Enter Stage Right, Mr. George Balanchine

After Jumbo (1935.15), Rodgers and Hart undertook a project (On Your Toes, 1936.05) that starred dancers as characters in the plot.  Ray Bolger was signed to headline the cast.  However, in order to stage this show, a very special choreographer would be needed—someone who could deftly integrate the dancing into the story line.  In his biography of Richard Rodgers, David Ewen describes how Larry Hart looked for and found George Balanchine during a rehearsal at a 54th Street theater.  

RIAN archive Photo of Mstislav Rostropovich, George Balanchine and Yuri Grigorovich

Balanchine in Middle

Balanchine had left Russia to work as the ballet master with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in Paris and then, in 1934, had emigrated to the United States to co-found the School of American Ballet. Rodgers decided to write new music for the key ballet in On Your Toes, called Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, music that was not in any way related to the rest of the score.  When Rodgers played the music for Balanchine for the first time, Balanchine remained so expressionless throughout the piece that Rodgers concluded the music was not adequate.  Quite to the contrary; Ewen assures us that Balanchine told Rodgers “But it’s vunderful; simply vunderful.”

In his Complete Book of the American Musical Theater, Ewen describes the music as a “jazz ballet” that is Rodgers’ “most ambitious orchestral score up to that time, the heart of which was a beautiful lament for strings in the blues style with a saucy little jazz theme serving as a secondary subject.”  The end of the ballet coincides with the climax of the plot and drew “thunderous approval from audiences.”  

In an initial review, Percy Hammond described the music as “full of theatrical color and cadence,” a review that somehow seems to miss the incredible power of the music.  In a review of the 1954 revival, Richard Watts, Jr. characterized Slaughter on Tenth Avenue as follows: “A sizable number of jazz ballets have passed this way since it [Slaughter] first appeared, but it still is something of a classic in its field, and the music Mr. Rodgers wrote for it continues to seem one of the major achievements of his career.”

Martha Swope NYPL Digital Collections

Arthur Mitchell in Center

One note that Ewen added to the text in a later edition was: “And in 1968 George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet presented an evening of serious ballet at the New York State Theater at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, featuring only two works on the program.  One is ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue;’ the other, Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles.”

Once again, a bolt of thunder hit Broadway in 1936; everything changed; nothing changed.  Rodgers and Hart came out with wonderful shows in the following years (Babes in Arms,1937.05; I Married an Angel,1938.05; The Boys From Syracuse,1938.14; Too Many Girls,1939.27; Pal Joey,1940.22; and By Jupiter,1942.15).  But none of them shook the earth.

Of course, neither did Cole Porter’s string of hits from 1928 to 1939, including Paris (1928.33); Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929.45); The Gay Divorce (1932.27); Anything Goes (1934.36); Jubilee (1935.14); Red, Hot and Blue (1936.26); Leave It to Me (1938.13); Dubarry Was a Lady (1939.30); Panama Hattie (1940.19); and Let’s Face It (1941.08).

The next big something came in 1943 when Oklahoma! opened on Broadway.