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date: 01 April 2020

Dance in the Broadway Musicals of Shakespeare: Balanchine, Holm, and Robbins

Abstract and Keywords

Shakespeare’s plays have served as inspiration for a score of Broadway musicals. These musicals have contributed to the development of the musical theater libretto from a loose collection of sketches to an integrated “book musical” that equally values text, music, design, directing, and dance. While many are familiar with some of the most popular hits from those shows—including “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from the Cole Porter’s musical, Kiss Me, Kate, or the balcony scene song, “Maria,” from the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim collaboration, West Side Story, the contribution of choreographers and dancers to the translation of Shakespeare-inspired music, text, and scenography to the musical theater stage has not received due scholarly attention. This chapter considers the partnership between text and dance in selected Broadway musicals that have been based on the works of Shakespeare, focusing on choreography for musicals by George Balanchine, Hanya Holm, and Jerome Robbins.

Keywords: Rodgers and Hart, Broadway musical, George Abbott, Cole Porter, George Balanchine, Hanya Holm, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Shakespeare, dance

Dance on the Broadway musical theater stage from the mid-1930s through the 1950s was going through a seismic change from what it had been from the fin de siècle period to the beginning of the Great Depression. Precision drill teams, comic acrobatic entertainers, soft shoe song and dance men and women, large production numbers, and the clever incorporation of popular social dance forms dominated the Broadway stage in the early part of the twentieth century but, with the influx of concert dance choreographers from the ballet and modern dance stage, there was an inevitable influence on how dance was to be seen on the musical theater stage. Dance directors gave way to choreographers. One-trick-pony performers were replaced with technically trained dancers, and these dancers were expected to substitute stoic, plastique facial expressions with a genuine ability to act. Composers, lyricists, and librettists were working more closely with directors as well as choreographers to interrogate texts so that the final product would have not only a stronger cohesiveness, but also more depth and substance. It is no accident that for some, they turned to the plays of Shakespeare as a source for narrative material as well as dramaturgical inspiration in learning how to develop a more nuanced and refined theatrical language for musical theater. This chapter will examine the work of three of the choreographers who contributed to this development.

The Broadway musical has had a long fascination with Shakespearean drama. One of the earliest examples comes from the 1903 musical, Mr. Bluebeard, starring one of America’s most cherished clown actors, Eddie Foy, who introduced the well-received song, “Hamlet Was a Melancholy Dane.”1 This little taste of Shakespearean parody would resurface five years later when Foy starred in a successful production of Mr. Hamlet of Broadway (1908), in which the character he played, a circus performer, was unceremoniously forced to play the role of Hamlet when the original actor took ill. In addition to his comic and singing abilities, Eddie Foy was recognized for his individualistic and eccentric (p. 304) style of dance. It was the exaggeration of the limbs of his body and his acrobatic skills that allowed him to create humorous individual routines known as “legomania.” But while there had long been dancers, singers, actors, and comedians satirizing or parodying popular characters or scenes from Shakespeare’s plays on the minstrel stage and in vaudeville, revues, and musical comedies, it was not until a Russian-born classically trained ballet choreographer stepped into the American musical theater milieu that it became possible to bring together the American musical’s need for invention with its attraction to the poetic sensibilities and clarity of Shakespeare’s plays. George Balanchine’s The Boys from Syracuse was a perfect first vehicle to seriously explore taking a text by Shakespeare and finding how that might be transformed into a musical comedy.

Balanchine on Broadway

Stephen Greenblatt theorizes that “the dream of restoration haunted Shakespeare throughout his life,” but it is Shakespeare’s prolonging of that moment of restoration through narrow slips due to mistaken identities, the quick and abruptly shifting pace of the storyline, and incisive repartee in the dialogue that haunts George Abbott and Lorenz Hart, harkening them back to the early modern playwright centuries later.2 As the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, Comedy of Errors provides more opportunities to add songs and dances in order to elaborate or to push the story along without having to drop or sacrifice the basic narrative of the play. But even if “song and dance” takes on the comedic functions of heightening dramatic tension and prolonging restoration, the effect of the postponement and conflicting discourses is only to make the comedic resolution the more satisfying. Barton observes that Shakespeare “seems to have been wedded to the idea that happy endings must, to carry conviction, be won from a serious confrontation with mortality, violence, and time.”3 Balanchine’s choreographic contributions to The Boys from Syracuse provide just such a confrontation.

