Dance in Musicals: Part 6—Bob Fossee & The Modern Musical
Bob Fosse started in vaudeville and later became a ballroom dancer in nightclubs. He was featured in MGM films such as Kiss Me Kate (1953). When he returned to the stage as a choreographer, he won recognition for his work in Abbott's The Pajama Game (1956) and Damn Yankees (1957), for which he won a Tony. His choreography thrived with sexuality, putting an edge into these musicals. He created much of his choreography for his third wife, Gwen Verdon who was the prototypical “Fosse dancer,” long, limber and sexy. For Pippin (1972), Fosse won Tonys for both choreography and direction. On film, Fosse directed three musicals: Sweet Charity (1968), the Academy Award winning Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979). In 1972, he became the only person in history to win a Tony, Emmy and Academy Award in the same year. In 1975, he appeared with Chicago, one of the best concept musicals, which was overshadowed on stage by A Chorus Line. However, the show was rediscovered on Broadway in 1996, and on film in 2002 (Kenrick, “Dance in Stage Musicals”).
In 1978, Dancin’ appeared as an all-dance hit. Without a script, this show was an evening-length series of unrelated dance sequences that relied on a non-theatrical musical score. After its success on Broadway, small companies found it hard to recreate the demanding choreography and the show never reopened (Kenrick, “History of The Musical Stage 1970s”).
Cats (1982) was the only British-born musical of the time that stressed dance. Gillian Lynne’s feline choreography used acrobatics and gesture that complimented Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score. The musical, based off of T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats, packed in audiences in London and New York (Kenrick, “Dance in Stage Musicals”).
Tommy Tune countered traditional musical “razzmatazz” from the history of American entertainment with his own energy and surprises (Everett 211). For Grand Hotel (1989) and The Will Rogers Follies (1991) he won Tonys for direction and choreography. Over his successful career, he won nine Tonys for acting, choreography and direction.
The first original dance show to win a Tony for Best Musical was Contact (2000). Choreographed and directed by Susan Stroman, the show was divided into three dance pieces set to pre-recorded classical and popular music. Stroman’s inventive use of props in choreography, while maintaining the show’s dramatic integrity, is her trademark, inspired by her idol Fred Astaire (Kenrick, “Who's Who in Musicals”). Her next smash hit was The Producers in 2001, for which she again won Tonys for direction and choreography, making her the only person to ever win this combination of Tonys two years in a row.
On screen, Moulin Rouge (2001) used the MTV music video style to create a spectacle musical. It used rapid editing styles and accelerated camera motion to create a blur of can-can and tango dance sequences.
In 2002, Chicago hit the screen and was the first musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 35 years (Kenrick, “Dance in Screen Musicals”). Choreographed by Rob Marshall, the large ensemble dance sequences continued the trend of quick on screen edits, making it hard to distinguish the amateur dancers from the veterans.
That same year, Twyla Tharpe’s Movin’ Out was another dance musical, with music by Billy Joel. “Movin’ Out mixes up a heavy combination of rock concert and ballet performance,” said Terry Byrne of the Boston Harold in 2005 (News Reviews). Tharpe, of the modern company Twyla Tharpe Dance, is known for making technically demanding choreography audience-friendly. She won a Tony for her athletic choreography in Movin Out.
In 2004, director Joel Schumacher and producer Webber brought the musical Phantom of the Opera to film for the third time. Choreography was by Lynne, who is best known for the development of British jazz dance and her work on Cats. Using fans, masks and a large staircase, Lynne smoothly blended ballroom dance and gesture phrases to Webber’s song “Masquerade” to create a stunning affect. However, the film could not top the show in theaters on Broadway and in London. The musical holds the record as the highest-grossing entertainment event of all time, grossing $3.2 billion worldwide (“The Phantom of the Opera”).
Today, Lynne continues work on Broadway with musicals such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005).
Musical theater continues to attract the attention of families looking for an escape. Although the golden golden age of musicals has ended, a new period of fast-paced, MTV-style, accelerated motion musical films is beginning. With these musicals comes an increasing demand for athletic and technical dance.