ONE OF THE most enthralling aspects of a Broadway musical is dance. There’s nothing quite like a splashy production number, with the cast members moving to the driving beat of the music, individual moments building to a show-stopping climax.

But what many people might not know is that the dance we see in musicals today is strikingly different from dance in early musicals. In fact, dance is one element of musical theatre that has changed the most drastically over the years. While many people helped forge this evolution, there’s one person arguably more influential than anyone else: Jerome Robbins.

I teach the history of musical theatre and history of musical theatre dance at Boston Conservatory, and one thing I’ve come to realize over the years is how pivotal West Side Story was and continues to be. Call it “The Robbins Effect.” Robbins, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday in 2018, established a new set of rules with West Side Story, rules that creators of musical theatre continue to follow to this day, whether they realize it or not.

In thinking about dance, modern musical writers essentially ask themselves two questions: “How much dance should the show contain?” and “What kind?” The answer to the first question is usually only as much as the show needs, even if that means no dance at all. Frequently, answering the second question entails incorporating extremely simple dance or even deliberately bad dance.

Why? Well, to borrow from Stephen Sondheim’s three rules of musical writing, because content dictates form. In other words, the decisions you make when creating a musical should be based on what the show and the individual moment require, as opposed to audience expectations or what has traditionally been done.

West Side Story represents a high point of many decades of innovation in musical theatre. Much of that innovation had to do with integration, that is, the extent to which dances, songs, and other elements in a musical serve a larger dramatic purpose. Integrated songs and dances usually serve at least one of the following functions: progressing the plot, revealing character, or establishing time and place.

However, the remarkable thing about integration in musicals is how long it took to develop.

THE BIRTH OF MODERN MUSICALS

Historians often put the beginning of modern American musical theatre somewhere in the 19th century. Musical theatre history books often single out The Black Crook (1866) as the first real musical, although this distinction is arguable and ultimately arbitrary. But the show does serve as a useful starting point, especially when it comes to the integration of dance.

As history tells it, The Black Crook was a bloated extravaganza, loaded with enormous sets, elaborate costumes, and state-of-the-art special effects. What it didn’t have was a decent script, and William Wheatley, one of the show’s producers, knew that the show needed more than just spectacle to keep it afloat.

This promotional poster for The Black Crook was created by the H.A. Thomas Lith. Studio.
This promotional poster for The Black Crook was created by the H.A. Thomas Lith. Studio. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Fortunately, Manhattan’s Academy of Music burned down. This was fortunate because the troupe of 100 French ballerinas who were supposed to appear at the academy suddenly found themselves without a place to dance. Wheatley quickly hired the lot of them and stuck them in his show, dressing them in costumes that revealed as much of their shapely bodies as possible. All that female skin caused a scandal in the prim Victorian age, and The Black Crook became a must-see sensation.

To Wheatley’s credit, The Black Crook at least tried to make the presence of 100 ballerinas make sense. At one point, a character stepped forward and spouted some stilted expository dialogue, followed incongruously by the proclamation, “And now, we rehearse the festival dance!” The ballerinas did their thing, then the story, such as it was, continued.

For decades thereafter, dance in musical theatre served little more than a decorative purpose. Well into the 1930s, Broadway musicals frequently included “specialty numbers” — often plucked intact from vaudeville — at random points in the show simply for the sake of entertainment. In this sense, these dances didn’t so much advance the story as stop it cold or, at least, represent a pleasant but irrelevant digression from the plot.

A major milestone came in 1936 with the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes. The show’s story concerns the flagging fortunes of a Russian ballet troupe, and each of the show’s two acts ended with a lengthy ballet sequence. Rodgers and Hart knew the dance needed to be of exceptional quality, so they hired George Balanchine, who had already established himself as a major force in the ballet world.

One indication of the significance of On Your Toes was that Balanchine was the first person in musical theatre to receive the title “choreographer.” Before this, people who composed dances for musicals were typically called “dance directors” or were referred to in the program with the designation “dances by.”

The word “choreographer” may seem like a minor matter, but the new job title reflected a larger trend. The people creating dances for musicals were moving from being considered part of the technical staff, like lighting or set designers, to being welcomed as members of the conceptual and creative team, like writers and composers. Increasingly, the dance department was taking center stage.

