Ballet on Broadway – Then and Now

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Ballet, an influence for dance on Broadway

I did my Master’s thesis a number of years ago on how choreography demonstrated virtue in three musical films of Americana: Oklahoma, Carousel and The Music Man.  Two of the shows were based on a book, while the other was an original story.  These films though, contained dance, two contained full ballets, and all were created for the Broadway stage.

Dance belongs not only to the ballet, but to Broadway as well. In fact, ballet is the root of many forms of dance. While some may dispute that tap has similarities to ballet, just a look at Gene Kelly with his balletic leaps in a tap number or Fred Astaire, with his graceful moves and pantomime in certain numbers on film. For now, however, let’s just look at shows with dance on Broadway, also known as “The Great White Way.”

The premiere of An American in Paris on Broadway this past year was not the first musical with ballet, although it may have been the first show in a long time. Ballets, such as Okkahoma!, and Carousel were created in the late 1940’s, and included fully packaged ballets within the musical.

Oklahoma!, which was based on the book, Green Grow the Lilacs, had its “Dream Ballet” in which Laurie danced out her joys and fears. The bliss of marriage transformed into a nightmarish scenario of saloon hall girls, representing evil.  Within the ballet, set against an unrealistic set of tornado and wind, Laurie reluctantly succumbed to defeat in the arms of a wayward farmhand, until awakened from the nightmare.

Agnes de Mille choreographed this wonderful ballet, with some touches of her own work, Rodeo, (which she previously choreographed for the ballet world).  The “dream ballet” is a highlight of the musical. Ms. De Mille created dance numbers for other songs and musical interludes as well, including one number showcasing the femininity of women yearning for a husband. The song, “Many a New Day,” incorporated ballet in a long dance sequence in period feminine undergarments. (Sometimes, television edits the dance in the film version due to time, but if you watch it on Netflix or DVD, you will see the long sequence of ballet here.)  The “Many a New Day” song turns into a long dance of trained ballerinas, who capture the essence of femininity of young girls in various stages of maturity.

The femininity of this second ballet sequence in the show contrasted with the frontier of Oklahoma territory offering not only Americana, but told story and virtue through dance. Oklahoma! was the first musical that actually used dance to advance the story line.

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Innocence, corrupted by the temptation of a carousel.

Similarly, Carousel, which was also based on a book, called Liliom, had its own ballet as well, called, “Louise’s Ballet.”  Julie Jordan’s daughter, Louise, dances in the carnival scene that surrounds a carousel made up of garish people. In this ballet, Louise’s joy also turns to a more sinister image of innocence lost. Agnes de Mille choreographed this show on Broadway too; however, the film version went to choreographer, Rod Alexander.  According to the IMDB, Agnes de Mille received credit for Louise’s Ballet, in the film as well, which was recreated from the original stage show; however Alexander choreographed the other numbers because of a dispute.

Finally, we have The Music Man with its stiff attitudes and stilted dancing.  The inflexibility of the townspeople is shown in their stiff-legged movement and while there is no ballet per se, there is energetic period dance that reflects values.  The Music Man was choreographed ny Oona White, and again, dance paralled and advanced the story line.  It is the tale of an inflexible town with inflexible moral standards, which become corrupted by the townspeople’s overzealous adherence to them. This dogged devotion to supposed proper behavior invited defamation and gossip to thrive against the more enlightened, but innocent, icon of the town  – Marion, the Librarian. 

As the residents of River City move about the town they walk fast, talk sparingly, and sprint back and forth with little emotion that is, until Professor Harold Hill drops into the town, and transforms the librarian, along with its citizens.  Song, talk-singing, rhythm, and onomatopoeia, such as in the “Rock Island” train number at the beginning of the show, is important to the musical; however, as attitudes relax a bit, dancing is seen in the “Shipoopi” number reflecting the change in values from a corrupted righteousness to a more accepting religious view.  Dance was the transformative power.

There’s been a lot of other dance created for Broadway, which is most known for its great tap and jazz, but much of it has been ballet as well.  Most musicals need trained dancers, regardless of whether they will be on pointe or not.  Even if the show is generally a tap or theater dance show, there may be a ballet number inserted somewhere in there.  You really have to be a “jack of all trades” to work in the dance world in theater, especially if you do summer stock, regional or dinner theater where versatility in dance can help one to get hired!  At Broadway auditions, you may be asked to do a jazz combo, a center floor ballet combination, and/or be asked to do wings in tap as well.  Code switching from barre to double time step to “jazz hands” is de rigeur!

But, don’t believe me.  Look at the recent success of, “On the Town,” that starred ballerina, Megan Fairchild, with a run in the last few weeks from fellow ABT ballerina, Misty Copeland.  Robert Fairchild also helmed, “An American in Paris,” with ballerina co-star, Leann Cope on Broadway this year as well.  They came from ballet companies, but were versatile enough to fit the medium of Broadway.

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Jazz dance shows, “West Side Story” and “Chicago”

The shows above are just a few of the many with musical numbers of ballet or dance that challenge performers.  Additional shows, such as Kathleen Marshall’s, “Anything Goes,” Gower Champion’s, “42nd Street,” or Bob Fosse’s shows, “Chicago” and “Cabaret,” perform, jazz, tap  and plain ole’ theater dance.  Jerome Robbins choreographed the iconic dance in “West Side Story” as well, one in which the men have the best dancing!.  In all of these shows, however, whether jazz or tap, most of the dancers were ballet trained!

Agnes de Mille was the queen of iconic ballet on Broadway. She paved the way for more dance shows with story lines that grew organically from the lyrics and movement.   So, whether it’s de Mille, or the individual dance styles of Jerome Robbins, Tommy Tune, Bob Fosse, or the modern Christopher Wheeldon, dance will always be a part of Broadway and film – an extension of the medium of ballet.

As for Chicago, and 42nd Street, – well,  I also have a lot more to say about these “hoofer”  and jazz shows as well, but I think I’ll leave that for another article!

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References:

Lorenz, N. Thesis: The Multiplicity of Feminine Virtue in Traditional Musicals of Americana: Oklahoma, Carousel and The Music Man.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

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