Tuesday, December 13, 2011

10 FAVORITES (47): A 5, 6, 7, 8!

Broadway has been filled with toe-tapping, jazz hand-waving, high-kicking musicals.  Dancing has been a part of Musical Theatre since Day One.  Yet over the course of the previous century, the importance the choreographer played in the creation of a musical changed dramatically.  And there are several men and women responsible for that change.  Today's 10 FAVORITES will discuss the most influential choreographers of the Broadway stage, who they were and how the musicals they staged shaped the landscape of Musical Theatre.


Peter Gennaro
"Nobody's feet were faster than Peter Gennaro's" says Broadway legend Chita Rivera, who had a prominent featured role in the first musical Gennaro choreographed (a flop called Seventh Heaven in 1956).  A year later Rivera worked with Gennaro again in Jerome Robbins' new venture, a modern musical-ballet hybrid of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Gennaro was hired to be Robbins' lead assistant and co-choreographer.  He was integral in adding authentic Latin dances to several important numbers (namely the "Mambo" and "America").  After that, Gennaro enjoyed a flourishing career as a choreographer of Broadway (Fiorello!, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Annie) and Television (several 1960s variety shows and the Peter Gennaro Dancers!).  You can see the high energy and the fast nature of his choreography style in the 1964 film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown starring Debbie Reynolds below.

Tommy Tune
Tommy Tune has more Tony Awards than any other choreographer (ironically, his total is 9!).  It also helps that he started as a dynamic performer for other choreographers like Gower Champion, Michael Kidd and Michael Bennett throughout the 1970s (two of his Tony Awards are as a performer!).  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Tune emerged as the most successful and the most innovative director-choreographer.  His musicals ranged from nostalgic-style hits (My One and Only, The Will Rogers Follies) to powerful evocative stories that helped shape the way musicals are created and performed (Nine, Grand Hotel).

Susan Stroman
One of the most popular choreographers of the last 20 years, Susan Stroman first came to prominence with her high-kicking choreography of the early 1990s nostalgic hit Crazy For You.  She followed that up by teaming with legendary director Harold Prince on the re-imagination of the classic Show Boat.  When she stepped out on her own as a director-choreographer, she revitalized Broadway.  First, she wowed critics twice in one year with a charming revival of The Music Man and her collaboration with the Lincoln Center Theatre on the game-changing musical-ballet hybrid Contact.  The following year, she teamed up with comedic icon Mel Brooks on his love-letter parody to Broadway: The Producers.  The show became the most lauded in Broadway history winning 12 Tony Awards (more than any other show!). 

Jack Cole
Of all the choreographers that shaped modern dancing to the way it is today, Jack Cole did it first.  He knew everything and utilized it in his work.  Jack Cole is considered (by many!) to be "the father of American jazz dancing."  Almost every dancer in the Golden Age of Broadway (from Carol Haney to Chita Rivera) worked for Jack Cole (Gwen Verdon was his assistant before she became a star on Broadway!).  Why is this master of American dance not closer to the top of the list?  Well while Cole was hugely influential to many of the dancers and choreographers who worked on Broadway after 1950, his most prominent work was in Hollywood.  Jack Cole worked on several movie musicals in the 1940s and 1950s.  If it starred the likes of Betty Grable or Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe, Jack Cole was involved in that production.

Michael Kidd
When I think of Michael Kidd choreography, I think of a happy child skipping his way through a candy or toy store.  The key word there is "happiness."  Michael Kidd was a master at high energy and absolutely gleeful choreography.  Take a look at his work on shows like Finian's Rainbow, Where's Charley?, Lil' Abner or Destry Rides Again.  Even the times when he ventured into the seedier nature of human nature (like in Guys and Dolls or Can-Can), his dances still manage to be filled with some kind of happy feeling.  Like Jack Cole, Michael Kidd was lured out to Hollywood.  His most enduring contribution was the choreography of the 1954 classic Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.  For the delightful and acrobatic "Barn Dance" sequence alone, Michael Kidd goes down into choreographic history.

