The magic of the works of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers has been enjoyed by classic movie fans for decades. Their chemistry, their elegance, and their wit seem to define an era of escapist movie musicals made during the doubt-ridden 1930s. Creator and director Josh Sanders has set out to capture the essence of Astaire and Rogers’ appeal in his brand new musical I Won’t Dance: the New Astaire/Rogers Musical, coming to Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s Theatre.
The show weaves together plot and character elements from all Astaire/Rogers musicals, including Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, Flying Down to Rio, and more, to create one cohesive story. Further, all the song and dance numbers in the show are standard favourites taken straight from many of these popular musical films. We spoke to writer and director Josh Sanders about this excitingly new and passionate project set to bring the magic of Old Hollywood song and dance to a modern stage.
The team has set out to recreate an era, a fitting tribute to those wonderful black-and-white films that still seem so full of colour and life. “I admire most the level of artistry in their films,” says Sanders. “Astaire’s famous perfectionism is reflected in the choreography, but there is a sense of perfectionism in every aspect of the films: the sets, costumes, scripts… you don’t see that scale of production any more.” There’s definitely a purveying sense of harmony among all these elements in Astaire/Rogers films, creating a sublime aesthetic of sparkling textures and soft focus, almost evoking that of another world. This ethereal spectacle would definitely lend itself well to the stage.
Considering the ongoing influence of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it almost seems a crime that so many performers and fans of musical theatre seem to lack an appreciation for the bygone classics. When he was studying musical theatre, Sanders was shocked at the number of people who didn’t know who Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were. “They are the basis upon which most musicals of the 20th Century were built upon. There is so much today that we, as performers, can learn from them. They pushed the boundaries of the possibilities of dance on film, musical films, and the concept of integrated songs in musicals. Today’s generation need to appreciate that and have access to that.” It is indeed a noble pursuit to aim to re-introduce a classic art form to a whole new audience and a whole new generation.
Audiences will definitely see some familiar plot points and character tropes, so ingrained in culture since they first appeared that we no longer question their origin. Many signposts of the “screwball” comedy style, such as mistaken identity, witty wordy rapport, farcical situations, and a classy battle-of-the-sexes dynamic, won’t seem entirely unfamiliar to audiences. These are still so often repeated to great effect, even satirically, in media everywhere. “It’s so important that people know these references,” says Sanders. Those already familiar with Astaire/Rogers films will notice some familiar supporting characters, too, including those played by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, a British butler character, a Spanish character, and an older single woman character, just to mention a few. Sanders is trying to stay as true as possible to the source material of his piece.
It seems quite a difficult task to piece together the best bits of these existing classic films and create a new artwork, yet still staying true to the source. But for Sanders, it was an organic process fuelled by a strong vision, and the amalgamative nature of the creative process was effective. “I studied the films relentlessly, finding every opportunity I could to weave more elements into the basic Astaire/Rogers plot. Incorporating the music was quite easy, as the songs are universal and still so relevant. They fit themselves in.” Some of the iconic songs included in the show are Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, and Cheek to Cheek. “The cast have absolutely risen to the challenge” of recreating these beloved standards, he states, “but it’s great to see how the performers have brought their own uniqueness to it as well.”
For so many fans of Ginger and Astaire, and of 1930s comedy in general, the timeless art brings them happiness. When asked what he wants audiences to take away from the show, Sanders identified the great power of this intangible joy: “More than anything, I want audiences to take away a feeling of joy. I want audiences to walk out feeling like they’ve absorbed the beauty and fun of the show. That’s what I get from Astaire and Rogers movies… their beauty and love is so important today.” These fantastical films were created to escape from the Great Depression, but there is definitely still a place for this style of art in society today. “There is so much horrible stuff going on in the world, it is important to see that there is still beauty in the world; in something as simple as two people dancing together. It is so easy to overlook that.”
The old style of musical theatre entertainment in the cinema and on stage has been somewhat lost, and it’s so important to keep that joyful spark alive. “What an amazing thing to be able to take someone who is scared, angry, sad, and bringing them joy. It really takes such skill to entertain.”
Let’s face the music and dance.
Further information and tickets for I Won’t Dance can be found at this link, and Theatre People wishes the company nothing but the best for their first season!