TOP HAT is a sparkling new dance musical based on the 1935 black and white film of the same name which helped to revolutionise dance on both stage and the screen.

The new musical stars Tom Chambers, who was the winner of Strictly Come Dancing - and who seems to get women all of a flutter on Holby City - along with Summer Strallen who is a triple Olivier Award nominee and star of Love Never Dies, The Boy Friend and Hollyoaks.

The show also stars Martin Ball, who is currently playing  Thenardier in Les Miserables at the Queens Theatre in the West End along with  Ricardo Afonso, who is also currently in the West End starring in We Will Rock You  at the Dominion Theatre as the lead, Galileo.

It is directed by Matthew White and choreographed by Bill Dreamer who recently choreographed the UK and European tours of Evita and, incidentally, was the choreographer and director for Fred Astaire, His Daughter's Tribute at the London Palladium in 2001.

The show has its world premiere in Milton Keyes before its convoy of artics arrives at the Birmingham Hippodrome on August 30 for a two week run before heading off on a tour around the country on its way to an anticipated West End opening next year.

The show has a large cast of 31 and a 15 strong orchestra, which is exceptional in modern musical theatre where computers are becoming bigger and bands smaller. But this is a big production in every way, but then again, it has a lot to live up to.

Roger Clarke takes a look at the film that was the inspiration for the new production . . .

Top hat, white tie and tales . . . of Hollywood

TAKE your mind back 76 years . . . all right, take your great granny's mind back 76 years, to New York, August 29, 1935 and the Radio City Music Hall.

The crowds, glitz and glamour were out in force for the premiere of the latest screwball musical comedy starring Frederick Austerlitz and Virginia Katherine McMath, who were fast becoming the hottest dance duo in Hollywood.

Luckily, for the bloke who did the posters if for no-one else, the pair had long since changed their names to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Top Hat was the fourth film the pair had made for RKO and was the first to be specifically written for them and, as the posters said, they were dancing cheek-to-cheek again.

The film had cost $620,000 and was to gross $3 million, the second most successful film of 1935, bettered only by MGM's The Mutiny on the Bounty with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable and, hidden among the extras, James Cagney.

Cagney was already a major star but was sailing his boat close to where filming was taking place in California and shouted out to the director, Frank Lloyd, an old friend, joking that he was between jobs and could do with a “couple of bucks” if there was any work going.

Lloyd, for a laugh, dressed Cagney in a sailor's uniform and for the rest of the day he was among the extras on the Bounty. Nothing whatsoever to do with Top Hat but interesting nevertheless.


Top Hat is widely regarded as the best of the nine musicals made by the pair for RKO between 1933 and 1939 and is seen as arguably the finest of all the the Hollywood musicals produced in the 1930s.

Astaire, 36 at the time, was at his peak as a dancer. Hollywood legend has it that his screen test for RKO carried the note "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." A nice story, but the test and notes are long gone and probably more accurate was Astaire's recollection that it actually said "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances".

Whatever the wording, and they were probably right about the acting and certainly accurate about the balding, there could have been no doubts about his abilities as a hoofer.  He had appeared on Broadway, dancing with his sister Adele, at the age of 18 and by the time he was signed by RKO he was already an established musical theatre star.

Fred and Adele had starred in the likes of  George and Ira Gershwin's Lady Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927) first on Broadway and then in the West End as well as appearing in shows like the popular 1931 revue, The Band Wagon.

Astaire, by now, was recognized almost everywhere as the greatest tap dancer of his generation but despite being household names on stage their attempt to break into Hollywood fell at the first hurdle, or at least under the gaze of the first camera.

A Paramount screen test deemed them unsuitable for the movies and, with that avenue closed, their successful partnership, which had started as a child brother and sister act in vaudeville when Fred was just six, ended in 1932 when Adele married Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish and moved to Ireland.

 Astaire found a new partner, Clair Luce, in the Cole Porter musical Gay Divorce which opened on Broadway in November 1933. It was to be Astaire's last Broadway show and the only one when he was not partnered by Adele. Their dance to Night and Day was seen as the highlight of the show and it was a number that came to be regarded as a milestone in Astaire's dance revolution in film when the show, renamed The Gay Divorcee, became the second Astaire and Rogers film for RKO almost a year later.

The RKO screen test was hardly encouraging though and although legendary film producer David O. Selznick, who had signed him to RKO, and had arranged the test, was less than sure about Astaire as a film star he was prepared to back a hunch. He wrote: "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test."

Astaire had lowly billing in his first musical, Flying Down to Rio, which starred Delores del Rio.

She was one of the silent movie stars who had made a successful transition to talkies and went on to become Orson Welles' lover and the queen of Mexican cinema.

The film put Astaire and his partner Rogers, billed above him for the only time, on the map. She was already an established star, making her first film in 1929 and Flying Down to Rio was her second for RKO.

Of all his partners she was the best, not only as a dancer, but because she could also act, a quality which was recognised with an Oscar for Best Actress in 1941 for the title role in Kitty Foyle and she received critical acclaim for her roles in a variety of gritty dramas and comedies.


For Astaire though it was his first exposure and entertainment trade mag Variety said of his performance: “He's distinctly likable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where the others stop hoofing."

The Gay Divorcee and Roberta quickly followed with Astaire now top billing. Next up was Top Hat which had its critics, mainly complaints that it was almost a copy of The Gay Divorcee with a similar story and, save for a couple of changes, virtually the same cast.

All agreed though that it was worth watching. Astaire had managed to get a percentage of profits as part of his contract with RKO, which was almost unheard of, but, even more important and unusual, he had managed to obtain complete control over the dance numbers.

