The Missed History of Ten Cents a Dance
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
Ten Cents a Dance
The first moment of the musical Ten Cents a Dance, which opened last weekend at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, is wonderful setup for the show to come. A forlorn young man slowly descends a spiral staircase, moves to a piano at the center of an stage, sits down and begins to play and sing the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart classic song Blue Moon. As he does, five women, all dressed alike, descend the staircase, very slowly, and the musical seems ready to begin.
It does, and it doesn’t.
Ten Cents a Dance is not a typical musical with songs, book and story. It’s not really a revue of hit Rodgers and Hart songs. It is not a jukebox musical, like so many staged in recent years. It is not performance art. It is not a concert.
The show is a combination of all of these. Its strength is the wonderful music of Rodgers and Hart, from Blue Moon to Isn’t It Romantic to With a Song in My Heart. The pair wrote the music to 28 plays and several movies from 1919 to 1943. Altogether, they penned an incredible 500 songs. The weakness of the all-musical show is the lack of a book and plot. A bigger weakness is the lack of much history that should have been underscored in a show about the ten cents a dance halls of Depression America, a fascinating chapter of history hinted at by the title of the play that was one of Rodgers and Hart’s hits.
Rodgers and Hart fans will see this show ten times. It is loaded with their memorable songs (Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp, This Can’t Be Love). Others might want to think about catching it.
The story told in this revue is that of love in the 1930s and 1940s and, well, any time. All of the songs and their lyrics tell the stories of different lovers in different cities in different moods. Love conquers and love fails, and frustrates all, in the ninety minute production at the beautifully designed Berlind Theater. The women in the show pick up instruments and help the pianist, Johnny, played by Malcolm Gets, play the music. The story in the song lyrics rambles from one tale of love to another.
The performers are gifted. Pianist Gets is superb as sings a number of songs, giving each a different inflection and emotion. He is joined by the equally gifted women: Donna McKechnie, Diana DiMarzio, Jessica Tyler Wright, Jane Pfitsch and Elisa Winter.
It is a fine musical revue with lush overtones that throws the audience back in time. The show rolls along rather slowly at first, but in the middle of it Gets and company sing I’ll Take Manhattan, one of Rodgers and Hart’s best songs, and the revue catches fire. It is not a musical play, though. The songs mildly define love stories, but there is no plot and no dialogue to Ten Cents a Dance.
The real problem with this show is its lost history. In the song Ten Cents a Dance, the performers sing of the old dance halls of the 1930s, where men bought tickets for ten cents each and used them to dance with women. The dance halls had a long and colorful history in America and that would have made for an intriguing musical. That is outlined in the lyrics of the song Ten Cents a Dance. The women singing it complain that as they dance all night, hoping to meet Mr. Right, but they are always saddled with Mr. Wrong. They end the night with unfulfilled dreams and very sore feet.
The ten cents dance halls (also called taxi dancer halls) began in San Francisco in the latter half of the nineteenth century and moved to eastern cities in the 1920s. They became very popular in the Depression because they provided cheap entertainment for men. At one time, there were over 100 of these dance halls in New York City alone. They were Meccas for men and women seeking relationships. Businessmen did not visit them. Their population was mostly blue collar men. They were controversial, too. Clerics and civic leaders accused them of being illicit party emporiums and houses of prostitution. World War Two ended the ten cents a dance hall as a form of U.S. entertainment.
The show was conceived and directed by theater veteran John Doyle. It was first presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in Massachusetts, last summer. Doyle should have staged more of a musical than this revue and zeroed in on the history of the dance halls. Except for that one song, there is none of it here. T he old dance halls are an enchanting historical story, but they are missing at Princeton.
PRODUCTION: Produced by the McCarter Theater in association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Sets: Scott Pask, Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward, Sound: Dan Moses Schreir, Lighting: Jane Cox.
Bruce Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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