Since the 1930’s when George Balanchine choreographed the Rogers and Hart musical On Your Toes, dance in musical theater has been used as a tool with which to tell a story. Balanchine, one of history’s most famous ballet choreographers, used the movements of classical ballet in combination with the positions of jazz dance to create the musical’s notable dance numbers. The Russian choreographer’s usage of dancing that was firmly linked to the production’s plot to convey a key aspect of the narrative was common place in ballet, but unprecedented on the stage. The importance of dance in productions as a further method by which to unveil the plot only grew in the following years with the creation of musicals like Oklahoma!
Each dance that the choreographer Agnes de Mille created in Oklahoma!, one of the most successful musicals of all time, not only contributed to the plot, but revealed aspects of the show’s characters. The show signaled a withdrawal from the traditional use of tap dancing on stage and a new focus on a form of expressive dance customized to fit the demands of musical theater that incorporated aspects of folk, ethnic, jazz, ballroom, classical ballet and many other dance styles. De Mille continued to bring this new form of dance to the stage by choreographing works like Carousel and Brigadoon.
Around the same time that dance was taking hold of Broadway, producers like the MGM great Arthur Freed gave dance a new face in movie musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris. Freed recruited the likes of Michael Kidd, Gower Champion, and Bob Fosse who were encouraged to create dances that would be key elements of the productions. After the 1940’s passed, however, Hollywood stopped producing original pieces and turned to making adaptations of successful Broadway musicals like De Mille’s Brigadoon where the dancing was still a main feature.
Hollywood was copying Broadway in the 1950’s, but Broadway continued to produce new hit musicals that integrated music, dance, and captivating storylines. In Guys and Dolls for example, the genius of choreographer Michael Kidd, the dances worked largely to maintain the pace and flow of the plot. Kidd’s style was typically upbeat and he was know for having his dances communicate a great deal of information about the setting and plot. In the opening scene of Guys and Dolls, Kidd composed a ballet that portrays aspects of New York City life, painting an unforgettable picture of the story’s locale. Broadway would be introduced to another amazing choreographer the following year in 1951 when The King and I premiered. The brains behind the musical’s beautiful and graceful dancing was Jerome Robbins, an exacting and demanding choreographer who exerted a profound impact on the art of musical theater.
Robbins was born in New York City in 1918 and exposed to modern dance at a fairly young age by way of his sister Sonja who had danced professionally in several different companies. It was not until he dropped out of NYU in 1936 due to lack of funds that Robbins began to really pursue his interest in dance. His first performing experience was with the Gluck Sandor-Felicia Sorel Dance Company where he held an apprenticeship. Gluck-Sandor’s style was a combination of ballet, modern, Broadway, and vaudeville with a burlesque flair, but Robbins also gained classical ballet training by studying with people like Ella Daganova. After briefly working with the Yidish Art Theater, Robbins danced and choreographed at Tamiment, a progressive-movement resort where over the course of three summers his work gained popularity and an audience. During the regular theater season Robbins worked as a chorus boy on Broadway, his first exposure to the bright lights of musical theater, until 1940 when he became a member of the recently formed Ballet Theater (now ABT).
Quickly assuming soloist roles, Robbins yearned to create his own ballet for the budding company. He eventually developed a concept involving three sailors on shore leave in NYC and collaborated with an unknown composer named Leonard Bernstein. After much intense work, Robbins’ first ballet Fancy Free premiered in 1944 to excited audiences. The success of Fancy Free led to the creation of On the Town, a musical comedy based on the ballet with dances by Robbins. The NYU dropout soon became an established choreographer for both Broadway and the ballet realm.
With a plethora of work spanning the length of five decades it is hard to label which of Robbins’ pieces are the most famous, most groundbreaking or most important to dance history. He produced the choreography for such famous musical theater production as Look, Ma, I’m Dancin’ (1948), Call Me Madam (1950), and The King and I (1951), but his most enduring contribution was his choreography for the landmark show, West Side Story (1957). The Broadway show is incredibly important to dance history because the dances in West Side Story played such a dominant role in the production. Robbins’ work in the famous musical has been credited not only with advancing the plot, but also for creating the atmosphere of excitement and tension essential to the piece. The dances contain so much information that the spoken content of the show is exceptionally short when compared with other musicals. The vigorous, expressive dancing in West Side Story merges elements of ballet and well as contemporary dance, a combination that reflects Robbins’ dance training. The way that Robbins portrayed the edgy life of street gangs in the production through his movement amazed audiences. The continued popularity of West Side Story is a testament to the genius of Robbins’ choreography.
Other highlights of Robbins’ career include: his position as Associate Artistic Director at the New York City Ballet, the many works he choreographed for the ballet company, the formation of his own company (Ballet USA), his direction of several straight theatrical plays, and his Tony Awards for West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. In addition to developing the movement for many musicals, Robbins contributed immensely to classical ballet by incorporating the American style of jazz, ballroom dancing, and boggie into the movement vocabulary of traditional ballet. Perhaps the greatest display of his affect on musical theater and the world of dance was on the evening of Robbins’ death on July 29, 1998 when the lights of Broadway were dimmed for a moment in tribute to the innovative artist.
Even though choreographers like Robbins clearly placed dance at the forefront of the musical, it is still difficult to define the role of dance in musical theater since different writers, composers, and choreographers develop each musical with varying intentions. Yet, it is safe to say that choreography is closely related to the musical aspect of musical theater and that in the majority of musicals characters are able to express their emotions and convey their actions though dance. Unlike in traditional plays where characters strictly communicate to the audience through the use of dialogue, in musical theater the actors must express themselves with songs and the physical movements of dance. For example, in the world famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats, Gillian Lynne’s choreography effectively reveals elements of each cat’s personality and the movement is simply an extension of the unique characters. From the acrobatic and smooth jazz moves of Macavity the mystery cat to the confident swagger Lynne gives the Rum Tum Tugger, the choreography brings the audience closer to understanding the cats’ personalities.
One of the most obvious ways that choreography enhances the musical is the visual spectacle that it adds to what might otherwise be a traditional theatrical production. The tap dance extravaganzas in musicals like Forty Second Street and Crazy for You and the intricacies of Fosse’s dance steps in Sweet Charity captivate the audience’s attention and keep them interested in the show’s unraveling plot. Dance can also be used as a method to reveal the action in the plot. In Jerome Robbins’ creation West Side Story, for example, the musical’s plot relies heavily on the dance numbers. The scenes between the competing gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, where each gang is fighting for the same territory in New York City, are intricately choreographed and climactic scenes in the story’s plot. The story line of the musical is so reliant on the element of dance that it is often described as a ballet-opera.
The glittering lights of Broadway have recently attracted several of modern dance’s most accomplished choreographers who have each struggled to discover the role of dance in the musical. In 1997 Garth Fagan, Doug Varone, and Mark Morris became members of the growing crowd of modern dancers and choreographers who have seized the opportunity to create dance in the commercial world of musical theater. It may seem incredibly strange that modern choreographers are interested in creating dances for musical theater, an art form know for its strict movement vocabulary and mainstream audience. However, it is important to note that while musical theater may appear codified, the Broadway dance scene has always been know for its openness and as a forefront for new ideas.