In producing The Boys from Syracuse, Abbott’s book and Hart’s lyrics were able to transpose Shakespeare’s language into the American vernacular, but the combination of George Balanchine’s choreography with Richard Rodgers’s music created a visual and aural experience that captured the effervescence of Comedy of Errors for a Depression-era American public. The team of Rodgers and Hart had collaborated since their college days and throughout the 1920s and 1930s. They were eclectic in their output and wrote for vaudeville, revues, and musical comedy; by the end of their prolific collaboration, they had written nearly thirty shows and over 500 songs. Rodgers’s talent for increasingly sophisticated and yet popular and accessible compositions was matched by lyricist Hart, who was often called “the Shakespeare Hart” for his delicate rhymes, poetic allusions, and sharp satire. Rodgers and Hart approached George Abbott to direct and to write the book. Following their collaboration in On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), and I Married an Angel (1938), George Balanchine was invited to choreograph for the fourth time with Rodgers and Hart.

(p. 305) Balanchine’s involvement in the production was consistent with a movement of concert dancers and choreographers testing the waters of musical theater. What used to be the preserve of tap dancers, ballroom acts, social dance forms, and specialty acts was upended by Balanchine’s contemporaries in the 1930s, including Albertina Rasch, Charles Weidman, José Limon, and Fred Astaire, who were experimenting with their various approaches to dance on the musical theater stage. By the late 1930s, with the unique collaboration between Rodgers, Hart, and Abbott, the invitation to the recently emigrated Balanchine to join the team was propitious for musical theater dance. While Balanchine was ultimately responsible for the choreography for The Boys from Syracuse, he was in fact assisted in his work with the tap dancing components by David Jones and Duke McHale.4 Musical historian Frances Teague noted one example in which Balanchine created a dance in the show “for a ballerina en pointe and two tap dancers.”5 While some critics felt that Balanchine did not break any new ground choreographically with Boys from Syracuse, as he had for example in the 1936 On Your Toes when he audaciously combined jazz and tap dance with ballet in the famous “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” dance production number that closes the show, historian Dawn Lillie Horwitz observed that by the time this musical was produced, “most reviewers expected them [the dances] to be integrated into the overall production.”6 Musical theater historian Ethan Mordden succinctly summarizes the characteristics of what was then perceived as “modernist” approaches to choreography in many musical theater productions of this decade by noting that “it involved the ensemble rather than a few soloists, it had a theme or was at least ‘expressing’ something, and, most importantly, it was more ‘artistic’ than hoofing yet more ‘fun’ than ballet.”7 Critic Brooks Atkinson elaborated:

Nor is the dancing a clever afterthought. George Balanchine has designed and staged it. In Betty Bruce and Heidi Vosseler, he has a pair of dancers who are extraordinarily skillful and who can translate the revelry of a musical rumpus into dainty beauty. Particularly at the close of the first act, Balanchine has found a way of turning the dancing into the theme of the comedy and orchestrating it in the composition of the scene. Not to put too solemn a face on it, the dancing is wholly captivating.8

Thus, while preserving that comedic function of postponing via “song and dance,” Balanchine does not present a choreographic aside so much as an embodiment of the fundamental antagonisms.

While there are many excellent examples in which Balanchine was able to effectively integrate dance into this musical, there are two that might best illustrate his approach. Abbott had created a new character for this musical, the Sorcerer, which allowed Balanchine to create “dream ballets” that could illustrate or extend character and plot lines in the show. For example, in one scene, the Sorcerer is able to conjure a scene in dance in which Dromio of Ephesus is able “to see” a mirror image of his twin, Dromio of Syracuse. Irene Dash writes, “Their movements dramatize the mirror quality of the men’s actions. When the dance ends with one Dromio leaving the stage, neither is aware that he has actually seen his twin.”9 In this way, Balanchine was able to demonstrate the (p. 306) emotional longing of one brother for the other, and Abbott was able to foreshadow the denouement of the show. In another choreography, Balanchine created a pas de trois for Antiphone of Ephesus with the Courtesan and his Wife. The difference between and the attraction of each of these women for this man is reflected not only in the costuming, but also in the fact that one tap dances while the other performs ballet. Dash writes,

