Know your choreo: Broadway

Musical theatre dancers, here’s a list of 6 famous choreographers who changed the face of Broadway.  Remember, an informed dancer is often more capable of grasping style, intention, and movement quality.  It’s time to #knowyourchoreo!

Name: Michael Kidd

Influences: The pedestrian storytelling of Charlie Chaplin and the character development of ballet choreographer, Léonide Massine.

Style:  Despite his classical ballet upbringing, Kidd shunned (and even spoofed) the ostentation of ballet.  Instead, he believed in honest, simple storytelling through dance—giving every move meaning by developing character or furthering the plot.  While Kidd’s choreography is often athletic and acrobatic (take a look at “The Barn-Raising Dance” from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), everything still derives from pedestrian movement.  He explained, “Dancing is based on naturalistic movement that is abstracted and enlarged…all my movements relate to some kind of real activity.”

Famous works: Broadway—FINIAN’S RAINBOW (1947), GUYS AND DOLLS (1950), CAN-CAN (1953), LI’L ABNER (1956), and DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1960).  Hollywood—The Band Wagon (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), and Hello Dolly (1959). TV: “Barishnikov in Hollywood” (1982).

Did you know: Kidd worked with Janet Jackson on two of her music videos: “Alright” and “When I Think of You.”

Watch: “The Girl Hunt Ballet” from “The Band Wagon,” “The Trash Can Dance” from “It’s Always Fair Weather,” and “Barn-Raising Dance” from “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

Name: Bob Fosse

Influences:  The classic grace and charm of Fred Astaire, theatrical jazz of Jack Cole, burlesque, and vaudeville theatre,

Style:  Fosse is best known for his unique style of white-gloved jazz hands, knocked-knees, turned-in toes, slouched shoulders, and a bowler hat cocked over one eye.  But his choreography ranged from highly technical ballets and soft shoe tap dances to athletic sports-inspired choreography and 1960s funky jazz.  His hyper-detailed movement was almost cinematic in nature—telling audiences where to look and what was most important.

Famous works: Broadway—DAMN YANKEES (1959), SWEET CHARITY (1966), PIPPIN (1972), CHICAGO (1975), DANCIN’ (1978), and BIG DEAL (1986).  Hollywood: Damn Yankees (1958), Sweet Charity (1969), Cabaret (1972), and All That Jazz (1975).  TV: “Liza with a Z” (1973).

Did you know:  Bob Fosse is the only person to have won the Triple Crown—an Oscar for Cabaret, a Tony for PIPPIN, and an Emmy for “Liza with a Z”—all in 1973.

Watch: “Rich Man’s Frug” from “Sweet Charity,” “Who’s Got The Pain” from “Damn Yankees,” and “From This Moment On” from “Kiss Me, Kate.”

Name: Jerome Robbins

Influences:  Academic ballet, George Balanchine, Senia Gluck-Sandor (modern dancer and mentor), and “the American experience.”

Style:  Robbins’ choreography—from ballet to the big screen—is eclectic.  It can be comical or serious, highly technical or purely pedestrian—or a mix of all of these.  But at its core, Robbins’ movement physicalizes character development, plot evolution, and musical score.  In fact, many critics comment on how Robbins’ choreography and its corresponding music are so integrated, it is impossible to tell which came first.

Famous works: Broadway—ON THE TOWN (1944), THE KING AND I (1951), PETER PAN (1956), WEST SIDE STORY (1957), and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1964).  Hollywood—West Side Story (1961), Fiddler on the Roof(1971), and Gypsy (1993). Ballet—Afternoon of a Faun, Fancy Free, Facsimile, Interplay, and West Side Story Suite.

Did you know:  Robbins won his fifth Tony Award for JEROME ROBBIN’S BROADWAY (1989), his own anthology show that he both directed and choreographed.

Watch: “Cool” from “West Side Story and “The Concert” ballet.

Name: Michael Bennett

Influences: Growing up in New York City, the life of a chorus dancer, and trending dance styles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Style: Bennett’s choreography feels like controlled abandon.  It’s inspired by the movement vocabulary of the 60s and 70s—lots of isolations of the head, torso, and hips—and athletically, energetically embodies the music.  Bennett ‘ography is always full out with deep pliés, multiple pirouettes, airborne jumps, and full extensions of the limbs.

Famous works: Broadway—PROMISES, PROMISES (1968), COMPANY (1970), A CHORUS LINE (1976), and DREAMGIRLS (1981).

Did you know:  Bennett met Donna McKechnie (original Cassie in A CHORUS LINE) when they danced together as part of the ensemble of NBC’s musical variety show, Hullabaloo.

Watch: “I’ve Got Your Number” with Joey Heatherton, “Turkey Lurkey Time” from PROMISES, PROMISES, and “I Hope I Get It” from A CHORUS LINE.

Name: Gower Champion

Influences: ballroom dance, old Hollywood, and utilizing props and sets in seamless storytelling.

Style:  Champion and his wife, Marge, were a famous nightclub dancing duo.  Moving to Broadway, Champion’s choreography always had a hint of ballroom dance—a sense of gliding across the stage, elegant but natural port de bras, and a natural, organic, flow.

Famous works: Broadway—LEND AN EAR (1949), BYE BYE BIRDIE (1960), HELLO DOLLY (1964), THE HAPPY TIME (1968), and 42nd STREET (1980).

Did you know: Champion died of a rare blood condition just ten hours before the opening night curtain of what was to be his greatest success, 42ND STREET.

Watch: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from Lovely to Look At, “Lullaby of Broadway” from 42ND STREET,

Name: Agnes de Mille

Influences:  Acting, “the American experience,” and classical ballet.

Style:  De Mille revolutionized the role of storytelling in dance.  Choreography was not thrown into a show as an embellishment but facilitated the plot and character development.

Famous works: Ballet—Three Virgins and a Devil (1934), Rodeo (1942), and Fall River Legend (1948). Broadway—OKLAHOMA (1943), CAROUSEL (1945), BRIGADOON (1947), and PAINT YOUR WAGON (1951).  Hollywood—Oklahoma (1955) and two significant television specials, “The Art of Ballet” and “The Art of Choreography” (1956).

Did you know:  De Mille’s parents did not allow her to take dance lessons because, at the time, dance was a social activity rather than a practical future career option.  She did not begin dancing until after college, and even then, de Mille struggled to get performance work due to her lack of technique, flexibility, and the typical “dancer’s body.”

Watch: “Dream Ballet” from “Oklahoma,” “Rodeo” ballet excerpt, and “Three Virgins and a Devil” ballet excerpt.

#musicaltheater #BobFosse #JeromeRobbins #choreography #AgnesdeMille #musicaltheatre #Broadway #MichaelKidd #choreographer #MichaelBennett #GowerChampion

© 2020 by Mary Callahan