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Tony Hunter, a famous singer/dancer movie star, is feeling washed up and old hat (old top hat, tie and tails to be exact). The reporters are out for Ava Gardner, not him. But his old friends Lily and Les Martin have an idea for a funny little Broadway show and he agrees to do it. But things begin to get out of hand, when bigshot "artistic" director/producer/star Jeffrey Cordova joins the production, proclaims it's a modernistic Faust and insists on hiring a prima ballerina, Gabrielle Gerard, to star opposite Tony, and it's hate at first sight. And her jealous choreographer isn't helping to ease the tension. The show is doomed by pretentiousness. But romance, a "let's put on a show" epiphany, and a triumphant opening are waiting in the wings. After all, this is a musical comedy! Written by
MGM, Arthur Freed, Vincent Minelli, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan and that wonderful company behind them. Wow! The Broadway musical is one of America's great contributions to the performing arts, and the Band Wagon delightfully turns its clichés on their heads, with the story of a plucky group of troopers who put all their heart and talent into...a turkey.
Great dancing includes one of Fred Astaire's classic ballet duos, "Dancing in the Dark," with Cyd Charise. She does this spin ending in a semi-kneel, with the mid-calf hem of her dress landing mid-thigh, in order to display one of those spectacular gams of hers...'tis a wonder to behold! Also, there's a number with Astaire and Jack Buchanan, one of the great British variety stars. It's a delight to see this all-too-short exhibition of contrasting dance styles by two master hoofers.
And there's the added treat of Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant (Levant being one those, like Robert Benchley, who entertains by playing himself) standing in for Comden and Green, who happened to write The Band Wagon (as well as Singin' in the Rain and Bells are Ringing). What I like about Comden and Green is, that while most all American musicals come out of New York, the sound of Comden and Green IS New York. They once said, "New York is the ongoing background of our lives - Brooklyn girl, Bronx boy - and whether we have been conscious of it or not, it is the background..."
Yes, there's the music - five numbers, part of the great repertory of American Standards: That's Entertainment, By Myself, You and the Night and the Music, Something to Remember You By, and of course Dancing in the Dark. My favorite dance number after DITD is Shine on My Shoes, surely an under-appreciated classic. All in all, a pretty good score (no pun intended), wouldn't you say?
The story is classified as a "backstage musical," and certainly it is. But there's a scene in Band Wagon with a truly documentary feel. After the show's premier, there's a dress-down cast party. The underpaid company singers and dancers really are in it for the love, and when they want to wind down, they go somewhere cozy, get their drinks and wind down with a lovely, subdued song, Something To Remember You By. (Of course, after Astaire joins them, the volume goes up, and it's a miracle they aren't evicted. I guess New Haven is used to it by now.) When I was a kid I was a gofer for the Metropolitan Opera when it hit my town on its spring tours, and it's why this scene in The Band Wagon rings so true: as a fly on the wall, I lived it a couple of times.
One more element of realism (or life imitating art imitating life): according to the trivia, Buchanan had to have triple root canal work and was in pain for most of the production, and Fabray gashed her knee in "Louisiana Hayride," then had to dance on her knees for the "Triplets" number. Ouch! Talk about plucky troopers!
This was smart and sophisticated musical comedy of the 50s, an era when New York adults still set pop trends and before American culture became corrupted and dumbed down by television. It's not just nostalgia to say they don't make them like they used to.
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