Often all three bodies interweave, then separate, with the male dancer accompanying first one and then the other. . . . The dance courageously combined tap, ballet, and adagio. Labelled “sensuous” and “beautiful” by some critics but “controversial” by others, it translates the language of the musical into a visual experience for the audience . . . but also gives an impressionistic interpretation of what is happening onstage.10

This back-and-forth between the vernacular American tap dancer or the African-based jazz dancer and the European ballerina was a common theme throughout much of Balanchine’s choreographic oeuvre. In many ways, he was able to incorporate the vibrancy, the energy, and the athleticism of American dance with the innovative classicism inherited from his European balletic background. Balanchine becomes a kind of “stand-in” for the male dancer in this dance by accompanying each in their own stylistic movement vocabulary, while at the same time trying to find how he fits in between these two theatrically interesting forms of dance. Consequently, Balanchine was able to experiment on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood film with these varied movement vocabularies as independent yet juxtaposed styles of dance. By the time he left the commercial stage for his full-time commitment to the concert stage, he had incorporated these very different ways of moving into a modern neoclassicism that was Balanchine’s unique aesthetic.

In Shakespeare and the American Popular Stage, Frances Teague argues, “[A] show like The Boys from Syracuse makes use of a Shakespearean play’s shell—the plot line and central characters, dispenses with the language and structure, and seeks to make a distinctively contemporary point . . . without either the encumbrance of being ‘faithful’ to or the aim of mocking a text.”11 Balanchine’s choreography for this musical is not a prosaic retelling of Shakespeare’s play through the reinvention of Abbott’s script, but rather it becomes another vehicle or means of poetic association and suggestibility that employs dance and movement as a way in which to respond to Shakespeare’s use of rhythm, pacing, and tempo. It is not meant to be a one-for-one correlation, but rather “a response” of one artist to another’s creation, across generations and media.

Opening on November 23, 1938, The Boys from Syracuse ran for a respectable 236 performances. With this familiar and established production team, Rodgers and Hart had offered yet another Broadway musical comedy in what was becoming a familiar and commercially successful pattern. It is then perhaps curious that The Boys from Syracuse proved to be the last collaboration between Balanchine and the musical comedy writing team of Rogers and Hart. Within these four productions, Balanchine not only began a career as a musical theater choreographer on Broadway and in Hollywood films, but he also (p. 307) made several significant contributions to Broadway dance. In the first place, he successfully integrated various genres of dance in his choreographies. He pulled from tap, jazz, ballroom, and social dance, and used ballet as the conduit by which to meld this together in a consistent style appropriate for the show. Second, by insisting that his credit in the program be listed as “choreography by” rather than the traditional “dances directed by” signature, Balanchine signaled a change in attitude regarding the importance of dancing in musical theater production. The function of dance was changing from serving a utilitarian purpose to simply entertain or to “bring down the house,” to generating a genuine collaborative spirit with the other elements of musical theater production: music, text, scenography, and dance. Third, his insistence on technical proficiency reinforced the ideals of his predecessors like Bobby Connolly and Albertina Rasch. Balanchine’s raising the bar for technique not only offered the choreographer a wide movement palette from which to create a dance, but it also generated a sharp clarity in performance that engaged the audience kinesthetically, intellectually, and aesthetically. Dance critic Edwin Denby assessed Balanchine’s contribution with the following observation: “Balanchine’s Broadway choreography does not falsify ballet as most musicals do on the grounds that adulteration is the first principle of showmanship. Balanchine’s numbers are simplified ballet, but of the purest water.”12 Finally, by incorporating various dance styles within one unified approach to choreography, Balanchine contributed to and encouraged the development of the versatility of the musical theater dancer. Dance critic and historian Sally Banes points out that “Balanchine’s love for tapdancing shaped his choreographic style in the most fundamental way, generating a consistent emphasis on multiple, complex steps and intricate, syncopated rhythms, with a relatively understated port de bras that at the same time allowed for a flexible torso.”13

