Part 4 of the Dance in Musical Series:
Dance in Musicals: Part 4—Gower Champion
Dance became a minor element in the decreasing number of musicals on film in the 1960s. The few exceptions included the ensemble work by March Breaux and Dee Dee Wood in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964). The movie blended the plot with songs, dance and animated characters, winning five Academy Awards (Kenrick, “Dance in Screen Musicals”). Onna White, a Broadway choreographer, preserved her stage dances on screen in The Music Man (1962) and later created ensemble work for Oliver (1969).
On stage, Gower Champion became a leading choreographer. Champion, started his dancing career with Jeanne Turner in nightclubs and Broadway revues, where they combined energetic ballroom dancing with show dancing. After serving in World War I, Champion formed a partnership with Marjorie Bell and became popular on stage and in television, appearing in Showboat (1951) together. With his unconventional training in ballroom, he choreographed musical numbers with a fresh look, integrating every prop, set and performer with song and motion. His direction and fast-paced choreography, which emphasized a youthful spirit in Bye Bye Birdie (1960), won him two Tony Awards. He followed this with another hit, Hello Dolly (1964), for which he again won two Tonys.
Labanotation, a form of dance notation, was used to preserve Champion’s choreography on paper during the staging of Bye Bye Birdie. He ignored a diagnosis of terminal cancer to create his final musical, 42nd Street (1980), which contained intricate tap numbers, and died before the opening performance. The show was his longest running hit and he received a posthumous Tony for his choreography (Kenrick, “Who's Who in Musicals”).