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
- 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
- Gower Champion used his
background in ballroom dancing to bring a seamless flow to stage
musicals. In Bye Bye Birdie
(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
- 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.
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.
Sammy 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
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.
no less than
musicals would capture the Tony for Best
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
- 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
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
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.
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