Balanchine’s borrowing and fusing should not be regarded as unproblematic, however. Brenda Dixon Gottschild and other dance scholars have analyzed the Africanist aesthetic appropriated by Balanchine’s approach to movement and to ballet in particular.14 He had a voracious appetite for all kinds of dance. He came into his own as a choreographer at the height of the modernist era and he, along with his composer colleague Stravinsky, had a deep affinity for jazz music and for jazz dance. Initially, when he immigrated to the United States, it was with the idea of developing a fully integrated ballet company with black and white dancers. According to Gottschild, “the roundedness and rhythmic sense that he inherited from the Georgian (Russian) folk dance tradition was the open door that allowed him to embrace the Africanist rhythmic landscape of his adopted homeland.”15 It was that combination of a strong traditional classical approach to movement with the visceral challenge imposed by his exposure to these new forms that allowed him to push for a new approach to musical theater dance choreography and vocabulary. In Boys from Syracuse, Balanchine was able to continue the effort that was initially begun with On Your Toes with the most critically celebrated artists in musical theater of the time—Rodgers, Hart, and Abbott. Coming on the eve of war and still in the midst of a long economic depression, Balanchine and his collaborators accepted the challenge of employing Shakespeare’s play as a vehicle for the creationand re-creation of a more substantial musical theater production.

(p. 308) Hanya Holm and Kiss Me, Kate

If Boys from Syracuse is recognized as a success for Rodgers and Hart and their collaborators, then Kiss Me, Kate, opening on December 30, 1948, and running for 1,077 performances (making it the third musical to cross the 1,000-performance threshold), can certainly be described as a phenomenon. This backstage musical about a group of performers putting on a production of The Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore placed the emphasis not on the experience of new love, but in the struggle between married couples in post-Depression and postwar American society.

Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book crafted the ups and downs in the relationship between the production’s director and lead actor, Fred Graham (Petruchio), with his former wife and leading lady, Lilli Vanessi (Katherine). They also added a secondary romance between Lois Lane (Bianca) and her wayward gambling boyfriend, Bill. All of this is played out during this fictional theater company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew and their backstage antics while on the road in Baltimore. Awarded in 1949 with the Antoinette Perry Award for the best musical play, its incredible popularity was extended to an international level. Much of the credit for that went to the long-time Broadway composer Cole Porter, who wrote the music and the lyrics to this musical, which produced such well-known songs as the one that actually opened the show, “Another Op’nin, Another Show,” the ballad “So in Love,” the Act 2 opening, “Too Darn Hot,” and the comic “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” among many others.

But musical theater historian Abe Laufe recognized Holm’s contribution to the success of this musical when he wrote,

Among the further attributes that gave Kiss Me, Kate its popular appeal was the choreography by Hanya Holm, ranging from vigorous tap routines by specialty dancers Fred Davis and Eddie Sledge, two nimble solos by Harold Lang and colorful ensemble numbers by the attractive chorus line.16

Furthermore, Holm’s success in 1948 is surprising for two additional reasons. While she had established herself as a serious modern dance choreographer and teacher, she had had only two previous choreographic assignments for musicals before Kiss Me, Kate—choreographing “The Eccentricities of Davey Crockett” in experimental musical Ballet Ballads with music by Jerome Moross and lyrics by John LaTouche, and The Insect Comedy. By comparison, these were small projects that were closer to her concert work, while Kiss Me, Kate was her first large-scale Broadway musical. The second reason has to do with her controversial partnership with German Ausdruckstanz (expressionistic dance) pioneer Mary Wigman.17 The central principles and qualities of Ausdruckstanz—including an exploration of unconscious, socially unconscionable passions and desires and a neglect of the high kicks, pencil turns, and jazz-inflected rhythms—could not be further from the aesthetic that was coming to dominate Broadway. Yet Holms managed (p. 309) to meld these seemingly disparate worlds with success, and this was no doubt in part due to her drawing upon an additional element of her training under Wigman: that of the movement choirs. Intended to choreograph masses of individuals with very little dance training, techniques from movement choirs provided a flow, sense of ease, and confidence even to bodies unfamiliar with choreography.18 Critic William Hawkins noted that Holm had adapted some of her previous training in German dance to the American musical theater stage. He observed, “Hanya Holm’s dances are individual and effervescent, demanding great skill without her ever suggesting a muscle flexing contest. They have the rare gift of making each dancer look as if he had a purpose in what he does.”19

