History of The Musical Stage

1950s Part III: The Directors

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2003)

(All the photos below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

In the 1950s, the old separations between acting, song and dance in musical theatre faded, and were replaced by a greater fluidity in the staging and structure of musicals. As a result, directors took on a much greater role in the development of new musicals. Veterans like George Abbott and a new, innovative breed of director-choreographers put their creative stamp a long line of musicals that would stand the test of time, classics that formed what many call the "golden age" of Broadway musicals. For the first time, critics and ticket buyers paid serious attention to who was "at the helm."

"Mr. Abbott"

George Abbott waltes backstage with Ray BolgerGeorge Abbott and Ray Bolger camp it up during rehearsals for Where's Charley.

George Abbott was so revered that even longtime colleagues addressed him as "Mr. Abbott." He had more than twenty years experience as an actor, playwright and comedy director when he staged his first musical, Jumbo (1935 - 233 performances). Over the next 27 years, he directed 26 Broadway musicals, 22 of which were moneymakers. He also wrote all or part of the librettos for many of those shows. Abbott's swift pacing and instinct for dramatic construction did much to shape the American musical comedy as we know it. He urged composers to tailor songs to specific characters and situations long before anyone else was interested. Many a show facing trouble on the road to Broadway benefited from Abbot's unaccredited doctoring – which came to be known as "the Abbott touch."

Abbott's career reads like a history of the American musical theatre in the 20th Century. He worked with Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart on a series of definitive 1930s musical comedies (On Your Toes, The Boys From Syracuse), followed by the daring Pal Joey (1940). In the next two decades, he remained at the creative forefront by teaming with such choreographers as Jerome Robbins (see below) and Bob Fosse (see below) to create several groundbreaking dance musicals. Abbott's credits include:

George Abbott's greatest strength was in identifying an author's intentions and expressing them clearly in an accessible, fast-paced musical comedy format. But as the integrated musical play displaced the old school musical comedy, Mr. Abbott's once infallible sense of musical comedy construction began to seem dated. However, as his career entered its fifth decade, he directed two more impressive hits:

The energetic Abbott directed ten more Broadway productions, including an acclaimed revival of On Your Toes (1982 - 505 performances). He remained active well past his centennial year, helping to revise the revival libretto of Damn Yankees (1994 - 510 performances) shortly before his death at age 107. A no-nonsense organizer in a business where disorganization was all-too common, Abbott had an extraordinary eye for talent, and played a crucial role in launching the careers of many theatrical greats, including the two director-choreographers below.

Jerome Robbins

High Button Shoes (19312 bytes)Phil Silvers bilks a New Jersey family, only to lose his ill-gotten gains in High Button Shoes.

Coming from the world of classical ballet, Jerome Robbins used dance as a story-telling device, making it as intrinsic to the musical as the script and the score. What Agnes DeMille had in initiated in Oklahoma came to fruition in the best Robbins stagings. He worked closely with authors and composers, defining the core stories and taking an active role in shaping much of the material he would bring to life on stage. As a result, his directorial concepts are often woven into the librettos and songs, a permanent element in the fabric of these shows. He directed and/or choreographed a roster of hits, including some of the most memorable musicals of the post-Oklahoma era –

After Fiddler, Robbins concentrated on classical ballet, and on burying whatever private guilt he might have carried after betraying friends to the witch-hunting Congressional committees of the 1950s. He returned to Broadway to supervise Jerome Robbins Broadway (1989 - 634 performances), a valedictory revue of his finest Broadway dances. Brilliant but dictatorial -- some would even say despotic -- Robbins was arguably the most brilliant director the musical theatre has ever known.

Bob Fosse

The Pajama GameBob Fosse's sexy, impious dancing won attention in the 1952 Broadway revival of Pal Joey and such MGM films as Kiss Me Kate (1953). His first choreography credit on Broadway was The Pajama Game (1954 – 1,063 performances), a bright musical comedy about a romance between a supervisor and a union rep as labor battles management in a Midwestern factory. With a delightful score by the new composing team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, this show was the perfect vehicle for Fosse's dance style. George Abbott handled the book scenes and left the musical numbers to Fosse.

Fosse built on what choreographers Robbins and Agnes DeMille had begun, adding a touch of show biz razzle-dazzle and a generous dose of unapologetic sex appeal. He found the perfect vehicle for his style in Gwen Verdon, a gifted dancer and actress who combined vulnerability with sleek sensuality. In Damn Yankees (1955 - 1,019 performances) Verdon played a demonic temptress, stopping the show with the raunchy "Whatever Lola Wants." The show, choreographer and actress all collected Tonys, and Fosse made the connection permanent by marrying Verdon during the run. Verdon won another Tony starring in New Girl in Town (1957 - 431 performances), but Fosse's "Whorehouse Ballet" was so daring that director George Abbott disposed of it during out of town previews. An infuriated Fosse resolved to be director-choreographer on all his future projects. Redhead (1959 - 452 performances) cemented Verdon's place as one of the greatest musical stage stars of her time, and is covered in our next chapter.

In 1959, Verdon explained to a New York Times interviewer the special contribution a director-choreographer could make to a musical --

"With a choreographer like Bob Fosse as director, there are many things he can give you to do -- such as a movement which will suggest a feeling, even when you are playing a scene. A choreographer is never afraid to move you around, while most directors have their mind on keeping you where you will be heard. You have more freedom. Choreographers have a greater sense of the visual, the composition of a scene, the look of a scene. You don't have to depend on words all the time."
- as quoted by Richard Kislan in Hoofing On Broadway: A History of Show Dancing (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987), pp. 104-105.

Fosse said that from a director's point of view there were only three types of show songs –

Playbill cover for How to Succeed in BusinessThese unique definitions helped Fosse to shape several sophisticated musical comedy hits in the 1960s –

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961 - 1,417 performances) was a Pulitzer Prize winning Frank Loesser hit discussed in a previous chapter. Fosse's dances included "Coffee Break" and "Brotherhood of Man," giving a quirky look to this sharp satire of America's corporate culture. At right, co-stars Rudy Vallee and Robert Morse can be seen on the original cast Playbill cover.

Little Me (1962 - 257 performances) was based on a best-selling comic novel by Patrick Dennis, offering the fictional tell-all autobiography of "Belle Poitrine," a poor young woman who uses sex appeal to find fame and fortune as a trashy film star. Fosse's dances included a memorable "Rich Kids Rag," and his direction made the most of a hilarious book by Neil Simon. The Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh score included the hits "Real Live Girl" and "I've Got Your Number." The casting of popular comedian Sid Caesar as seven diverse men in Belle's love life arguably focused creative attention in the wrong direction, resulting in often funny but fatally unbalanced show that ran barely six months. Two Broadway revivals of this intriguing show (in 1982 & 1998) have met with quick failure.

Sweet Charity (1966 - 608 performances) re-united Fosse and Verdon, and is discussed in detail in the next chapter.

Fosse remained a potent theatrical force for decades to come. He would take the director-choreographer's role to new levels -- some might even say, new extremes. You can find more on his later efforts in upcoming chapters. For more on the career of Gwen Verdon and other leading ladies of the 1950s, let's move on to . . .

Next: Stage 1950s IV - Great Dames