Theater lovers coming and going from live events enjoy the fare at the Straz Center’s homebrewed coffeehouse, SteamHeat, tucked beside the Shimberg Playhouse along the red brick walkway to Carol Morsani Hall.
But how many patrons under the age of 66 understand the origin of the shop’s name, or know the Broadway legends that inspired it?
In recognition of International Coffee Day on Oct. 1, launched in Milan, Italy in 2015 to promote fair trade coffee and raise awareness of the plight of coffee growers, we celebrate The Straz coffee shop that supplies multiple jolts of caffeine daily.
“Steam Heat” was the breakout number from the hit musical The Pajama Game, the songs for which were composed by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. As a team, Adler and Ross shared the hat trick of landing a hit musical on Broadway in three consecutive years: 1953 (John Murray Anderson’s Almanac), 1954 (The Pajama Game) and 1955 (Damn Yankees). Ross died at 29 of a rare lung ailment the year Damn Yankees premiered. Adler never scored another hit show.
But in stage lore, it is not so much the songwriters for whom “Steam Heat” is remembered, but the choreographer of the number in its Broadway (and later, film) incarnations. For it was with “Steam Heat” that Bob Fosse debuted his trademark dance style: hips forward, spine curled, arms back and down, jazz hands on soft wrists and pulsing, sensual steps.
“It was the first time introducing Bob’s signature dance moves,” says Kelly King, head contemporary/jazz dance instructor at the Patel Conservatory. King should know. A former Broadway dancer and Radio City Rockettes dance captain, King collaborated with both Fosse’s ex-wife, storied Broadway star Gwen Verdon, and later Fosse paramour, dancer, choreographer and friend of the Patel, Ann Reinking. Both frequent Fosse stars (Verdon was the original Roxie Hart in Fosse’s Chicago, Reinking was the revival Roxie), Verdon died in 2000, Reinking last year.
“Ann was my mentor, and I ended up working with her through my mid to late twenties,” King recalls. “She is the reason I met Gwen and was able to do some different pre-productions with her.” Among King’s collaborations with Reinking was Fosse, a stage retrospective on Fosse’s choreography conceived by Reinking and others after Fosse’s 1987 death.
“Broadway was introduced to Bob Fosse’s genius for the first time in 1954 with his choreography for ‘Steam Heat,’” says Philip Neal, Patel Conservatory dance department chair. “Its ingenious moves were rather minimal, but Fosse’s signature style was apparent.” Some of that minimalism may have been a practical choice—rumor has it that lead dancer Carol Haney was ill at the time, and Fosse gave her moves that were equal parts unconventional and untaxing.
As happens in all the best showbiz legends, “Steam Heat” nearly never was. According to Sam Wasson’s biography Fosse (Mariner Books, 2014), during pre-tryout rehearsals, Pajama Game co-director (with Jerome Robbins) George Abbott was unhappy with a ballet Fosse was developing for a union meeting scene that opened the second act. Abbott asked for “something small” to replace the ballet, which suited minimalist Fosse down to the ground. But Fosse had no song to match the concept.
Fosse asked Adler if he had another song in his pocket. After some prodding, Adler reluctantly offered up “Steam Heat,” a novelty number he had composed as a mere exercise, and then quickly forgotten. The song’s percussive clangs and bangs and sibilant hisses thrilled Fosse, presenting him with just the right rhythm and texture to debut in his choreography the revolutionary dance style he had developed as a dancer.
At Pajama Game’s out-of-town tryout in New Haven, “Steam Heat” received a thunderous standing ovation. So Abbott cut the number. The lengthy applause break was slowing down the show. Following passionate pleas from Fosse and Robbins, Abbott restored the number by the show’s Boston tryout. “Steam Heat” has since acquired the patina of a “Broadway standard,” one recorded by Doris Day, Patti Page, Ella Fitzgerald and many others.
Fosseverse insider King says there’s more to Fosse’s style than mere brilliant invention. Just as the Beatles birthed a fresh musical style partly by trying, and failing, to ape American Blues, Fosse designed his style partly as a workaround for his own limitations.
“A little-known fact about Bob’s style and why it became so iconic over the years is that Bob wanted to be a ballet dancer very badly, but had no turnout,” the rotation of the legs at the hips that turns feet and knees outward, an essential ability for classical dance. “He kept getting turned down by ballet companies, so he then decided to create this style in which everything is the opposite of ballet, and pigeon-toed!”
On the way to your next Straz show, stop into SteamHeat, and raise a cup to Fosse, Adler, Abbott and King. And be sure to point your toes inward as you sip.