DANCE TELLS THE STORY

The first true inflection point in the evolution of dance in musical theatre came with the premiere of Oklahoma! in 1943. Although there had been hints of progress in previous shows, it wasn’t until Agnes de Mille crafted the iconic dances for Oklahoma! that meaningful dance gained a foothold. Oklahoma! was the first show in which every single piece of dance served a larger purpose and did so in a way that genuinely resonated with the story around it.

The larger purpose of dance in Oklahoma! is fairly obvious in the case of the famous dream ballet at the end of Act 1, which delves into the subconscious of Laurey Williams. Called “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind,” the ballet explores Laurey’s feelings toward her playfully combative beau, Curly McLain, as well as her fears of, and strange attraction to, the menacing cowhand Jud Fry.

But there’s also thematic resonance in the “Kansas City” dance, in which Will Parker acts as a harbinger of great changes coming down the road. The dance during “Many a New Day” charmingly reveals the love-hate relationship that Laurey and her girlfriends have with their respective fellas, even as the women preen and primp for these men. And the rousing square dance at the start of Act 2, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” represents how the citizens of the territory of Oklahoma need to stop bickering among themselves if they hope to become part of the burgeoning United States of America.

DANCE BECOMES THE STORY

Jerome Robbins entered the scene with On the Town (1944), which actually began its life as a ballet called Fancy Free (1944) to a score by a young Leonard Bernstein. The simple story concerned three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City and their search for female companionship.

Fancy Free was one of the first ballets with an American subject and with naturalistic, character-driven movement. The ballet created such a sensation that Robbins and Bernstein invited their friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write the book and lyrics to an extended, sung version of the story. So, it’s really no surprise that On the Town would depend on dance so heavily in its storytelling: Dance was part of the show’s conception and its very DNA.

Between On the Town and West Side Story, numerous choreographers continued to experiment with meaningful dance, including Michael Kidd with his muscular, energetic dances for Guys and Dolls (1950) and Jerome Robbins again with what may be the best and most dramatically resonant of the big musical theatre ballets, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I (1951).

But West Side Story (1957) is really the next major milestone — perhaps the most important dance musical of all time — because here dance was no longer just meaningful. In West Side Story, dance is essential. Remove even one dance from the show, and you’d be left with a major hole in the story.

In West Side Story, the dance becomes a form of communication, manifesting the inner thoughts of what these inarticulate street kids can’t find the words to say. Significantly, none of the adult characters in the show ever dances (or even sings, for that matter), which represents the communication gap between the generations: They literally don’t speak each other’s languages.

West Side Story begins with a prologue told entirely through movement and music. The dissonant intervals in Leonard Bernstein’s music, combined with the aggressive percussive hits in the orchestration, immediately convey to the audience that this will be a show with a large amount of tension. The movement vocabulary of the two different gangs establishes the central conflict of the show, portraying the slumped-over posture and rigid pack mentality they both cling to.

Significantly, the two main characters, Tony and Maria, meet and fall in love during the “Dance at the Gym,” a plot development that clearly makes the sequence indispensable. And later, before the tragic violence at the end of the first act, the members of the Jets gang psych themselves up for battle, while ironically proclaiming to keep themselves calm, in the explosive character number “Cool.”

FOLLOWING WEST SIDE STORY

One might think that Jerome Robbins would follow the ultimate dance musical with another attempt at plumbing the dramatic depths of dance. But he didn’t.

In fact, Robbins’ next musical was Gypsy (1959), a show that has very little dance. What’s more, the dance the show does contain is intentionally amateurish, comprising awkward vaudeville turns, a male solo dance cobbled together from fragments of better dances, and a bawdy bump and grind for the strippers. So, it’s with Gypsy that Robbins truly codifies The Robbins Effect (that is, only as much dance as the show needs, even if it’s bad).

Musical theatre creators took note. After West Side Story, rather than a spate of copycat dance shows, we start to see less dance in Broadway musicals, unless it is specifically called for. Case in point: The musicals of Stephen Sondheim rarely contain any significant dance unless there’s a compelling reason for the dance to be there.