His films all had at least one each of the three elements he insisted upon. At least one big solo number – which he called his “sock solo”, a comedy number with another dancer or two and at least one romantic dance with his female lead.

Not only that, Astaire wanted the dances, as far as possible, to be filmed complete in as few shots as possible - The Piccolino dance in Top Hat was filmed in one take - and he wanted dances filmed with a static camera showing the dances full length so the whole dancer was seen, not just feet or face. His idea was that the dancers moved and the camera didn't, just the lens followed them.

He introduced elegance, innovation and supreme skill into dance all set to music and songs written for them by some of the finest popular songwriters of all time.

His control also extended to insisting that the dances moved the story on rather than being just chucked in to give a bit of musical glamour between scenes.

Up to that point the height of dance in film musical was the likes of Busby Berkeley with massed ranks of dancers weaving incredible kaleidoscopic patterns filmed from above on huge sound stages with extravagant, spectacular, intricate choreography, beauty and elegance. Sophistication on an industrial scale.

You can see a typical Berkeley number in the short film, Don't Say Goodnight, made by Berkeley in 1934, the year before Top Hat.

Compare that with Top Hat and you see the revolution Astaire was bringing to dance on film in the number Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, arguably the best screen solo of his career.

The big romantic number was Cheek to Cheek which has created its own Hollywood legend and Ginger Rogers nickname, Feathers.

You can see it here . . . with sub-titles for our many Spanish readers. OK, it's the only full version I could find in the wonderful world of YouTube . . . but what do you expect for free?

The couple danced together in the film five times, the most they partnered each other in any of their films – they had 33 partnered dances in all.

Not that it was all sweetness and roses. Rogers had decided she wanted to wear a dress she had created with dress designer Bernard Newman, a blue number covered in a mass of Ostrich feather. Astaire and director Mark Sandrich knew instinctively it was a disaster waiting to happen and suggested she wore the white gown she had worn for  Night and Day in The Gay Divorcee.

Rogers, and her mother, stomped off the set in a huff, everyone argued, then relented and back she came, ostrich feathers and all, and when the dance was filmed she left the set looking a bit like a Bernard Matthew's plucking shed.

An unhappy Astaire said that is was like “a chicken being attacked by a coyote”.

The wardrobe department worked on the dress and in the final version a few feathers can be seen to come astray but most are well behaved.

A few days later Astaire bought Rogers a gold feather for her charm bracelet as a peace offering and gave her the nickname Feathers.

Astaire was also unhappy with the final production number, The Piccolino, he didn't rate the song so handed the singing duties over to Ginger as you can see. 

Top Hat also saw the start of a lifelong friendship between Astaire and songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin, who could neither read nor write music and could only play the piano, not very well, in just one key, was one of that handful of great American songwriters, along with the likes of Cole Porter, who helped change the face of popular music.  

Top Hat had five Berlin numbers: No Strings; Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain); Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails; Cheek to Cheek; and The Piccolino. Three more didn't make it: Wild About You; Get Thee Behind Me, Satan; and You're the Cause.

For the new stage musical the producers raided the Berlin songbook – he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs from his first hit, Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1907 to when he retired in 1966.

Among them were the scores of 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. His songs were nominated for Oscars seven times but the statuette always eluded him.

Included in the stage show are ten extra Berlin numbers including Let's Face the Music and DanceI'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, both from RKO's Follow the Fleet (1936) as well as Gentleman Prefer Blondes, a later addition to the 1925 musical The Cocoanuts which, incidentally, starred the Marx brothers and in 1929, was adapted as their first  feature-length film.

The story of Top Hat is simple. American Jerry Travers, a Broadway dance star, is making his debut in London and his dancing in his hotel room disturbs model Dale Tremont in the room below.

She comes up to complain and he falls in love at first sight. Smitten, he pursues her around Europe with a few mistaken identities thrown in for good measure.

Dale mistakes Jerry for his producer Horace, who is married to her best friend Madge which does not go down too well so there are a few trials and tribulations - as well as songs and dances -before we get to the living happy ever after part.

Fred and Ginger, a picture of elegance, in a scene from Top Hat.

All right it's not exactly Hamlet – but it worked and, at the time, it saved RKO, from bankruptcy.

The film was also notable for being banned in Italy. Apparently Benito Mussolini was not too chuffed at the way Erik Rhodes, playing Alberto Beddini, portrayed Italians in the film. He had also banned The Gay Divorcee for the same reason. In that one Erik Rhodes played Italian Rodolfo Tonetti. A bit of a pattern seems to be developing there - told you they were similar.

Wearing comic opera military uniforms with funny hats and calling yourself His Excellency, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire as well awarding yourself the supreme military rank of  First Marshal of the Empire as Benito did was presumably a much more typical portrayal of the average Roman bloke in the street.

Astaire and Rogers went on to make five more films for RKO before the partnership broke up.

They were re-united for a final time in 1949 in The Barkleys of Broadway where Rogers was a last minute replacement for Judy Garland whose dependence on prescription medications meant she was frequently unavailable.

Their last film, their only appearance in colour, was a modest success and when the credits finally rolled the golden era of Fred and Ginger was over.

Top Hat, the musical, starts a new era which dawns at Birmingham Hippodrome on August 30 and runs until September 10. Opening night, incidentally, promises a return to the heyday of Hollywood premieres with an invitation to break out the glad rags for a black tie and tiaras night. Its not compulsory but it is a chance to add a bit of first night glamour to a new-musical celebrating the golden age of the movie's first dance legends..

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