On Your Toes Synopsis
On a vaudeville stage, entertainers Phil and Lil Dolan, along with their teenage son Junior, present their twice-nightly routine (“Two a Day for Keith”). Junior performs his tap specialty but quickly exits to the dressing room, where he hurriedly undresses to change for a date. The stage manager forces the Dolans onstage for a second curtain call, however, so Junior, half undressed, bows in his shorts. Back in the dressing room, Phil and Lil, worried about Junior’s philandering, insist that he go to school. Phil predicts that someday Junior will be “standing in front of a dopey class, a lousy music teacher.”
Fifteen years later, as predicted, Junior works as a music teacher at Knickerbocker University, where he challenges his students’ knowledge in classical music (“Questions and Answers”). One student, a young man named Sidney Cohn, has written a promising jazz ballet, and another, a young woman named Frankie Frayne, is a published songwriter. Alone in his classroom, Junior dances to the melody from Sidney’s ballet, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Frankie, discovering Junior, learns about his vaudeville career as a member of the Dolan family. He tells her he’d like to choreograph Sidney’s ballet, so Frankie promises to introduce him to her family friend, a ballet producer named Peggy Porterfield. Junior confesses that he’s “very fond” of Frankie, and they sing her newest song together (“It’s Got to Be Love”).
In her lavish apartment, Vera Baranova, star of the Russian Ballet, tells her maid Anushka that she’s finished with her two-timing costar and ex-lover, Konstantine Morrosine. She’s ready for a new man. Peggy arrives to tell Vera about Sidney’s ballet. She recommends Junior as the show’s choreographer and Vera decides this music professor will be her new lover. Sergei, the ballet company’s director, enters and Peggy tells him about the new jazz ballet. But Sergei won’t hear of it; he isn’t interested in anything new (“Too Good for the Average Man”).
Morrosine arrives and they begin to fight, screaming at one another in Russian. Just as the fight escalates, Anushka brings Junior in. The others exit, leaving Vera and Junior to discuss the new ballet. Vera tells Junior about her upcoming role in La Princesse Zenobia. She flirtatiously demonstrates for him, and they begin to dance together. Their dancing grows more and more impassioned, and they find themselves embracing on Vera’s bed.
Back in the classroom, Junior excitedly tells Sidney and Frankie that Peggy has promised him a chance to dance in the corps de ballet. When Frankie grows jealous of Junior’s relationship with Vera and the Russians, he assures Frankie that he loves her… and the Russian Ballet. Frankie wishes they could both be far away from all of this (“There’s a Small Hotel”).
At the opening of the ballet La Princesse Zenobia, one of the dancers is missing; he’s in jail and unable to perform. Peggy decides that Junior must go in his place. A reporter named Helen Grimes interviews the cast and crew for a backstage story, and Junior pretends to be Russian, sharing a colorful life story of his own invention. As everyone prepares to go onstage, a shady gangster enters and passes a wad of cash to Morrosine. Peggy notices and worries that Morrosine is “keeping some rather dubious company.” He assures her everything is OK. Onstage, as the ballet progresses, Vera and Morrosine dance beautifully while clearly harboring contempt for one another. Junior enters and gets everything wrong. Hilariously out of step, he destroys the integrity of the piece but wins the adoration of the audience (“La Princesse Zenobia Ballet”).
A few days after the opening of Zenobia, Sergei, Peggy, Vera, Morrosine and Junior discuss Sidney’s jazz ballet. Junior’s opening night debacle generated great publicity for the ballet company, and audiences are now expecting innovation, but the colleagues can’t agree about the new work. Vera and Morrosine continue to argue, and he becomes increasingly jealous of Junior.
Junior confides in Peggy, asking if a good man can love two women at the same time. Peggy shares some advice from her mother (“The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye”). Junior, obligated to join Vera and the company for a business lunch, cancels his lunch date with Frankie. Left alone, she reflects on the state of her love life (“Glad to Be Unhappy”).
Peggy, Sergei and some members of the company visit Junior’s school. Sergei has decided not to do the jazz ballet, but Peggy persuades him by threatening to pull her million-dollar investment. A student named Hank and a few of his classmates perform a song for their guests (“Quiet Night”). Sergei announces that the Russian Ballet’s next production will be Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Frankie and the students present a jazzy new song, and some of the ballet dancers join in. As the two groups compete, the number becomes a deft combination of tap and ballet, melding jazz and classical styles (“On Your Toes”).
At a rehearsal, Morrosine bristles as Junior coaches him on his jazz movement. Morrosine becomes violent, and the argument erupts into an all-out fight. Finally, Sergei knocks Morrosine out with a stage brace. Junior steps into the role and Sergei, impressed, decides to cast Junior as the ballet’s new star.
At the opening night performance of the new ballet, Vera tells Morrisone she was only flirting with Junior to make him jealous. Before the performance, Sergei pauses at the stage door to reflect on the big moment (“Quiet Night Reprise”). Sergei and Peggy, arm in arm, go in together.
Morrosine, still jealous of Junior, plots with his gangster friend, Louie, to shoot Junior during the applause at the end of the performance. Joe, the stage doorman, overhears and warns Frankie.
The ballet begins, and it’s a spectacular, contemporary tale of gangsters, molls, romance, betrayal and tragedy (“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Ballet”). As the ballet nears its climax, a dancer hands Junior a note informing him of Morrosine’s plan. Junior signals the conductor to vamp, delaying the loud climax which would cover the sound of the shot. The music continues, and Junior dances frantically to give the police time to arrest Louie before he shoots. Finally, two cops run down the aisle to arrest the would-be assassin. Junior sighs in relief and collapses as the curtain falls.
After the curtain call, Frankie embraces Junior as Sergei, Peggy and Sidney join them. Suddenly, Phil and Lil Dolan, Junior’s parents, enter to congratulate their son. Everyone celebrates the music teacher’s return to his home turf, the stage (Finale: “There’s A Small Hotel”).