For example, Sondheim’s classic musical Company (1970) contained only two significant moments of dance. One was a solo number for Donna McKechnie, choreographed by Michael Bennett, called “Tick Tock,” which was basically a danced version of sexual intercourse. In the other dance, “Side by Side by Side,” the entire cast engages in an awkward production number meant to look like a bad PTA talent show.

There certainly have been musicals since West Side Story that have featured essential dance, notably A Chorus Line (1975), which took dance to an introspective realm that even West Side Story hadn’t explored. The dances in A Chorus Line tread a thin line between reality and fantasy, bringing the characters, who are literal Broadway dancers in the context of the show, back and forth between an especially grueling audition and their interior monologues as they contemplate their lives in an increasingly uncertain job climate.

MUSICAL THEATRE DANCE TODAY

In the years since A Chorus Line, musical theatre dance has taken a two-pronged path. On the one hand are contemporary shows with little or no dance, including Next to NormalFun HomeDear Evan Hansen, and the recent Tony winner The Band’s Visit. What these shows share is a seriousness of intent combined with a realistic idiom that would make most dance seem out of place.

On the other hand, Broadway has seen musicals almost entirely made up of dance, including Susan Stroman’s three-part dance piece Contact (2000) and Twyla Tharp’s story ballets set to popular music — most notably Movin’ Out (2002), featuring the hit songbook of Billy Joel.

Broadway has also been on a bit of a nostalgia kick over the past 25 years, usually with a significant dose of dance. This includes revivals of classic shows (for example, Anything GoesGuys and Dolls, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), shows created in an intentionally old-fashioned idiom (for example, The ProducersSomething Rotten, and Bandstand), and nostalgic shows that cherry-pick hits from the songbook of a Golden Age composer (for example, George Gershwin in Crazy for You and An American in Paris, Irving Berlin in White Christmas and Holiday Inn).

But there’s one very encouraging trend toward incorporating contemporary social dance into recent hip-hop inflected shows, such as In the Heights and Hamilton, both choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Broadway has been embarrassingly slow to mirror the trends of popular music, and success of In the Heights and Hamilton indicates there’s an audience for shows that more fully reflect popular dance in the world around them.

So, the next time you attend a musical on Broadway, on a national tour, or at a local high school, ask yourself: “Does the show have only as much dance as it requires? Is the dance meaningful? Essential? Is there little or no dance, but what’s there is intentionally bad?” Chances are, even if Jerome Robbins himself had nothing to do with creating that particular show, you’ll still be witnessing The Robbins Effect.

What about Fosse?

Astute observers might have noticed that Bob Fosse is rather conspicuous in his absence from this article. This was no oversight. Fosse’s choreography, while iconic and instantly recognizable, doesn’t quite adhere to The Robbins Effect. Rather, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Throughout his long career, Bob Fosse developed a style and philosophy for choreography that seem to defy what was happening in the musical theatre world around him. He favored a slick, flashy approach to dance — an approach that didn’t always mesh with the shows he was working on.

The first show directed, choreographed, and conceived by Fosse, in which he was more or less in total control, was Sweet Charity (1966). Although there are many memorable dance sequences in Sweet Charity, those dances were there not so much because the subject matter called for them but rather because the redoubtable Gwen Verdon, the show’s star and Fosse’s wife, was one of the greatest dancers Broadway has ever seen. If you have Gwen Verdon, you let Gwen Verdon dance.

Fosse’s next show was Pippin (1972), but its abundant dance served mostly to plaster over the fact that the show’s book was paper thin and full of holes. To be fair, dance also fits the concept of the show, which turns out to be a sinister trap, with flashy dance acting as part of the enticement. Pippin also features dance as political commentary. “The Manson Trio” is a harsh critique on the Vietnam War in which Fosse asked how we as Americans were any different from cult leader Charles Manson and his abominable “family.”

Fosse’s crowning achievement was Chicago, and here his penchant for slick staging and showbiz razzle dazzle serves the larger point of the show. Chicago posits that America worships fame for its own sake, and we really don’t care how you get famous, even if you’re a murderer. Right and wrong don’t matter, as long as you’re entertaining. In this sense, Chicago represents the ultimate marriage of decorative dance and dramatic theme.

This story appeared in the February 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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