The 12 Most Groundbreaking Musicals of the Last Six Decades
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Still, it seems an appropriate time to sort through 50-plus years of musicals to pick out the ones that meant the most, that opened my eyes to the possibilities of this ever-evolving, ever-fascinating form. Call it the Sylvi Awards—not for the best, or for my favorites, or for any other ranking you can dream up. I do love them, but they're here because these are the musicals that showed me something I'd never seen before.
Possibly the high-water mark for the mature American musical, which came into being in the 1940s, featuring adult love stories, songs headed for the charts, and dance inextricably tied to storytelling. The current revivals of My Fair Lady and Carousel prove that this kind of show, done well, is, and always will be, ravishing.
I was in college, the Vietnam War was raging, hippies were taking over the East Village, and suddenly it was all happening on Broadway, in a show that tapped into a generation—something that didn't really happen again until 1996, when Rent arrived. Hair's anarchic spirit went on to infuse and inspire other break-the-mold musicals, like the The Me Nobody Knows, Spring Awakening and American Idiot. And its feral physical style, devised by director Tom O'Horgan and dance director Julie Arenal, introduced a new freedom to Broadway movement.
My first Bob Fosse musical thrilled me from its opening moments—a black stage pierced only by brightly lit, slowly moving jazz hands. Gradually spreading light revealed the incomparable Ben Vereen and a superlative dance ensemble (that included Ann Reinking) in "Magic to Do." But beyond the wonderful score and the indelible Fosse choreography, Pippin stands out for its meta-musical framing—a show that acknowledges that it's a show, paving the way for later delights like The Drowsy Chaperone and Passing Strange.
1976: Pacific Overtures
It opened in a season dominated by two dance-driven masterpieces, A Chorus Line and Chicago. But this one, with its kabuki-influenced choreography by Patricia Birch and its deeply serious exploration of the relationship between Japan and the United States, revealed that musical theater could tackle complex historical material in fresh and entertaining ways, and with unlikely dance styles. Hello, Hamilton.
1978: Ain’t Misbehavin’
Arguably the first true jukebox musical, this compilation of Fats Waller numbers was given a unique, elegant look by Arthur Faria. He borrowed vocabulary from the stylized arms of Thai dance, setting a high choreographic standard for songbook shows to come, like All Shook Up and Jersey Boys.
Michael Bennett is best remembered as the creator of A Chorus Line, but in this, he choreographed not just the dances but the set's gliding black towers, lending its showbiz story a strikingly new cinematic flow. Set elements that move along with the action are now commonplace in the theater, but Dreamgirls brought more than a fresh look to Broadway. It accurately captured the way black music and dance styles swept out of Detroit and into white America in the '60s, opening a path for wondrous shows like Sarana! and Memphis.
1984: Sunday in the Park with George
This brilliant Sondheim musical centering on an iconic painting by Georges Seurat had no dance numbers per se, but it was about art, thrusting musicals into new aesthetic territory. With its moving depiction of the obsessive struggles and hard-won rewards of creation, the show says something essential about all artists. And when George sings about finishing the hat in his painting, he could also be a dancer or choreographer: "Look, I made a dance where there never was a dance."
1997: The Lion King
The sheer volume and variety of its theatrical artistry—blame Julie Taymor and Garth Fagan—created the Disney juggernaut that's made a trip to a musical an essential rite of passage for fortunate children.
1997: Side Show
This story of conjoined twin sisters who go into vaudeville was a commercial flop, despite its excellent score and the exquisite staging by choreographer Robert Longbottom. But given the current vogue for musicals about outcasts, it was probably just way ahead of its time—see Next to Normal, Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen.
After AIDS had decimated the ranks of Broadway dancers and choreographers, and British mega-musicals had diminished their importance, this show brought new life to the Broadway dance scene. Previous all-dance shows were choreographic anthologies, like Fosse's Dancin' and Jerome Robbins' Broadway. With this trio of one-acts, Susan Stroman proved to Broadway that you could tell a story through choreography alone, paving the way for Twyla Tharp's monumental Movin' Out and who knows what else.
2008: In the Heights
This show reminded Broadway that the kind of seamlessly through-danced book musical pioneered by Robbins wasn't, and would never become, obsolete—it just needed a choreographer like Andy Blankenbuehler to make it soar. Christopher Wheeldon then stepped up with An American in Paris and Blankenbuehler with Hamilton, and there's undoubtedly more to come.
The British team of director John Tiffany and his movement colleague Steven Hoggett created a musical in which everybody—even the band—danced but nobody danced, opening the door to the post-choreography choreography of musicals like Come From Away and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. They're pointing musicals in a new direction—stay tuned for another 60 years to see what happens.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.