Forgotten Musicals Friday: LOOK MA, I’M DANCIN’!

Nancy Walker and Harold Lang in LOOK MA, I'M DANCIN'!
Nancy Walker and Harold Lang in Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!

Welcome back to the site! Why don’t you stay for the night? I could show you my favourite obsession…. Well, it isn’t The Rocky Horror Show. That’s not a forgotten musical. On the other hand, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! is, one that is so charming that it would be churlish not to shine the spotlight on it here.

Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! is a show that is little more than a footnote on the careers of a whole bunch of entertainment industry legends. Composer-lyricist Hugh Martin had already been nominated for two Academy Awards for his contributions to Meet Me in St Louis and Good News. Book-writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee would go on to write the Broadway classic, Mame. Producer-director George Abbott was in the middle of his extraordinary career, while co-director and choreographer Jerome Robbins would go on to help create a string of Broadway classics like West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof, having already had significant success with On the Town.

While the show wasn’t a great hit, at least it didn’t flop. Although it closed within six months after 188 performances at the Adelphi Theatre in New York, it turned a small profit. Listening to the delightful cast recording makes one wonder why the show has slipped into obscurity because if it has nothing else, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! has the most wonderful score. There are a number of high points: the characterful tour de force “Gotta Dance,” the hilarious novelty song “I’m the First Girl,” and the jaunty “Shauny O’Shay” among them. Every song is charming and the performances from Harold Lang, Nancy Walker, Sandra Deel and Bill Shirley are fantastic. And yet, Martin felt that the songs he wrote didn’t represent his best efforts and were – in his words – ‘OK.’ He attributed this to his knowledge that he had written some great tunes upfront and that he ‘relaxed a little’ when writing the rest. See the liner notes from the cast album for more details on that.

One also wonders how the Lawrence and Lee book landed? With some autobiographical elements contributed by Robbins, who had already pitched his original ideas to Arthur Laurents, the show follows the wacky misadventures of an heiress who uses the money from the Milwaukee brewery she has inherited to produce a ballet for herself. This puts her on a collision course with an egotistical dancer and choreographer, who is helping to shake up the ballet in his own way. It does recall the joyous comic nonsense of shows from the twenties, so were Lawrence and Lee not able to tailor the free-wheeling content to the taste of audiences in the late 1940s? Would Laurents have brought things together in a way that would have propelled Look Ma, I’m Dancin! to the status of other musical comedy classics? Or was Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ a casualty of the post-Oklahoma! push for integration?

Whatever the reason, it’s a pity this show hasn’t been rediscovered, even if only for a staged concert or something of that nature. If you haven’t listened to the score before, catch some of the highlights in the playlist below – then share your thoughts in the comments section. You won’t regret it!

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