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Best Performers Forward

How has Best Foot Forward affected musical theater? Filichia buckles down and counts the ways. logo
June Allyson, Victoria Schools, and Nancy Walker
in Best Foot Forward
What good luck for Justin Bohon, Jennifer Cody, Tom Deckman, Sarah Jane Everman, Angela Gaylor, Leah Hocking, Phillip Lestrange, Stacie Morgain Lewis, Michael Mastro, Mark Price, Jim Stanek, and Gene Weygandt! They're all appearing in Best Foot Forward for the York Theatre Company's "Musicals in Mufti" series this weekend.

And why, you ask, are they so fortunate? Mufti means only one week of rehearsals and a five-performance run before it's back to the unemployment line. But Best Foot Forward is a show that seems to offer a bushel of lucky four-leaf clovers to those who become involved with it.

It all started in late 1940, when the already legendary Broadway director (and writer and producer) George Abbott decided that he wanted to do another musical set in a school. For, while Too Many Girls wasn't one of his biggest hits with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, he did have a good time doing it. Though Abbott was already in his 50s, he loved working with young people, and this would give him another chance to do so. In fact, he figured that if the show were set in a prep school rather that a college, the kids could be even younger still. So John Cecil Holm, Abbott's co-writer on the big hit Three Men on a Horse, provided the story of boys at a school inviting actress Gale Joy to their prom and Joy's press agent thinking he could get a lot of heartwarming ink for her if she accepts. But how will the boys' girlfriends react when this siren arrives on campus?

There may have been another, more pragmatic reason why Abbott wanted to do a musical set in a prep school: Many have alleged that Abbott realized such a show could employ actors who would be too young for the draft. Granted, in early 1941, no one anticipated the bombing of Pearl Harbor or our necessarily entering World War II, but young men were being conscripted. But this claim may be apocryphal, for Abbott mostly cast Best Food Forward with twentysomething men who managed, one way or another, to avoid military service.

Before that issue was even broached, a bigger one loomed: Who'd write the score? Of course, Abbott first thought of Rodgers and Hart, but he knew that Hart has had been taking too many drinks of late. So he decided -- again, in typical Abbott fashion -- to give someone new a break. He asked Rodgers for his opinion and the composer recommended Hugh Martin, who'd done vocal arrangements for Rodgers and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse and the aforementioned Too Many Girls. Martin had been wanting to work with Ralph Blane, whom he met while both performed in the 1937 musical Hooray for What? Rodgers so believed in the new team that he even became a co-producer of Best Foot Forward, though he did keep that from Hart -- and everyone else, for that matter, as he took no billing.

Martin and Blane came up with a worthy score that included "Ev'ry Time," which decades later made Stephen Sondheim's famous list of songs he'd wished he'd written. And, for a song that's both a handclap of applause and a thumb of the nose, Martin and Blane recycled a title that Rodgers and Hart had used in their On Your Toes: "The Three B's." But while the elder team had taken the expected route of referring to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, the young songwriters opted to celebrate a style of music unknown to those classical greats: the barrelhouse, the boogie woogie, and the blues.

Hugh Martin
The score's biggest hit was "Buckle Down, Winsocki," which later generations would know from a public safety jingle that urged us to "Buckle Up for Safety" once we were seated in our cars. There's a nifty story behind the song: When the show was being written, the name of the prep school was "Tioga," which didn't strike anyone as a euphonious choice. Abbott was quoted as saying, "What we need is a name that has something to do with winning and has a lot of sock in it" -- to which Rodgers allegedly responded, "That's it! Winsocki!"

Soon after Best Foot Forward opened, Martin and Blane left for Hollywood, where they would write the score for their most beloved property: Meet Me in St. Louis, starring a woman whose daughter would have a history with Best Foot Forward. But they weren't the first people connected with the show to be the recipients of good fortune. During auditions, 19-year-old, four-foot-eleven Anna Myrtle Swoyer showed up. Abbott let her perform because he mistakenly thought she was the highly recommended Helen Walker. He sure enjoyed what the eccentric-looking, free-wheeling Swoyer displayed for him, and even though he didn't have a part for her, he decided that she could fit in as "Blind Date" -- even after he learned she wasn't Ms. Walker. Actually, Swoyer met him halfway by changing her surname to Walker (and her first name to Nancy).

One of the show's leading roles was portrayed by an actress who'd been Betty Hutton's understudy in the previous season's Panama Hattie. When Hutton fell ill, in stepped this June Allyson for five performances. Wouldn't you know that Abbott happened to attend one of those performances and felt Allyson would hit the spot in his new show? Indeed, she did. Both she and Walker got reprised their roles in the 1943 movie version of Best Foot Forward, which helped Walker's career a little and Allyson's a lot.

Best Foot Forward sounds as if it should be a dancing show, and choreography was certainly an important component. Once again, Abbott went to a novice, someone he'd cast as the lead in his Pal Joey. While Gene Kelly had done the choreography for William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, a play with a couple of dances, this would be the first (but hardly last) time he'd do the dances for a full-fledged musical.

Kelly's brother Fred was his assistant and, some months after the opening, Fred dropped by the theater to introduce his fiancée, Dorothy Greenwalt, to the company. Martin and Blane happened to be there and asked Dottie how they met. "I just adored the boy next door," she said, and added that they both lived on Kensington Street in Pittsburgh. Bet you can guess what happened after that.

Meanwhile, in the Best Foot Forward chorus were Stanley Donen, the future Hollywood director, and Danny Daniels, who'd wind up choreographing on Broadway -- and off, including the 1963 Off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward, which he also directed. That revival, which played the now-defunct Stage 73 (on 73rd Street, natch), was produced by a four-person team headed by Arthur Whitelaw. It was Whitelaw's first such effort in New York City but not his last. Four years later, he co-produced You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and, two years after that, the smash-hit Broadway comedy Butterflies Are Free.

Liza Minnelli and Christopher Walken
in Best Foot Forward
The 1963 revival of Best Foot Forward had Ronald Walken in the cast. Never heard of him? Oh, but you did, after he changed his first name to Christopher. And then there was that daughter of the Meet Me in St. Louis star, one Liza Minnelli, in her first New York City appearance. Martin and Blane took a song they'd written for her mother to sing in St. Louis -- "You Are For Loving" -- and added it to the score for her. Cadence Records, which would release the revival cast album (with a cover that's seasick green in color), decided to release Minnelli's rendition of this song as a single with "What Do You Think I Am?" on the flip side. It didn't sell well, but there's no denying that Minnelli's appearance in Best Foot Forward -- which Abbott attended, of course -- was an important component in her getting her next show, the Abbott-helmed Flora, the Red Menace, for which she won her first Tony.

Oh, and Best Foot Forward even provided a big break for Richard Rodgers: When the noted composer was in Philadelphia to see the show's tryout, he decided to take a side trip to nearby Doylestown. There he met with Oscar Hammerstein II and asked the down-on-his-luck bookwriter-lyricist if he'd be interested in working with him. Now, no one can say for sure that Rodgers wouldn't have approached Hammerstein at another time or in another place, but no one can deny that he did pay a call when he found himself in Hammerstein's neighborhood. And you know what happened to musicals because of that.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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