"The Dance at the Gym" from the motion picture West Side Story
"The Dance at the Gym" from the motion picture West Side Story

Dream Ballets and Breathtaking Showstoppers: Milestones in Broadway Dance

With West Side Story making its way back to Broadway in the 2019–2020 theater season, and with choreography being an integral part of how that story is told, it seems timely for us to look back at the evolution of dance on Broadway and how it came to represent more than just athleticism and became an important part of musical-theater storytelling and plot advancement. From dream ballets to breathtaking showstoppers, here are some of the greats.

“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” On Your Toes

The ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes was central to the musical’s plot about a director of the Russian Ballet coming to America to stage the piece. What makes choreographer George Balanchine’s contribution to staging the ballet so significant is that it was a dance that was telling a far more complex story than had been ventured in a Broadway musical until that time. The ballet tells the story of a male dancer (played by Ray Bolger) who falls in love with a woman, but when her jealous boyfriend comes after him, the story ends in tragedy.

“Laurey Makes Up Her Mind,” Oklahoma!

The pinnacle of the evolution of musical-theater storytelling through dance arrived in 1943 with the landmark musical Oklahoma!. Agnes de Mille, who had been brought on board to stage some dances for the new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, originally titled Away We Go!, hailed from the ballet world. As Oklahoma! took shape, it was clear that De Mille’s work as choreographer was having an enormous impact on the show, especially in her use of the “Dream Ballet,” also known as “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind.” A conflicted farm woman is trying to decide which man in her life she will pursue, the obsessive farmhand Jud or the cocky cowboy Curly. The ballet demonstrated Laurey’s fears, her internal conflicts, and her hopes. De Mille would employ dance to similar effect in subsequent shows, including Bloomer Girl, Carousel, Brigadoon, and Allegro.

“The Crap Shooters’ Ballet,” Guys and Dolls

How do you make an ongoing dice game in a New York City sewer look exciting? Michael Kidd had no problem crafting “The Crap Shooters’ Ballet” for the 1950 musical comedy hit Guys and Dolls. Hiding out from the law, Manhattan’s Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game had to take to the maze-like sewers under Times Square to keep their marathon game on track. Athletic, macho, and conveying the tension experienced by high rollers, Kidd’s choreography managed to be humorous, impressive, high-kicking fun.

“The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” The King and I

Stylized with a unique combination of ballet and techniques of Asian theater storytelling, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I is a potent piece of dance. In an effort to show the king how desperately she wants the freedom to love another man, Tuptim presents a staged version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Choreographer Jerome Robbins found a way to bring a Siamese flavor to this American novel, and through dance, tell a story about an escaped slave, paralleling Tuptim’s heartbreaking predicament.

“Steam Heat,” The Pajama Game

Has there ever been a dance in a musical that did nothing to advance the plot but completely stole the show quite like “Steam Heat” from The Pajama Game? Choreographer Bob Fosse had gifted dancer Carol Haney to work with, and he devised a specialty number around her talents. “Steam Heat” featured a character from a pajama factory performing at a union meeting. That was it. But the dance was so unlike anything else people had seen before in a Broadway musical. Fosse devised a number of controlled, then suddenly pulsing punctuated movement. It stopped the show. The Pajama Game was the first musical that featured choreography by Fosse, who would go on to reshape the world of musical-theater dance throughout his prolific career.

“Dance at the Gym,” West Side Story

The palpable tension that choreographer Jerome Robbins conveyed in his choreography for the 1957 musical West Side Story was as much a part of the show’s storytelling as its book and score — so much so that all three components felt seamlessly intertwined. Rival gangs battling it out to claim their turf on NYC’s Upper West Side provided a unique opportunity to utilize dance as part of the storytelling. Of particular note was “Dance at the Gym”, in which the two groups start by showing off in front of each other, and then their fears and prejudices mount into an explosive dance demonstrating a deep and insurmountable divide. Robbins won the Tony Award that year for his choreography.

The Bottle Dance, Fiddler on the Roof

Who can forget the nerve-racking bottle dance created by Jerome Robbins for the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof? During the song “To Life,” when the character Tevye arranges the marriage of his daughter to the butcher Lazar Wolf, a celebration breaks out in the village inn. Everyone has a drink, and at one point, several of the men perform an entire dance with glass bottles perched atop their hats. The audience has no choice but to hold their collective breath and keep their fingers crossed as the men kick their legs to the left and to the right, positioned close to the floor. It’s an iconic moment from one of Broadway’s most iconic musicals. It meant another Tony for Robbins, who also took home a trophy for his direction.

