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The Forgotten Tony Winner of 1984: A Cast Album Review of THE TAP DANCE KID

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The Tap Dance Kid. Book by Charles Blackwell; Music by Henry Krieger; Lyrics by Robert Lorick. With Jimmy Tate (Willie); Martine Allard (Emma); Hinton Battle (Dipsey); Samuel E. Wright (William); Gail Nelson (Ginnie); Jackie Lowe (Carole); Alan Weeks (Daddy Bates). Polydor Records, 1984.

In 1974, the late, Tennessee-born author Louise Fitzhugh wrote a novel for adolescents called Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change. In 1980, the novel became a thirty-minute film called The Tap Dance Kid; perhaps inevitably, this film later served as the basis for a Broadway musical of the same name. The Tap Dance Kid opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in December 1983, won two Tony Awards in 1984, left Broadway in August 1985, toured, and then was revived off-Broadway the following season. After that it dropped, inexplicably, into oblivion. Thus, most readers will be unfamiliar with the excellent and appealing score by Henry Krieger, whose other Tony-winning musical, Dreamgirls (1982), is far better known.

Intricately described in the CD booklet, the basic plot of The Tap Dance Kid is one we’re all sure we’ve heard before: a young and creative boy wants to dance; his uncreative father wants him to be a lawyer. Yet there is a difference: the father and son are black, and tap dancing is seen by the former not merely as an unreliable profession but also as a demeaning one for black Americans. Further raising the stakes, in Act II, is the divorce that seems as stigmatized as it does inevitable. Why stigmatized? Because the intact black family, commonplace in 1953, was by 1983 rarer and more coveted; for this fictional family, it seems a point of honor.

These and other issues are dramatized in a score that rightly stresses the generation gap crucial to the story. Adeptly, Krieger pastiches three, consecutive periods of “black music”: the pre-rock style of the 1940’s and 1950’s (e.g., “Tap, Tap” sounds like a song Nat King Cole would have sung; the introduction to “Class Act” sounds like Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train”); the “Motown” style popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s (e.g., “I Could Get Used to Him” and “My Luck Is Changing” from the score); and the youthful, pop style ubiquitous in the early 1980’s (e.g., “Like Him” and “Someday” ). Also present in this musical about Broadway is the "standard" sound of Broadway circa 1983: the “onstage” number “Dance If It Makes You Happy” resembles “One” from Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line (1975, still running in ‘83). Harold Wheeler's orchestrations set the seal on the score, and the orchestra's work is a cut or two above the norm for cast recordings. Even better is the audible cooperation between conductor Don Jones and the cast: a sense of give-and-take more routine in opera than in musical theatre.

Act I begins as an opera might, with a trio; “Another Day” unites Jimmy Tate (as Willie, the tap dance kid); Martine Allard (as Emma, his overweight, bookish sister); and Gail Nelson (as Ginnie, their mother). Nelson is a fine singer; Tate is at that awkward, male age where the voice is changing (later, a couple of his notes in “Dancing Is Everything” are flat); Allard, age thirteen, is the vocal star of the show—as good as Andrea McArdle in Annie, but with a more mature technique. Her single most impressive moment occurs in “Four Strikes Against Me”: “The abuse that I take/The remarks people make...” Most kids would have cracked on those interval jumps, but Allard has an even scale.

“Four Strikes Against Me” may well be the most underrated showstopper of 20th-century Broadway. In the song, Emma dreams of impressing as a courtroom lawyer the way Willie dreams of impressing as a theatre dancer. Robert Lorick’s lyric mixes metaphors (“Cause the game isn’t over/Till the fat lady sings!”) in a childlike way, while drawing an extended metaphor that compares “life” to “a game/Where I’m not striking out!” The words, set to Krieger's streetwise melody, are belted out by Allard in a manner to rival young Judy Garland. Allard understands the shape of a phrase; in “Like Him,” she “wails” musically (“Nooww you sound just like him,” etc.). From 1:18 onward, her and Nelson’s duet is, in its way, sublime:

Dancer Hinton Battle, in more than agreeable voice as the agreeable Uncle Dipsey, should have had a bigger singing career; the note with which he ends “Man in the Moon” is one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve heard a man make on any Broadway or opera recording. An R & B single successfully masquerading as a theatre ballad, “Man in the Moon” occurs at a crisis point in the plot and ends Act I with a quiet thrill. Mid-song there is a key change: “Now, you’ve got a dream kid/Deep in the heart of you/Don’t let them lead you astray/I’ve got a feeling/That dream’s the best part of you/Don’t let them take it away!” Such a rhythm is universally appealing; hearing it, even a classical-music type like I am can comprehend how Michael Jackson’s songs, for example, appealed to both black and white Americans and united them on the basis of common musical taste in the 1980’s.

An advantage of the R & B style for a musical is the freedom of phrasing it gives the singing actor. “William’s Song” (track #15) is an eight-minute monologue in the dramatic mold of “Soliloquy” from Carousel or “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy (neither of which it resembles musically). Samuel E. Wright plays Willie’s attorney father, trapped in a moral dilemma. He sustains the number--particularly the contrite, long-breathed phrases of its final two minutes--as an operatic actor might, without sounding the least bit operatic (his voice is a gruff yet supple, high baritone). Wright is famous also for The Little Mermaid, and “William’s Song” almost seems like something in a Disney movie. Actually, it’s just the sort of scene—moralizing but not self-righteous, aimed more at the adults than at the kids in the audience—that typified the best “family” entertainment made in the ‘80’s. Emotionally and, yes, vocally, Wright’s recording is ideal.

In both of Krieger's hit scores, an opera-lover can appreciate their style's celebration of the human voice: its range, its capabilities. When The Tap Dance Kid premiered, critic Frank Rich called its score “unmemorable.” Perhaps, but it serves the story; with too many shows (e.g., Merrily We Roll Along, Broadway’s disappointment of 1981, whose unforgettable songs failed to clarify its confusing libretto), it’s the other way around. I’ll admit that my enthusiasm for the score as recorded has something to do with nostalgia: this is what pop music was like in my childhood (I was five years old in 1983). Yet the way things are at present—mindless social media, the Jussie Smollett racism hoax, and that Cats movie—even some who don't recall them would likely agree that the early ‘80’s are looking, and sounding, pretty good.

Updated Mar-17-2020 at 16:46 by Bellinilover

Classical Music , Non-Classical Music , Opera , Literature , Recorded Music