On Musicals

Helen Gallagher on Dancing in the Original High Button Shoes

April 16, 2019 by Matt Weinstock

At 92, Helen Gallagher still knows how to put over a song. During a recent interview in her Upper West Side apartment, the two-time Tony Award winner impulsively warbled a few bars of “The World Is Beautiful Today,” a number from her misbegotten 1953 star vehicle Hazel Flagg. 66 years later, Gallagher’s voice remains an idiosyncratic treasure, with its RKO Radio crackle and a decibel count that feels like a throwback to Broadway’s pre-amplification days. “I came from the Bronx, too,” she says. “If you didn’t yell, you weren’t heard.”

Gallagher never had a hard time getting heard. She made her Broadway debut at 18 as a chorine in the Cole Porter revue Seven Lively Arts and quickly ascended to featured roles, specializing in seen-it-all wisenheimers like Gladys Bumps in Pal Joey and Lucille Early in No, No, Nanette. We spoke with Gallagher about being Broadway’s first “triple threat,” doing Guys and Dolls at City Center with a cast of real gangsters, and dancing for Jerome Robbins in High Button Shoes, a deliriously madcap 1947 musical which is returning to New York this May in an Encores! revival.

What are your strongest memories of High Button Shoes?
It was a wonderful show. I had just come out of doing Brigadoon with Agnes de Mille, which I’d hated, because I was not an Agnes de Mille dancer. I was the girl in the third line—there were two lines of girls, and then me—because she couldn’t stand the way I danced. Agnes wanted ethereal, legato movement, which was so foreign to me. With Jerry Robbins, I was able to catch what he wanted, which was the hyper, jitterbugging energy of what was going on in the streets.

You once said that Robbins was as “mean as a snake.”
To other people! Not to me. I mean, he once told me that I had “six-fingered hands,” but he was so talented that I didn’t care what he said.

There’s a legendary story about Robbins—supposedly, he was berating a group of dancers onstage while backing closer and closer to the orchestra pit, and everyone loathed him so much that they didn’t warn him about the drop-off.
Everybody claims it happened during this show or that show—but it was during Billion Dollar Baby [in 1945]. I watched him do it. I thought, “Oh my god, there he goes!” But it wasn’t deliberate; I just think we were unaware of what was happening until it happened. So Jerry fell down into the pit and hurt himself. But he lived. (laughs)

One sequence in High Button Shoes that everyone still talks about is the chaotic Mack Sennett ballet—the one with bathing beauties and Keystone Cops and a gorilla.
I never heard anything as loud from an audience in my life—never before and never since. How they loved that number! I remember the first time we ran it for Jerry, he laughed and laughed. Then he finally said, “Just keep to the right,” because we were running in and out of [a row of bathhouse doors] and we kept hitting each other.

Robbins also created a comically tentative tango for you to dance with Paul Godkin. Godkin’s hands were in his pockets, yours were on your hips, and you never touched.
We were in tryouts in Philadelphia, and [director] George Abbott wanted to put a tango into the show so that Nan Fabray would have time to change her clothes between scenes. But it wasn’t finished. Finally, George Abbott said, “Jerry, you have to finish that tango, because it goes in tonight!” So at six o’clock, Jerry dismissed the rest of the cast and choreographed it in fifteen minutes. It was a number about two people who didn’t know what they were doing. And we didn’t know what we were doing. It stopped the show.

You’re sometimes referred to as the first “triple threat”—someone who could act andsing and dance in an era when most performers were only expected to do one.
Most of the time, that was true. They’d say to you in rehearsal, “You’re a dancer. Just don’t sing.” The people in charge of the music didn’t want us singing, because we’d sing flat. Anyway, I broke that. (laughs) It was really Jule Styne and Jerry Robbins who broke it during High Button Shoes. They used to love to hear me sing. We’d go to piano bars after rehearsal and they’d say, “C’mon, Gallagher, get up. Sing!”

Your character, Nancy, didn’t get a song, but there are so many lovely melodies in High Button Shoes: “I Still Get Jealous,” “Can’t You Just See Yourself in Love with Me?”, “Papa, Won’t You Dance with Me?”
A lot of them came out of a trunk. Jule would do that, you know. If you didn’t like a song, he’d say, “Oh, oh, wait a minute, try this one.”

City Center is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season, and you were in some extraordinary shows there. In the 1955 revival of Guys and Dolls, you played Adelaide opposite Walter Matthau as Nathan Detroit.
Adelaide was a great role. And working with Walter was a hoot. He’d never done a musical before, but he wasn’t nervous; he was totally free onstage. We rehearsed in a big, big studio up in the City Center. There were thirteen cigar-smokers in the cast, including Walter and the director, and they’d smoke cigars all through rehearsal. I’d get out in the afternoon and think, “Oh, god, I’m going to throw up.”

You couldn’t ask them to stop?
That wouldn’t have gone over very big.In those days, men smoked cigars. There were some actual hoods in that cast, too, so I had to watch my tongue.

After Guys and Dolls, you starred in City Center revivals of Finian’s Rainbow, Brigadoon, and Oklahoma! I read somewhere that Ado Annie was one of your favorite roles.
[Director] John Fearnley cast me as Ado Annie, and I remember saying to him, “John, I’m not right for that part.” I’d always played know-it-all types, and Ado Annie was kind of naïve. John said, “Oh, you can do anything.” I said, “Look, give me five days. If I can’t crack the role, you’ll replace me. Cause I don’t want to ruin that role.” And on the fifth day, I found it. I said “Hello, Laurey!” in a little childish voice, and I thought, Oh, that’s it: she’s a kid.

Was Agnes de Mille involved in the City Center production?
She came in and restaged “All Er Nuthin.’” The original Ado Annie, Celeste Holm, had been a singer, and choreographers loathed singers, because they couldn’t move. I was a dancer, so Agnes thought, “Now I’ll fix it: I’ll put the number right.” She made it into a little dance thing. On opening night, she sent me an orchid with a note saying, “Truly, you’re a star.” From third line in the chorus of Brigadoon to that!

Did Rodgers and Hammerstein see you in Oklahoma!?
Oh, sure. They told me I was the best brunette Ado Annie.

Was it important to you that City Center had a civic mission, that they were bringing great musicals to the masses?
I didn’t think of it in those terms. (laughs) They were bringing them to me.

Do you have any memorabilia from your City Center shows?
I never saved anything. I wish that I had, but I wasn’t thinking about my legacy then. It didn’t interest me. It was the moment that interested me. When Jerry did [his career-capping 1989 omnibus musical] Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, he called in a big group of people who had done the original shows to help reconstruct the choreography. I couldn’t remember anything, so he ended up sending me home. (laughs)

One last question: Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon are back in the zeitgeist these days. What was it like working with them on Sweet Charity?
Bob Fosse would never pay you a compliment. And I like compliments. But Gwen didn’t need them; she knew she was good. I used to stand in the wings and watch her by the hour. Her movement was so incredible. I kept thinking, What muscle is she using? You couldn’t see it—it was all internal. She was a task, though. Whenever it got hot backstage, she’d take out her thermometer, and they’d have to get the air-conditioning going. The sweat used to just pour off her onstage. Me, I never sweated.

The 2019 Encores! season closes with Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s 1947 musical High Button Shoes, running seven performances at City Center from May 8–12.