Such an aptitude for choreographing for large, diversely trained groups is evident in the opening of Act 2. Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” demands sexy and sensual movement of both singers and dancers. The scene takes place in the alleyway outside the theater, where it is dimly lit and searing hot. The script provides a brief yet clear description of the mood and setting for this dance:

During the number, the DANCERS and SINGERS saunter out in twos and threes, drinking pop and Cokes out of bottles and lighting an occasional cigarette. They are all in Shrew costumes, but the men have opened up their jackets, and the women have tucked their purple-and-cerise chiffon skirts into their waistbands as high as they’ll go. They fan themselves with Woolworth fans and pieces of newspaper.

At a certain point of the number, BILL comes out for a quiet smoke, tosses cigarette away, and joins PAUL and his friends in a spirited jazz session into which the DANCERS throw themselves with Bacchanalian zest. We must assume that it’s never too hot to dance.20

With this opening number, Holm engages her dancers in a style of jazz dance reminiscent of Jack Cole. The dance was unique as well because it was danced by black and white performers—a rarity on the Broadway stage of that period. New York Herald Tribune dance critic Walter Terry wrote,

In “Too Darn Hot,” Fred David and Eddie Sledge danced a rousing specialty number in which they were ultimately joined by Mr. Lang, who turned his technical skills full force and brought down the house. For background in this scene, Miss Holm devised some non-intruding but atmospherically effective jitterbug passages for the ensemble.21

Holm’s training also introduced a new awareness of space to musical theater. Observing this innovative approach to space on the musical theater stage, Moulton further noted that

[i]t might be said that where other choreographers placed the dancers in space, Holm uses space as an active element in the dance. This was especially true of the tango-like “So in love.” Holm filled the stage in continuous swirling movement using only eight women and one man. Each dancer defined many small arcs with the arms, the legs, (p. 310) and the torso. These in turn combined with the arcs defined by the other dancers to describe larger circles. In turn, these circles became larger and filled the stage space, and still increasingly seemed to involve the entire theatre. This spectator felt that he had been involved in a long continuing spiral in space. The dance was designed not for the audience to view, but rather in which to participate. The effect was empathetic as well as visual.22

Holm consciously manipulated the dynamics of the dance so that the audience would experience a vibrant, visceral kinesthetic response that was spectacular at the level of both the individual and the group en masse.

One of the most unassuming yet important dances in the musical was the waltz that the two leads, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, share in the scene early in the show when they are reminiscing about when they had initially fallen in love. The bantering dialogue between them transitions into the song, “Wunderbar.” Dash recalls, “As the principals dance a waltz, first upstaging one another then eventually dancing in unison and singing, ‘Wunderbar, wunderbar / there’s our favorite star above, / What bright shining star / Like our love it’s wunderbar,’ they kiss.”23

Holm’s choreography exhibited a wide range of styles, and she conscientiously worked to integrate the dance into the fabric of the musical. Her biographer, Walter Sorell, noted,

There was no great ballet number as such in the show but there was dancing almost everywhere, all of it firmly integrated with the purpose of achieving a total theatrical impression. The dancing became the impetus and driving element of this musical and provided the means for transitions in pace, mood, and style. The range of the dance forms used was impressive. It embraced classic ballet, modern dance, jitterbug, soft-shoe, acrobatics, court, and folk dances.24