Agnes de Mille
During the Golden Age of Broadway, there were only a few choreographers who did both ballet and Broadway.  Agnes de Mille was one of them.  Her work helped change the American Musical altogether.  In Oklahoma!, de Mille inspired Oscar Hammerstein II to create the idea of the "Dream Ballet."  The ballet helped to show the inner emotions of the musical's leading characters through dance rather through song.  De Mille continued to use this concept in other shows like Carousel and Brigadoon.  It then became the driving concept of the shows in which she served as director as well (Allegro, Juno).  And her amazing American ballet Rodeo (set to Aaron Copeland's sumptuous music!) has been performed all over the world.  

Gower Champion
Like Tommy Tune, Gower Champion started as a famous dancer himself.  His work in many classic musical films (alongside his wife Marge) is extremely well documented.  In the 1960s, Champion became one of the top Broadway director-choreographers (with shows like Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival!, I Do! I Do! and the ever-popular Hello, Dolly!).  After suffering a series of flops (as most legends have) in the 1970s, Champion was on his way back to the top when he took on the task of staging David Merrick's stage production of the classic musical film 42nd Street.  It was a production that would have stressed and taxed anyone (even the likes of Jack Cole or Jerome Robbins!).  It has now gone into the theatrical lore as the most infamous opening night in Broadway history.  When 42nd Street opened to massive applause and rave reviews, producer David Merrick announced that Gower Champion, the man responsible for the brilliance the audience saw on that stage that night, was dead.

Michael Bennett
When it comes to Broadway choreographers, the conversation would not be complete without talking about Michael Bennett.  There is so much that Michael Bennett gave to Broadway.  Just Google "Turkey Lurkey Time" in Promises, Promises if you don't believe me.  He also helped the Stephen Sondheim-Harold Prince collaboration by working on their first two musicals together (Company and Follies, both of which have been acclaimed as Sondheim's best scores).  He innovated the way musicals were put together and the method of working a show throughout its run (especially on shows like Ballroom or Dreamgirls).  And the idea of the workshop didn't exist until Michael Bennett created A Chorus Line, quite honestly a musical that exists on every dancer's resume.

Bob Fosse
When it comes to style, there is no one like Bob Fosse.  Everybody knows a Fosse move when they see it.  Fosse, too, started as a performer.  When Jerome Robbins suggested him to George Abbott as a choreographer for The Pajama Game, a new career began its trajectory.  He followed his jazzy work in Pajama Game (see "Steam Heat") with dynamic dances in shows like Damn Yankees, Redhead and Sweet Charity (the latter two he served as director as well!).  All three starred his wife and muse, the glorious Gwen Verdon.  He soon branched out into films with the film version of Sweet Charity (starring Shirley MacLaine) and the film version of Cabaret (starring Liza Minnelli), which as become one of the most popular musical movies among college-age kids.  In 1973, Fosse won the Triple Crown for Entertainment directors winning an Oscar for directing Cabaret, a Tony for directing and choreographing Pippin and an Emmy for directing Liza Minnelli's TV special Liza With a Z.  He followed that with work that has since made him a legend: the Broadway musical Chicago (again starring Verdon), the edgy semi-self-biographical film All That Jazz and the musical-ballet hybrid Dancin'.  While working on a revival of Sweet Charity, Fosse had a heart attack while walking with Gwen Verdon in a Washington D.C. park and died that evening.  His legacy lives on through his recognizable style.

Jerome Robbins
What can I say about Jerome Robbins that I haven't already said?  There truly is no choreographer like Robbins that left such an indelible mark on the stage.  To this day, all of the musicals that he worked on still bare his credit (as in "Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins").  It didn't hhurt that Robbins had one of the fiercest Broadway lawyers in theatrical history, Ms. Floria Lasky.  From On the Town to The King and I or from Gypsy to Fiddler On the Roof, Jerome Robbins was a force to be reckoned with, no matter what show you remember.  And who could forget the masterpiece that is West Side Story?  As hated for his dictatorial metods (and even his personality!) as much as he is loved for his genius, Robbins was the master of the Broadway (and the Ballet!) world.

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