It?" noted that "Every cop dances by like Fred Astaire." Not long before, Steve Lawrence had sung that he "could dance rings around Fred Astaire" when he got his new pair of shoes in What Makes Sammy Run? And not long after, Jerry Herman wrote an entire song called "Fred Astaire" for Mame, as a January 1966 song list shows. Older Patrick sang it as he prepared for a night on the town; I've never heard it but I would think that Herman would be the right guy to write a toe-tapping melody about Fred Astaire. That song was cut from the show but, less than a year later, Sherry! had a dance number called "The Fred Astaire Affair." And, in the '70s, the line "Like Fred and Adele, they're floating on air now" showed up in Annie's "I Don't Need Anything But You."

Nor has Fred been neglected in recent years. In Yours, Anne, Enid Futterman had Anne Frank yearn "to be in Hollywood with Fred Astaire." In fact, though Astaire died in 1987, he was much remembered on Broadway in the '90s. "It's what Ginger asked Fred," both Nick and Nora sang in "Is There Anything Better Than Dancing?" In Steel Pier, one Fred (Ebb) honored another in "Dance with Me" when he wrote that "Fred and Adele never glided as well." Fred was mentioned on Broadway eight times a week for 10 straight years in Miss Saigon, as the Engineer sang "On stage each night: Fred Astaire" in "The American Dream."

But rhymes for both "Noah" and "Racey" almost exclusively depend on proper names, and songs that use them have gone out of style. If Racey rose to stardom in the '30s, Cole Porter could have written, "You're the top! Say, you're Noah Racey! You're the top! Hey, you're Spencer Tracy!" List songs like that are rarely written nowadays but they certainly were written back then; in "You're the Top," Porter himself wrote, "You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire."

Well, maybe I shouldn't worry too much about rhymes for "Noah Racey." I've just noticed that most of those Fred Astaire references were at the beginning or in the middle of the lines that contained them, so they didn't need to be rhymed. While that's good for Racey, it's even better for his leading lady, who's also come a long way in a short time. After all, there can't be many rhymes for "Lemenager."

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]