Holm integrated both German and American forms of dance; within the American forms, she appropriated Black American dance forms for the Broadway stage. As musical theater historian Ethan Mordden notes, “Kate is the most relentlessly danced show since On the Town, with full out spots after six numbers, plus a ‘Rose Dance’ and a pavanne, covering everything from ballet to jitterbug. Choreographer Hanya Holm may have held fifty-one percent of the production.”25 John Martin, the leading early voice of American modern dance criticism, also bestowed his approval on Holm’s work in Kiss Me, Kate. He noted that Holm was able to retain “the taste, the formal integrity and the respect for the movement of the human body which belong to the concert stage, without in the least disturbing the equanimity of the paying customer.”26 Further elaborating on her ability to subsume the dance to the requirements of the musical, he wrote,

The choreography is at all times completely of a texture of the show. Nowhere from the rise of the first curtain to the fall of the last, is there a characteristic Holm movement; she has apparently not been tempted in the least to superimpose herself upon (p. 311) the production but has given her attention wholly to bringing out and pointing up what is inherent in it.27

Holm, like Balanchine, was intrigued by the uniquely Black American vernacular form of tap dance and, where Balanchine worked to integrate that with classical ballet, she worked to integrate that with a modern dance sensibility. Moulton described Holm’s pathway thus:

She remoulded the tap dance to fit her own ideas of space and form. Rather than deemphasizing the stamping feet, the speed, and the introverted space as the ballet-tap combinations had, she re-emphasized them. She used three Negro dancers, whose orientation had obviously been in the nineteen thirties. She did not change their steps, but expanded them in triangular formations with the emphasis shifting with lightning-like clarity from one dancer to another. What had been syncopation was now intricately organized sound. [ . . . ] It was not a tap dance in the style of the nineteen-thirties, but rather a modern dance that had used this material as a point of departure. The dance caught the essence of tap dancing without being a tap dance. In true nineteen-thirty style, the dance “brought down the house.”28

Holm studied, and appropriated from, additional American dance forms as well. In Kiss Me, Kate alone there are examples of jazz dance, tap dance, and the jitterbug. In addition, she incorporated other dance and movement forms such as Renaissance court dance, acrobatics, and folk dancing.

Holm’s work on Kiss Me, Kate is significant in terms of the history and development of musical theater dance in three key contributions. The first is Holm’s use of space. Musical theater choreography up to this time often worked within a two-dimensional design. When a dance would open itself up to three dimensions, it was often characterized by parallel or diagonal lines. Holm’s work in this musical encouraged the development of the awareness of space and a more active aspect to choreography. Informed by her training with movement choirs and shaped by the needs of the musical theater stage, Holm’s use of space was still sensuous, rather than like a precision drill, in its organization. Holm aimed to have her audience respond to the individuality of her dancers, rather than stamping them with a unified look, as represented by the Rockettes, for example. Second, rather than superimpose a particular technical base on the dancers, she strove to incorporate their individual talents within her choreographic design. The sources for choreographic ideas were not solely limited to the imagination of the choreographer, but came from the choreographer’s collaboration with the dancers and the text. As choreographer Alwin Nikolais pointed out to her biographer, “When Hanya was working on a particular subject she would frequently ask the dancers to improvise on the subject and she would spot the interesting aspects the individual dancer might come up with. Once recognizing these aspects, she would hold onto them, remake them, or develop them from that point into her choreography.”29 Finally, she refrained from stamping the choreography with “signature” movement and, instead, she chose to develop the movement vocabulary from the context of the show itself. This self-effacing (p. 312) approach to musical theater choreography would become her signature, although it was seldom recognized as such by her contemporaries. John Martin, however, was appreciative of this technique, and wrote of Holm: “She is no prima donna choreographer who builds up her own numbers and then tries to drape the rest of the show around them; what she does grows simply and logically out of the situation, the characters, the atmosphere of the piece, and as a consequence, they are rich in style and individuality. They are also rich in invention and in formal design.”30

Holm’s involvement with musical theater continued after the success of Kiss Me, Kate. 31 She went on to choreograph Cole Porter’s next musical, Out of This World (1950), and a unique off-Broadway musical, The Golden Apple (1954). With her choreography in two later Broadway hits, My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960), her legacy and reputation as a significant and important musical theater choreographer was solidified.

Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story

By the standards of the 1930s, The Boys from Syracuse was a success. Kiss Me, Kate’s run of 1,077 performances was phenomenal both in terms of its popularity and in its incorporation and hybridization of dance styles and choreographic techniques new to Broadway. Nonetheless, even Kate’s success is modest by today’s standards when compared to The Phantom of the Opera (1986, with nearly 12,000 performances), Chicago (1996, the longest-running American musical on the Broadway stage), and The Lion King (1997, currently with over 7,000 performances). Rocketing past Kate’s initial success, West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet, is often referred to as a landmark musical, and with good reason.

Opening on September 26, 1957, West Side Story had a significant 732-performance run. Originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story had a stellar combination of collaborators, with Leonard Bernstein composing the music, Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics, Arthur Laurents writing the book, and Oliver Smith creating the set design. Robbins and Smith both won Tony Awards for their contributions to the show, and Rita Moreno became a break-out star for her portrayal of Anita.32 It would see several revivals, including the famous fiftieth-anniversary production in 2007, directed by the writer, Arthur Laurents, with the unique contribution of Lin-Manuel Miranda33 translating and revising some of the dialogue and lyrics for the Sharks into Spanish.34

In the late 1940s, Robbins conceived the idea of a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet play by placing it within the context of a conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family during the Easter-Passover season and locating it in the lower East Side of Manhattan. He brought in Leonard Bernstein to write the music and Arthur Laurents to write the script. Originally entitled East Side Story, composition (p. 313) commenced on the heels of World War II and reflected the mounting racial and ethnic intolerance pointed toward Jewish-American artists. However, after completing a draft of the project, it became clear to these collaborators that the theme was already overworked by other successful plays at the time.35 With the prominence in American media during the mid-1950s about the rise in gangs in the United States, however, they agreed to revisit the project and to update it. They relocated it to Manhattan’s Upper West Side and created the now familiar gangs of Puerto Rican immigrants known as the Sharks (the Capulets) and their generic American gang nemesis, the Jets (the Montagues).

West Side Story breaks with notable Broadway conventions. From the very beginning of the show, it was clear that there would be no large cast opening production number. Instead, snippets of narrative were suggested in mime, gesture, sound effects, dance, and discordant sound inserted into jazz. Atmospherics dominated over the necessity of plot. Dance critic and historian, Deborah Jowitt describes this in detail:

The first sound after the curtain rises on the Jets hanging out is a finger snap. As the snaps accumulate, the audience understands not just the guys’ nothing-to-do, looking-for-trouble mood but also their solidarity. [ . . . ] In this turf war, bravado, stealth, fear, playfulness, and anger meet in combat, revealed in actions that shrug their way into dance and as quickly drop back into everyday behavior. A walk becomes a saunter, acquires a bounce, becomes an easy-going chassé or a soft-edged turn in the air. By the time you notice that the two groups of boys are dancing, you’ve understood the restless animosity that powers that movement, and it becomes as interesting as the steps. By the time the Jets sing their song of unity, you know the premise as well as you would after Shakespeare’s brawling between Montagues and Capulets in Verona’s piazza.36

As we are introduced to the lovers, their attraction to each other accentuates the rising tempo of the show with the unbridled expression of their feelings. For Romeo, it begins with

  • O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
  • It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
  • As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear—
  • Beauty too rich for use, for earth’s too dear!
  • [ . . . ]
  • Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
  • For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (1.5.45–48, 53–54)

And for his counterpart, Tony, in West Side Story, it comes out in song and music and unencumbered, awkward gesture when he sings the song “Maria”:

  • Maria!
  • I’ve just met a girl named Maria, (p. 314)
  • And suddenly that name
  • Will never be the same
  • To me.
  • Maria!
  • I’ve just kissed a girl named Maria
  • And suddenly I’ve found
  • How wonderful a sound
  • Can be!37

For Romeo and for Tony, their adolescent sense of urgency at finding the inadequacy of words to express these overwhelming feelings disrupts syntax and alters the staging. Romeo tosses himself between words of heaviness that give way to ecstatic flight. Tony is engrossed in the ongoing repetition of her name, repeated over and over, but inflected differently each time. The staging supports their heavenly aspiration. For Romeo, “it seems she hangs upon the cheek of night” from a balcony window. From the ground below, he must mount the lattice of her home, climbing, slipping, falling, until he arrives at her balcony. For Tony, he hides in the shadows of an urban alleyway and upon seeing Maria and hearing her voice, he urgently scales the fire escape ladder, all the while trying not be make unnecessary noise on its metallic surface. Shakespeare and Laurents/Sondheim have predetermined the choreography for each scene—not the exact steps or manner, but what Laban would call the effort qualities of the human body as it gives shape and meaning to the words.

