John & Fred & Scott & "Stro" & David & Karen & Joel—it sounds like an over-populated Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice pajama party, but it's sturdier stuff.
These are the pillars of Steel Pier, one of those rarer-than hen's-teeth, from-the-ground-up-original Broadway musicals being constructed for a world premiere this month at the Richard Rodgers by songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman, and book-writer David Thompson and featuring, among its starry ensemble, Karen Ziemba and Joel Blum.
The behind-the-scenes collaborators (one through five) crossed paths six years ago in the tiny Vineyard theatre on Manhattan's East 26th Street, doing a revival of Kander & Ebb's Liza-launching Flora, The Red Menace. Their teamwork struck such agreeable sparks that the quintet opted to go a second round (or, rather, 'round): And the World Goes 'Round was a Kander & Ebb compilation and, easily, the most tuneful show in town from 1991 to 1992; Ziemba was in the starting cast, and Blum boarded it at the first-replacement juncture.
Now, their world has gone another revolution, stopping at Atlantic City, New Jersey's legendary Steel Pier in 1933. How they arrived at this particular point in time is anyone's guess, but the finger of suspicion seems to be wagging in the direction of the man in the director's seat. Ellis got his biggest hit out of that era with his She Loves Me revival and he even tossed his version of William Inge's 1950's-vintage Picnic into that chicken-in-every-pot 1930's. "I think I'm emotionally connected to that period," Ellis allows. "It was a time when the emotion was right on the sleeve. The stakes were high, and the wants were enormous. People were really out there, trying to survive, becoming stronger in the process. I always find that kind of drive very theatrical."
Once they decided to do a nosedive into The Depression, the creators hit the reference books. "We researched heavily with the Time-Life era books," recalls Ebb. "There was a chapter on marathons, and we thought, 'How about that?' I love dancing. It's been much missed in recent musicals. That's one reason Chicago was so well-received: You were really seeing dancing and music. I want you to leave the theatre with that old-fashioned feeling you used to get from a good musical when you walked out humming something."
Certainly, he and his composing partner have gone into overtime trying to concoct the hummable. "It's an incredibly music-driven show," concedes book-writer Thompson, who has his work cut out for him, quick-sketching characters into place. "There's about ten minutes in the show where the orchestra won't be playing. Either the book's underscored or it goes in and out of the songs."
Chief among these marathon contestants dancing their way to hopefully solvent Brave New Worlds is Rita, a role specifically tailored to Ziemba. "It was a great time to be a heroine," she says, "and I think audiences of today can relate to her like, 'Go, girl!' She's a life force, and people love her because of that. There are a lot of things that go on in her life that bring her down, just like anybody, and she has to be a survivor to come through it."
In Thompson's view Rita is presented "as a woman who learns, in the course of the play, she has the ability to make a choice." Her moral dilemma takes the form of the men in her life Mick, the opportunistic marathon emcee to whom she is secretly wedded (Gregory Harrison), and Bill, a fair-haired aviator to whom she is momentarily partnered in "This Dance of Life" (Daniel McDonald).
"I love the idea of looking at a very American story, starting from a very American place where you have a hero who represents this idea an optimism that things can happen and you also have somebody like Mick, the other side of that character," says Thompson. "They come from that same source The American Dream going awry and The American Dream that's still alive."
Others in the running/dancing are a blowzy, bossy, been-around Debra Monk and a wiry, winning-obsessed Blum. He got to the race via vaudeville; she arrived from the kitchen. Originally a logging-camp cook, Monk's character started rustling up grub for marathons after her whole forest burned down. "Then," she says, "she saw how much money the winners were making and said, 'Hell, I'm a dancer. I'll do this instead.' She loves to show off. She's got stamina. She's a tough broad, a born survivor." Blum sees his character as an extension (one generation later) of the hard-nosed hoofer he just finished playing in Show Boat "a real snappy song-and-dance man," says Blum. "Vaudeville is dying, so now he's doing marathons. He's like the know-it-all of marathons, telling everybody what it's like in real show business."
There is, in the Steel Pier company, at least one eyewitness to this bygone time and place, an impressionably young, wide-eyed witness and composer Kander has been scouring his home for photographic proof: a yellowed snapshot showing him, at age six, being dangled over the waves by his grandparents.
"It's funny," he muses, "some things in your childhood you have total recall, and some things you can't remember at all. I'll never forget that place. It really was elegant. Men got dressed up to walk on the boardwalk. You wore a tie and jacket. Paul Whiteman had a casino there, and Isham Jones was playing in our hotel. And there were two piers. One was the Million-Dollar Pier where you'd go for ordinary entertainment. On special occasions you'd go to the Steel Pier, which was very tony and glamorous. It had three movies going and a circus, and there was dancing at night. The memory of that is still with me. So when we started working on this, the whole thing had a resonance for me."