Puttin' on that Top Hat

As one of Hollywood's most successful musicals prepares to take to London's stage, Kate Youde reports on the family stories behind the revival

When Fred Astaire put on his top hat, tied up his white tie and brushed off his tails to collaborate with Irving Berlin, he danced his way into the hearts of cinemagoers. More than seven decades later, the daughters of the screen legend and American composer have united to help bring Top Hat to the stage for the first time.

The musical, based on the popular 1935 film starring Astaire and Ginger Rogers, receives its West End premiere on 19 April, when it opens for previews at the Aldwych Theatre following a nationwide tour. Berlin's three daughters, Mary Ellin Barrett, Linda Emmet and Elizabeth Peters have used their knowledge of their father's 1,200-strong song catalogue to advise on the show's music, while their childhood friend Ava Astaire McKenzie suggested a choreographer.

"It's a very nice continuity," said Ms Barrett, 85, Berlin's eldest daughter, who lives in New York and wrote Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir. "It's lovely to think a child of the Astaires and the daughters of Irving Berlin have come together to support the stage version of Top Hat."

She recalls, as an eight-year-old, attending a screening of the film in California. "It was my first real movie," she said. "My memory always was of just loving it, catching the jokes, being so proud and pleased to hear those songs of my father's.... It was just wonderful; black and silver there on the screen. And, of course, this revival has colour in it but the show gives the sense of that silver screen, that Art Deco mid-Thirties quality."

The film, in which Astaire plays Jerry Travers, a dancer, alongside Rogers as Dale Tremont, a model, was nominated for four Academy Awards and is still judged to be one of the greatest dance musicals. Within weeks of its release, its five songs, including "Cheek to Cheek", occupied the top five spots on the American hit parade.

The stage version, featuring the former Strictly Come Dancing winner Tom Chambers and West End star Summer Strallen in the lead roles, has 15 Berlin songs. Additions include the catchy "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Follow the Fleet, and lesser-known tunes from the "neglected" musical Louisiana Purchase.

Ms Emmet, 80, who lives in France and is co-editor of The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, said the added songs "enriched" the score. "So many times, with younger people I talk to," she said, "they have never heard the name [Irving Berlin], so I think our job is to connect the name to the songs as best we can. This is a wonderful project."

The musical's producer, Kenny Wax, did not get the go-ahead immediately, however. Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers & Hammerstein, an Imagem company, which oversees the Berlin catalogue, initially declined his email requests to stage the musical. Undeterred, Mr Wax flew to New York – armed with a letter from Ms Astaire McKenzie endorsing the idea – and engineered a meeting with Mr Chapin.

His determination paid off: the relatives of Berlin and Astaire attended a read-through in London in November 2010 and the musical opened in Milton Keynes in August last year at the start of its 17-week UK tour. There have since been tweaks, such as the inclusion of "Puttin' On the Ritz" as the opening number.

Mr Wax said Astaire's daughter helped choose the show's choreographer, Bill Deamer, who had previously worked on Fred Astaire: His Daughter's Tribute at the London Palladium. He admitted there would be inevitable comparisons between Chambers and Strallen and Astaire and Rogers, but stressed the new cast was playing the film's characters, not the actors who played them.

But would Irving Berlin like the new version? Ms Barrett thinks so, as, unlike some adaptations, it "really sticks to the original".

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