The Great Broadway Choreographers
Dance is an essential part of most Broadway musicals and there have been many amazing choreographers over the years. Some have really stood out, either reinventing the form and purpose of dance within Broadway musicals and/or bringing a signature style to their work that has become legendary in its own right. Today, I’d like to celebrate these gods and goddesses of the world of musical theatre dance and talk a little about how each of them left their imprint on the art form.
George Balanchine was an early voice in Broadway musical choreography. He expertly brought attention to how dance can shape and illuminate a story. The highlight of his Broadway work was the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet that he staged for the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes. Balanchine hailed from the world of ballet, having choreographed for Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and The American Ballet. Other Broadway credits include Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, Song of Norway, Where’s Charley?, and House of Flowers (among many others).
From the moment Jerome Robbins staged the ballet Fancy Free which would evolve into the Broadway dance extravaganza On the Town (1944), it was clear he was destined to revolutionize dance on Broadway. His “Bathing Beauty Ballet” was a highlight of the 1947 High Button Shoes, as was his staging of the Keystone Cops, both evoking, with great humor, the silent film era of Mack Sennett. His choreography for the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein The King and I, particularly “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, was powerfully-inventive amalgam of East-meets-West movement and storytelling. Arguably Robbins’ greatest achievement was his depiction of gang-fighting through dance in the legendary West Side Story. Other musicals of note that were choreographed by Robbins include Bells Are Ringing, Peter Pan, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Fiddler on the Roof. Robbins was a member of the American Ballet Theatre.
Agnes de Mille
One of the most influential talents in the evolution of Broadway dance, Agnes de Mille is perhaps best remembered for her revolutionary choreography for the 1943 game-changing musical Oklahoma! Her dream ballet where the character Laurey “makes up her mind” was a startling sequence using dance to represent internal conflict. De Mille would continue this character-probing use of movement in Carousel, Bloomer Girl, Brigadoon, Allegro (which she also directed), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Paint Your Wagon, The Girl in Pink Tights, and 110 in the Shade. A mover and shaker in the annals of ballet, de Mille initially worked with the American Ballet Theatre. Her most-celebrated work was arguably her staging of Aaron Copeland’s Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
A Broadway choreographer with a distinctly original style, Michael Kidd is remembered for his high-kicking, athletic choreography that captured a masculinity and unbridled adrenaline. Michael Kidd studied with the School of American Ballet and was a performer for the American Ballet Theatre (where he performed in Fancy Free choreographed by Jerome Robbins). He won the first Tony Award for Best Choreography for his work on the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow (an honor he shared with Agnes de Mille who won for Brigadoon). His signature style worked perfectly in shows such as Guys & Dolls, Can-Can, L’il Abner, and Destry Rides Again (all adding Tony trophies to his mantel). Other Broadway credits include Wildcat, Subways are for Sleeping, Ben Franklin in Paris, Skyscraper, and The Rothschilds. He also notably choreographed two film musical classics: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Band Wagon.
Credited for the “Musical Staging” of the 1948 musical revue Lend an Ear, Gower Champion would receive his first full-on Broadway choreographer credit with Small Wonder (1948). In the 1950s, Champion would find himself regularly on the lots of Hollywood studios such as MGM, Paramount, and Columbia. It wasn’t until 1960, however, that his career as one of Broadway’s most-celebrated director-choreographers would take off. He would helm the vibrantly youthful Bye Bye Birdie, followed in 1961 by the gently reflective Carnival! With both shows, Champion demonstrated an ability to let the movement grow organically and subtly out of the story and characters. For the 1964 Hello, Dolly!, Champion would up the “wow” and “pizazz” factors in his staging of spectacular, showstopping choral sequences. On the day of his death, Champion’s song and dance extravaganza 42nd Street opened on Broadway. It was a loving tribute to the life of the Broadway dancer, a glorious kaleidoscope of tap, jazz, and ballet, all given the signature Champion touch. Other musicals he directed and choreographed include The Happy Time, Sugar, Mack & Mabel, and Rockabye Hamlet.
All anyone has to do is say “Fosse” and a musical theatre fan pops into a contorted position with jazz hands out. Perhaps the most-iconic of choreographers thanks to his immediately identifiable style, Bob Fosse took the form of dance into surprising directions. Often inspired by such artistic muses as Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Ann Reinking, Fosse was a brilliant taskmaster who demanded the absolute best of his dancers. Fosse started out as a performer himself, then graduated to the role of choreographer for the 1954 musical The Pajama Game, fashioning an unforgettable dance sequence out of the song “Steam Heat.” From there, the list of his work goes on and on, including Damn Yankees, Bells are Ringing, New Girl in Town, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. With Redhead, Fosse would take on double duty as both director and choreographer. He liked that artistic control and continued to impress in that dual capacity for Little Me, Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago, Dancin’, and Big Deal, shaping shows that were a relentless explosion of movement.
Michael Bennett was, simply put, taken from us too soon. A brilliant orchestrator of theatrical stage movement (his original Broadway production of Dreamgirls moved like a piece of cinema) and a celebrated performer in his own right, Michael Bennett would sprinkle his dance magic on some of theatre’s most groundbreaking shows including Company, Follies, and A Chorus Line. He started out choreographing a handful of Broadway flops and also-rans including A Joyful Noise and Henry, Sweet Henry. His first big hit was Promises, Promises wherein he staged the unforgettable “Turkey Lurkey Time.” Other musicals choreographed by Michael Bennett include Coco, Seesaw, and Ballroom. At the time of his untimely death at the age of 44, Bennett was preparing to direct the West End production of Chess, but he succumbed to his illness of AIDS-related lymphoma before he could begin. What a shame we never got to see what he would have done with it.
A remarkably inventive choreographer (and director), Tommy Tune infuses the Broadway musicals under his guidance with humor, heart, and, in some cases, a dizzying perpetual motion that envelops the audience. From his libidinously-sly movement in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, to his tour-de-force, ebbs and flows of robust intensity in the non-stop dance of Grand Hotel, Tune puts an indelible stamp on every show he touches. Other choreographer credits for Broadway include A Day In Hollywood/A Night in Ukraine, My One and Only, and The Will Rogers Follies. A Broadway Baby at heart, Tune appeared on Broadway in Baker Street, A Joyful Noise, How Now Dow Jones?, Seesaw, and directed the 1982 musical Nine. Perhaps Tommy Tune has another Broadway musical left in him as director-choreographer? I think we’d all be excited to see what he still has up his capable sleeves. Tommy, we still need you!
The choreographer of today who continues to paint beautiful stories on the Broadway stage with her chosen medium of dance, is Susan Stroman. Her stage resume is astounding in its length and in what she has achieved. Starting out as a choreographer of Off-Broadway musicals, revues, and concerts, her foray into Broadway choreography began in 1992 with Crazy for You. She followed this with her seamless dance for the 1994 Harold Prince directed revival of Show Boat, using choreography to magically transition time and place. Next came Big and Steel Pier, both flops that still sparkled with Stroman’s ingenious machinations. She transitioned to the role of director-choreographer Contact (Off-Broadway and on) andThe Music Man. One of her greatest successes was helming the Mel Brooks musical The Producers. Other credits include Thou Shalt Not, The Frogs, Young Frankenstein, The Scottsboro Boys, Big Fish, and Bullets Over Broadway.