If you’re unfamiliar with High Button Shoes (and few among us are familiar with High Button Shoes), the first thing you notice is how similar it is to The Music Man, a show that would come along ten years later and rework the most entertaining aspects of its predecessor into a more dramatically successful whole. High Button Shoes centers around a con man, Harrison Floy, who comes to town and hoodwinks the locals. Ring any bells? Its opening number, “He Tried to Make a Dollar”, recounts Floy’s string of crimes that have lead him to New Brunswick, New Jersey just as The Music Man’s opening, “Rock Island”, chugga-chuggs out the exposition of Harold Hill’s arrival in River City, Iowa. Harrison whips up enthusiasm for a new Ford motorcar in “There’s Nothing Like a Model T” just as Harold will make waves upon the arrival of “The Wells Fargo Wagon.” There’s even an avianesque ensemble of women who rove about the town singing contrapuntally, like the creatures they’re emulating: in High Button Shoes, it’s a bird-watching society; in The Music Man, it’s the nitpicking clique that follows the mayor’s wife.
In 1947, when High Button Shoes premiered, the American musical theatre was well in the midst of a seachange that brought psychological realism and heavy plot to the formerly frivolous art form. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had seen great success with Oklahoma! and Carousel in the years preceding, and their Allegro would open the day after High Button Shoes. Next to these three works, High Button Shoes is a throwback to an era when the musical was driven by innocuous comedy numbers. Though technically a success in its day, it’s difficult to see its charms in a modern light.
Often an Encores! revival will make a case for a show’s vitality, but with High Button Shoes, it’s just a reminder why the score lives as footnote in composer Jule Styne’s catalogue. This production casts the excellent actor, Michael Urie, in the role of Harrison Floy, but with the limited rehearsal time and an inert book (by Stephen Longstreet), Urie falls into the same vocal cadences and mannerisms that defined his career-best work in last year’s revival of Torch Song. There’s more than a little Arnold Beckoff in his Harrison Floy. Urie is not a skilled singer, but he has a musical sensibility and makes due with Floy’s numbers.
Betsy Wolfe plays one of Floy’s victims, Sara Longstreet, and delivers the production’s most entertaining performance. Wolfe is a natural comedienne and finds phrasings that bring out the humor of what she’s conveying without obvious rimshot line readings. Wolfe also finds a way of highlighting the underlying sexism endemic of shows from this period while still maintaining the honesty of her character’s position. Watching Wolfe perform a song like, “Security”, in which Longstreet and the Ladies’ Walking Society explain that women should marry for money, I thought of the subtle ways Laurie Metcalf highlighted the absurdity of what she was doing in Misery on Broadway a few years ago. Metcalf took a sledgehammer to Bruce Willis’ feet in a masterful performance that was terrifying but also acknowledged the camp. Wolfe, similarly, points to the absurdity of her text while maintaining the truthfulness of the character’s dated circumstances.
The original production of High Button Shoes was notable for its choreography by a rising theatre and ballet star, Jerome Robbins, particularly a Mack Sennett-style slapstick scene outside changing rooms at the beach. To recreate this ballet, Encores! hauls out the most complete set piece I have seen on their stage, a series of swinging doors that extend all the way from stage right to stage left. Their entrance is a spectacular moment, but the following choreographed chaos by Sarah O’Gleby doesn’t make a case for the ballet’s originality or humor. It is mostly repetitive and is too corny and lacks inspiration to bring out actual laughs.
It’s nearly impossible to discount The Music Man’s reliance on High Button Shoes. But it’s also difficult to ignore that what The Music Man takes from High Button Shoes, it does better. There are some interesting kernels of musical theatre magic at work here, but in the seventy-plus years that have transpired, to see their origins is to see those kernels un-popped. We want them to be popcorn as they are in The Music Man, not as seeds in the bottom of the bag. As the years progress, maybe it’s time for Encores! to move their timeline forward as well. Most of the shows that are worth reviving from the 1930s and 1940s are produced – frequently. Relics like Shoes and I Married an Angel aren’t making a strong case for the Club of Forgotten Shows.