Teetering on the edge of the world, the dancers twirl, swirl, shimmy and shake. They tango, fox-trot and two-step while the hours mount into the hundreds. Blisters explode, feet bleed and the band forever plays on. The roaring audience places its bets on which dancers will drop first.
Marathon dancing was the sadistic spectator sport of the Depression-wracked 1930s. Those awful thrills are now being recreated for Denver audiences in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a new musical written by Nagle Jackson and Robert Sprayberry.
With a cast of 27 led by Jeff McCarthy as the grifter who runs the frenetic freak-show, Kathy Morath as the doomed wannabe movie star Gloria, and Thomas Nahrwold as her hapless partner, They Shoot Horses runs through June 28 as the centerpiece of Denver Center Theatre Company’s 1992 U.S. West TheatreFest.
While a mirror ball shards the light in the sleazy Surfside Ballroom, and as the wearying couples droop and sway in their desperate battle against the clock, the song “We’ve Got to Keep Dancing” underscores the theme of the musical. Former McCarter Theatre artistic director Nagle Jackson, who wrote the book and lyrics based on Horace McCoy’s out-of-print novel, sees the song as a metaphor for the Depression generation – and possibly our own troubled times.
“It’s about going through the motions in order to stay alive,” Jackson explains. “Those who keep dancing will make it.”
They Shoot Horses is set in 1934, “during the last gap of marathon dancing,” says Jackson, noting that by that time, marathons had been outlawed in many Eastern states. But not in California, where the playwright’s dazed contestants pound the floor in a hall poised upon an amusement-park pier over the Pacific.
“All the people are from somewhere else,” Jackson observes. “They’ve all gone out West. Gone as far as they can go. They have no choice left – they’re either going to make it, or they’re going to drop off the end of the world.”
In addition to Gloria, Paul and Rocky, who were played by Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young in the famous 1969 film (which Jackson says he never saw), other character also emerge from the swirling crowd. There’s aloof Alison Cartwright, a bankrupt debutante; there are two hayseed Tennessee kids, James and Ruby, who try to conceal her growing pregnancy; vicious Rollo, the roller-skating enforcer of contest rules; and Big Stan and Big Bertha, the killer champs of the last Chicago marathon. All victims of economic devastation, they allow themselves to be victimized further by desperately dancing for the dollars promised to the last couple left on their feet.
Suffering to sweet melodies
“People flocked to see those marathons,” notes Jackson. “It made them feel better to see others suffer.”
Shrinking away from the cheering, leering throng of spectators around them, one of the dancers remarks, “It’s sort of like ancient Rome.”
Or, “Like Southern California,” wise-cracks Gloria.
Wry remarks and Robert Sprayberry’s 1930s-sounding tunes brighten up the dark story. “The Main in the Moon” shimmers with romance; “Just Keep Your Motor Running” is a vaudeville-like bouncer; and “Sunday Morning,” an intricate integration of text and song, eventually erupts into a full-out revival rouser. Throughout, other nameless but sweet melodies propel the couples around the floor. Jackson estimates that the show is about 40 percent music and 60 percent text, but so much of the dialogue is underscored by music that the ratio seems closer to 80/20,
Director Alan Bailey says that his greatest challenge has been to keep the multi-peopled story focused on Gloria and Paul. “Every element has to help tell their story,” he asserts. Simple blocking has been complicated by the fact that the dancing couples are, of course, clutched in each other’s arms. And Bailey has had to weave gritty realism with dance-maddened elements of fantasy, as when movie-loving Paul drifts into a hallucinatory number, “I’m in Love with Louise Brooks.”
The creators have had a year to solve these problems since he show’s staged reading at Denver Center last June. With funding from U.S. West Airlines, the musical and seven other scripts were rehearsed and then read before the public and an invited group six critics; along with Denver Center artistic director Donovan Marley, the critics later met with the authors, directors and dramaturgs to discuss the works-in-progress informally.
Also up and running
Now They Shoot Horses and two of those plays are enjoying complete productions. “We are not developing new works in a vacuum,” asserts Denver Center dramaturg Tom Szentgyorgyi. “We commit to the most promising ones right through to production.” Up and running alongside the musical right now are Evil Little Thoughts, Mark D. Kaufmann’s smart comedy about a Trump-ish tycoon, and Uncertainty, Garrison Esst’s wild Stoppard-like mating of bedroom farce and higher physics. (A fourth play, Elizabeth Egloff’s Wolf-Man, was developed independently).
From June 2-5, while the main stage shows are still playing, eight more new works will premiere in staged readings, including specially commissioned projects from Darrah Cloud (The Sirens, about domestic violence), and Jeffrey Hatcher (a reworking of Noel Coward’s 1961 shipboard musical, Sail Away). Authors invited to Denver for first hearings of their new plays are Anthony Clarvoe, Eugene Lion, Phil Bosakowski, Lydia Stryk, Heather McCutchen and Silas Jones. Their scripts have been culled for development from over a thousand submissions.
For this year’s reading series, however, Denver Center is making do without outside dramaturgs and guest critics. The money which would have paid for that has been used, instead, to fund the two commissioned plays, and to provide longer residencies for the six other selected playwrights. “I scraped money from everywhere I could,” says Szentgyorgyi, curiously echoing the theme of this year’s headline musical. In these tough times, theatres everywhere – like the characters in They Shoot Horses – are dancing as fast as they can.