Dance in Stage Musicals -
Part III

by John Kenrick
(Copyright 2003)

 

The Director-Choreographers
George Abbott redefined what it meant to be a director, taking a central role in shaping stage musicals. Two of Abbott's choreographers brought things to the next level, combining the roles of director and choreographer. These director-choreographers utilized an almost unlimited variety of dance idioms, including tap, jazz dance, ballroom, ballet, and any number of folk dance forms from around the world.

  • Jerome Robbins came from the world of classical ballet, pre-convinced of the story-telling power of dance. He collaborated with George Abbott on On the Town (1944) and other shows, then took the helm as both director and choreographer of such extraordinary hits as West Side Story (1957), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) and Fiddler on the Roof (1964).
  • Bob Fosse was a graduate of vaudeville and nightclubs. He was George Abbott's choreographer for The Pajama Game (1956) and Damn Yankees (1957), creating dances that throbbed with the playful sexuality that became his trademark. Fosse created many of his finest dances for Gwen Verdon, who became his wife and lifelong collaborator. As director-choreographer, he helmed Sweet Charity (1968), Pippin (1972), Chicago (1975) and several memorable films.
  • Gower Champion used his background in ballroom dancing to bring a seamless flow to stage musicals. In Bye Bye Birdie (1960), Carnival (1961), and Hello Dolly (1964), he established a style of staging that placed every prop, set piece and performer into a dynamic flow of song, story and motion. That style found its ultimate expression in Champion's final musical, 42nd Street (1980).
  • Tommy Tune was an experienced musical comedy performer. As a director-choreographer, he tempered traditional show business razzmatazz with an array of fresh staging ideas, giving audiences surprises and showstoppers galore in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978), Nine (1982), My One and Only (1983), Grand Hotel (1989) and Will Rogers Follies (1991).

Historical note: In the 1960s, a form of dance notation was devised that could preserve on paper the detailed movements required by contemporary Broadway choreography. Known as labanotation, it was first used to preserve Gower Champion's work on Bye Bye Birdie (1960). The lack of a central reference source makes it hard to track down those musical stagings which have been preserved in this manner, but they are out there somewhere.

 

Concept Musicals
Songwriter Stephen Sondheim and producer Hal Prince rejuvenated Broadway with a series of Tony-winning concept musicals – shows built around a "concept" rather than a standard romantic plot. Instead of focusing on the one or two pairs of lovers in a standard book show, concept musicals could showcase the thoughts and feelings of a wide range of characters without losing coherency. Sondheim and Prince relied heavily on Michael Bennett's innovative choreography to give Company (1970) and Follies (1971) a driving visual impact.

OneSammy Williams leading the original cast of A Chorus Line in the finale's famous "wedge"

Bennett began developing works on his own. His towering hit was A Chorus Line (1975), easily the most popular musical of the 1970s. Dance was used as a crucial storytelling tool in almost every scene and song, examining the anguish faced by dancers auditioning for a Broadway show. Bennett's stagings of Ballroom (1978) and Dreamgirls (1981) also made innovative and entertaining use of dance. His death due to AIDS at age 44 cut short one of the most brilliant careers in musical theatre history.

Mentioned briefly above, Bob Fosse's Chicago (1975) was one of the finest concept musicals, but this biting social satire had the singular misfortune to open in the same season as A Chorus Line. As a result, Chicago won no Tonys and got far less general attention than it deserved. It was rediscovered in a 1996 Broadway revival that far outran the original, and a 2002 screen version that became the first musical in 35 years to win the Academy Award for Best Film. Sometimes, it takes the world a few decades to recognize a masterpiece.

The British-born Mega Musicals of the 1980s and 90s were mostly about technical spectacle. The only one that stressed dance was Cats (1982), a revue-like musical adaptation of T.S. Eliot's Book of Practical Cats. Audiences may have hummed Andrew Lloyd Webber's ballad "Memory," but it was Gillian Lynne's acrobatic feline dances that kept theatres packed for record setting runs in both London and New York.

 

Dance Musicals
As the 20th Century faded into the 21st, a new breed of dance musicals appeared. These shows tended to use recycled showtunes and pop songs, and in some cases even recycled dance sequences -- the main focus was on the dancing. Bob Fosse had pointed the way for all this with Dancin' (1978), a long-running all-dance hit that did not spawn any immediate successors. More than a decade later, others took up the challenge, beginning an eleven year period in which
no less than three dance musicals would capture the Tony for Best Musical.

  • Jerome Robbins' Broadway (1989) - Robbins himself supervised this encyclopedic review of his works. Despite a healthy run, this show lost money thanks to an extended rehearsal period and unusually large cast.
  • Fosse (1999) - Gwen Verdon (Bob Fosse's widow) and Ann Reinking (his sometime mistress) spent years bringing this tribute to Broadway. It included numbers from most of Fosse's stage and screen musicals, as well as several of his less known dance creations.
  • The one original contribution to the dance musical form came from Susan Stroman, a former chorus dancer who's creative use of props within traditional stage added fresh sparkle to such hits as Crazy For You (1992). Her greatest personal triumph was Contact (2000), a trio of dance pieces set to pre-recorded classical and popular recordings. There was almost no book, no orchestra, and no live singing – yet Contact became the first "original" dance show to win the Tony for Best Musical.

Choreographer Twyla Tharpe fashioned pop composer Billy Joel's songs into Movin' Out (2002). Despite heavy competition, it received a Tony for Best Choreography, affirming that dance musicals are still a vital part of the Broadway landscape.

One of the few theatre historians to give a more than passing consideration to dance writes –

Dance symbols can be as effective as language or music symbols for dramatic communication. What sets dance apart is the universality in movement and gesture which is not bound like language to nationality or culture. Dance transcends geography in a way that language cannot. Dance humanizes expression in a way that music cannot.
- Richard Kislan, The Musical: A Look at the American Musical Theater (Revised Edition - New York: Applause Books, 1995), p. 237.

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