“I’m a Brass Band,” Sweet Charity

When a musical has Bob Fosse as its director-choreographer and Gwen Verdon as its star, you know the levels of the dancing are going to be stratospheric. In the 1966 musical Sweet Charity, the title character, Charity Hope Valentine (Verdon), is a dance hall hostess who is tired of the johns she meets every day. She sets off on a quest to find true love, finding heartache after heartache. When she thinks she has finally found The One, her heart explodes with joy as she sings “I’m a Brass Band.” It builds and builds with some of Fosse’s most inventive choreography, much of it his signature contoured and angular moves linked to create a parade. Fosse won a Tony Award for his efforts.

“The Music and the Mirror,” A Chorus Line

The musical A Chorus Line is about dancers auditioning for a Broadway show who share the stories of how they were inspired to perform on stage. Each of them shows a vulnerable side, including Cassie, a dancer who at one time was in a serious relationship with the director, Zach. Zach thinks she is too talented to be in the chorus, that she was meant to stand out. Desperate for a job, Cassie makes her case in one of the most passionate and fiercely determined dances ever created for the stage. “The Music and the Mirror” was introduced by Donna McKechnie, who won a Tony Award for playing Cassie. A Chorus Line was choreographed by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian.

The Opening Night of 42nd Street

42nd Street opened on Broadway in 1980 and was a self-proclaimed “song-and-dance extravaganza.” Directed and choreographed by the great Gower Champion, the musical was a valentine to theatrical dance, with a particular emphasis on tap. The show just exploded with dance, with clever moments like the curtain rising just a few feet to reveal a stage full of feet tap-tap-tapping their tootsies off. Sadly, at the curtain call on opening night, producer David Merrick stepped forward to regretfully announce to the audience that Champion had died earlier that day, an end to an auspicious career as one of Broadway’s great director-choreographers.

“We’ll Take a Glass Together,” Grand Hotel

Repeatedly referenced as one of the greatest life-affirming moments of choreography ever exhibited in a Broadway musical, Tommy Tune’s staging of “We’ll Take a Glass Together” from the 1989 musical Grand Hotel was a breathtaking moment of theatrical bliss. Otto Kringelein is a dying man, seeking one last hurrah at the Grand Hotel in Berlin before he dies. Baron Von Gaigern is a nobleman who has gone broke. As the baron attempts to steal Otto’s wallet, the two share a drink at the hotel bar, a number that practically took flight when danced by Michael Jeter and David Carroll. Through the dance, we see the emerging friendship between the two, one that ends with the baron unable to follow through on his theft. Tune won Tony Awards for Best Director and Best Choreographer.

Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk

It wasn’t one specific moment but an entire evening that utilized tap dance to tell the collective story of African Americans in the United States. The jaw-dropping intensity of the 1996 musical revue Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk was something to behold, particularly the choreography by Savion Glover, who won a Tony Award. From the decks of slave ships through the Chicago riots to contemporary attitudes about race, the musical was a dance essay on the trials and tribulations experienced by the minority group through the centuries.

“Electricity,” Billy Elliot

A little British boy has lost his mother, his dad and his brother are both part of the coal miners’ strike under Margaret Thatcher, and the kid really wants to dance. In fact, he wants it so badly, he is willing to defy his father and continue his lessons even though his dad has expressly forbid it. “Electricity” from Billy Elliott is the title character explaining, through song and dance, what being a dancer means to him. Peter Darling provided the “electric” Tony-winning choreography. Billy Elliot premiered on London’s West End in 2005 and transferred to Broadway in 2008.

“Satisfied,” Hamilton

Hamilton has evolved musical theater in so many new ways, and it is just as revolutionary in how it employs dance in its storytelling. Utilizing dance in an unconventional way in the song “Satisfied,” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler paints perspective and point of view through movement. When a particular scene plays out, he shows the previous moments of dance in reverse, then rewinds the entire scene and tells the same story from another point of view. Blankenbuehler was (deservedly so) part of the 2016 Tony Awards juggernaut for Hamilton, taking home a trophy for the entirety of his work on the show.

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His forthcoming book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America, will hit the shelves in October, 2019. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.