Dance on Broadway

The 12 Most Groundbreaking Musicals of the Last Six Decades

In rehearsal for Dreamgirls. Photo Courtesy DM Archives.

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.

1959: Gypsy

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.

1968: Hair

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.

1972: Pippin

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.

1981: Dreamgirls

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.

2000: Contact

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.

2012: Once

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.

The Conversation
Dance History
A still from the documentary American Tap

Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:

"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...

Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...

Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...

Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."

Happy National Tap Dance Day!

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

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.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
James Fosberg, courtesy Mason

Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.

Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Fox produced a live broadcast of Rent in January—but could an original musical be next? Photo by Kevin Estrada, Courtesy Fox

When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Courtesy Lee

Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.

The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Bruce Mars via Unsplash

Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.

Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body

It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).

But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!

—Andrea, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
From Dance of Urgency. © Ekvidi

When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.

The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.

Keep reading... Show less
News

Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.

The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.

As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Lorenzo Di Cristina/Unsplash

When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.

The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."

Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Quinn Wharton

What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.

So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox