“Dancing in the Dark,” by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz, was introduced in the 1931 Broadway revue, The Band Wagon, considered by many critics to be their finest score. Another aspect of the show which contributed to its popularity was the cleverness of the sketches on which Dietz collaborated with noted playwright, drama critic, and humorist George S. Kaufman. In the book Song by Song: 14 Great Lyric Writers, authors Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin say, “The production depended on a refreshing use of revolving stages--another of Dietz’s ideas.... The song which is most firmly associated with The Band Wagon and its writers was ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ For a time Dietz despaired of finding an interesting staging. Finally, John Barker sang while Till Losch danced with herself in a series of mirrors.” Fred and Adele Astaire also starred in the show which introduced two other popular tunes by the songwriting duo, “I Love Louisa” and “Something to Remember You By.”
In his book Great Men of American Popular Song David Ewen says that the show was already in rehearsal when “Dancing in the Dark” was added--“Schwartz suddenly feeling the need in a particular spot in the revue for ‘a dark song...somewhat mystical, yet in slow, even rhythm.’ The song was written in a single day.”
“Dancing in the Dark” (also the title of Dietz’s 1974 autobiography) charted several times:
- Bing Crosby (1931, six weeks, peaking at #3)
- Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians (1931, three weeks, peaking at #12)
- Ben Selvin and His Orchestra (1931, four weeks, peaking at #10)
- Jacques Renard and His Orchestra (1931, Frank Munn, vocal, one week, peaking at #20)
- Artie Shaw and His Orchestra with Billy Butterfield on trumpet (1941, three weeks, peaking at #9)
- Artie Shaw and His Orchestra with Billy Butterfield on trumpet (1944 reissue, one week, peaking at #25)
In 1949 the song became the title of a film about back stage shenanigans starring William Powell, Betsy Drake (who performed the song), Adolph Menjou, and Mark Stevens. In 1953 The Band Wagon was made into a film starring Fred Astaire as an aging hoofer and Cyd Charisse as a young ballerina. They are unhappily paired for a Broadway show, but their differences quickly melt away during an elegantly sensuous dance to “Dancing in the Dark” in a lush park setting. In 2006 the movie ranked #17 on the American film Institute’s list of best musicals.
The film, which received several Oscar nominations including Best Music and Scoring of a Musical Picture, is considered by many critics to be among the finest MGM musicals. It featured earlier tunes written by Schwartz and Dietz such as “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” from the 1929 revue The Little Show, their first show together, and “A Shine on Your Shoes” from the 1932 musical Flying Colors. But the song that they created especially for the film became a show biz anthem--“That’s Entertainment.” MGM used the song title for a series of three films, beginning in 1974, that featured clips from its golden age of musicals, and in 1990 “That’s Entertainment” won the ASCAP award for Most Performed Feature Film Standards.
The 1999 revue Fosse, a showcase for the choreography of Bob Fosse who died in 1987, featured “Dancing in the Dark.” The show won multiple Tony’s, three Drama Desk awards, and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical. It was shown on PBS TV and ran for a year in London.
While Schwartz and Dietz wrote many cheerful and clever songs, they also wrote some of the most lushly romantic ballads in the standards repertoire: “Alone Together,” “You and the Night and the Music,” “Haunted Heart,” and, of course, “Dancing in the Dark,” which is an affirmation of love: “I have you love, And we can face the music together, Dancing in the dark.”
In American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 Alec Wilder says, “It’s a very strong song with a superb, poetic lyric....It is of conventional thirty-two measure length, and mysteriously gives the illusion of being a very rangy melody, whereas it is only one and a half tones more than an octave.
“Its principal characteristic is the use of repeated notes, which, because they are interrupted by stepwise, sinuous phrases, never become overinsistent. At the end of the first half, interesting harmony is injected without disturbing the melody’s flow.”
Philip Furia in The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists says, “Dietz concocted a ‘revolving’ lyric [suited to his revolving stage] that relied upon parallel phrases, phrases made even more repetitive by alliteration: ‘dancing in the dark,’ ‘waltzing in the wonder,’ ‘looking for the light.’ ...He uses few rhymes--none whatsoever for the title phrase--and relies upon clever enjambment to get a ‘whirl-and-step’ effect as one phrase suddenly pauses, then melodramatically continues:
Time hurries by--
“Such ten-cent existentialism stays at a high level of diction until the end of the chorus, when a vernacular catch-phrase suddenly intrudes amid the general bombast: ‘And we can face the music--together!’”
Arthur Schwartz himself recorded the song in 1941 and it has been a favorite of both vocalists and instrumentalists over the years. It was recorded by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, saxophonist Charlie Parker, guitarist George Van Eps, pianist Art Tatum, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins used the song as the title of his 1987 release as did pianist Fred Hersch for his 1992 CD. Vocalists Diana Krall and Jane Monheit recorded it in 2001 and 2004, respectively, and Monheit’s version was nominated for a Grammy as Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. Pianist Dick Hyman released his version in 2005. Bruce Springsteen’s hit, “Dancing in the Dark” from his Born in the U.S.A. album, is not the Schwartz and Dietz song but his own composition.