While teaching music at Knickerbocker University, Phil "Junior" Donal III tries to persuade Sergei Alexandrovich, the director of the Russian Ballet, to stage the jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue". After becoming involved with the company's prima ballerina, Vera Barnova, Junior is forced to assume the male lead in "Slaughter". Trouble ensues when he becomes the target of two thugs hired by Vera’s lover and dance partner to kill him.
A 1939 Warner Bros. screen adaptation by Lawrence Riley, Richard Macaulay, Jerry Wald, and Sig Herzig was directed by Ray Enright and starred Eddie Albert, Vera Zorina, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, and Donald O'Connor. The film eliminated all the songs, using them only as underscoring, but retained Balanchine's ballets.
The first Broadway revival, directed by Abbott and choreographed by Balanchine, opened on October 11 1954 at the 46th Street Theatre, where it ran for 64 performances. The cast included Vera Zorina, Bobby Van, and Elaine Stritch. The original score was embellished with "The Heart Is Quicker than the Eye" and "You Took Advantage of Me."
After seven previews, a second revival directed by Abbott and choreographed by Donald Saddler opened on March 6 1983 at the Virginia Theatre, where it ran for 505 performances. The cast included Natalia Makarova, Christine Andreas, George S. Irving, Dina Merrill, Philip Arthur Ross, and Lara Teeter.
On a vaudeville stage, Phil Dolan II, his wife Lili, and his son Junior perform their nightly routine, but afterwards in the dressing-room, the parents tell Junior that he has to go to school. Fifteen years later, as predicted, Junior is a music teacher at Knickerbocker University. He has two talented students: Sidney Cohn and Frankie Frayne. Sidney has written a promising jazz ballet which Frankie catches Junior dancing to alone in the classroom (uncovering his "secret past"), and she trades an introduction to the Russian Ballet's manager in return for his listening to her song.
In the apartment of Vera Baranova, star of the Russian Ballet, Peggy, the manager, enthusiastically tells Sergei, the company's director, about the new jazz ballet. He is not interested in anything new - he doesn't even recognise that the Revolution has happened! Junior arrives as Vera and co-star/unfaithful lover Morrisone are having a Russian screaming match. The others leave, so that Vera and Junior can discuss the new ballet, but that leads to a new entanglement.
Back in the classroom, Frankie is jealous of Junior's stories about Vera and the Russians (Peggy has promised him a chance to dance in the corps de ballet), and they both wish they were away from it all. At the opening of the ballet, La Princesse Zenobia, Junior is told that one of the dancers is in jail and he has to take his place, but onstage he gets all his steps, rhythms and positions cock-eyed and makes a laughing-stock of the ballet. But the audience loves it, nevertheless.Act II
Sergei, Peggy, Vera, Morrosine and Junior have listened to the jazz ballet. Opinions are mixed, and Vera and Morrosine are still arguing, as he becomes increasingly jealous of Junior. Poor Junior has got love problems, too: he upsets Frankie by going to lunch with Vera (for business reasons) instead of her, but she is "Glad to be Unhappy".
Then Peggy, Sergei, and some of the company visit Junior's school. Sergei has come to break the bad news that he will not be doing the jazz ballet, but Peggy persuades him by threatening to pull out the million dollars she has put into the company. After Sergei's announcement that the next production will be Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, the class put on the title number "On Your Toes", in which the students' jazz and the company's classical routines are deftly combined.
At a rehearsal, Morrosine's jealousy of Junior gets out of control, there is a fight in which he is knocked out by Sergei, and suddenly Junior is the new star. The humiliated Morrosine plots with his gangster friend, Louie, to shoot Junior at the end of the performance. Joe, the stage doorman, overhears and warns Frankie. On-stage, Junior is tipped off and signals to the conductor to avoid the final loud climax which would cover the shot, and two cops seize Louie as he is about to shoot. After the curtain call, Junior is embraced by Frankie, and is startled to see his parents waiting to congratulate him. The music-teacher has made it back to his home-ground - the stage.
Although some of the songs from the Broadway score were used as background music, the film does not have any singing in it. The "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet does appear at the end of the film, with choreography by George Balanchine, one of eight films he would create the dances for. Although Eddie Albert's character dances the lead in the ballet, opposite Zorina, it appears as if a double was used for some of the more complex tap dance steps, since only the dancer's lower body is shown.