“In West Side Story, there is no dance portion to the show; it is all dance, all movement. Robbins blurs the line between dance and dramatic action, so that it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins,” writes historian Robert Emmet Long.38 For Robbins, dance generally, and certainly on the musical theater stage, needed to be motivated by some aspect of character, plot, or significant atmospherics. As biographer Joan Peyser notes, “Whenever Robbins was faced with choreographing a dance for this work, he would always ask, ‘What’s it about?’ . . . Originally the heavily instrumental prologue had lyrics; then the lyrics were thrown out and the music was made to convey precisely what it did through Robbins’s masterful use of movement.”39 This notion was shared with his collaborators. Author Robert Emmet Long recounts how Laurents had taken a long time to write an opening sequence in which the Jets were introduced to the audience in the safety of their clubhouse; yet, when they interrogated what the function or purpose for that scene was, they defaulted to the now famous danced opening prologue. According to Long, the effort and editing was collaborative. He recalls Robbins’s synopsis: The idea of our enterprise [ . . . ] was to make the poetry of the piece come out of our best efforts as serious artists; that was the major thrust.”40

Robbins used dance, movement, and gesture to move seamlessly back and forth between the gangs and the individual. In the famous “Dance in the Gym,” for example, (p. 315) the character of Glad Hand, a thirtyish nerdy but well-intentioned school official, attempts to bring the two gangs together by playing a circular walking game that would allow for different boys from one gang to pair off with the girls from the other gang. When the music stops, however, the boys and the girls quickly pair off “with their own kind” and begin a competitive dance between the jitterbug sounds and movements of the Jets with the Latin sounds and movements of the Sharks. The decision to buck authority leads the two gangs suddenly into the “Mambo” section, and here we find the most vital and, in many ways, most Hispanic sections of the score. Bernstein’s instrumentation, including bongos, cowbells, and trumpets, takes it inspiration from Latin jazz. The interpolated cries of “Mambo” by the two gangs are a direct descendant of the flamenco tradition in which dancers are urged on by their enthusiastic onlookers. A cuadro flamenco is a kind of dance party in which soloists take turns entertaining each other in semicircular groups. In fact, this is exactly what Robbins’s dancers do; each gang form a semicircle around their own dance performers, who try to outdo the other “team.”41

The music retards as Tony and Maria see each other for the first time. While the gang members dance in slow motion, they approach each other center stage and innocently introduce each other with the simplest of lines. While Robbins “choreographs” their gentle looks, Tony and Maria’s offering and taking of each other’s hands is accompanied by a soft cha-cha rhythm performed in the style of a jewelry-box minuet. It is their kiss that breaks the spell and brings Bernardo and the gangs rushing to stop this from going any further.

In the second act, Robbins returns to this technique when Tony and Maria take the lead and create a soft pastel-like world in simple lyrical movement. It is the world that they want to live in, and they invite members from each gang to join them, which they do in this song, “Somewhere.” Unfortunately, the set for the cityscape and the ghosts of the two dead boys interrupt this idyllic world; the frenzy and uncertainty of the real world impinge on their dream world, and they are returned to a discordant and precarious environment—one that is full of the unexpected and violence. This movement of the set was a part of the larger choreographic approach to the show that Robbins had worked to accomplish with the set designer, Oliver Smith, and his long-time collaborator, the lighting designer Jean Rosenthal. They had worked hard to create an “abstract nonliteral interpretation of the cityscape.”42 The sets and the lighting were conceived to give Robbins as wide a palette as possible to incorporate cinematic juxtapositions of set pieces with performers so that one scene could easily transition to the next. Robbins choreographs all of the visual elements of the production—the moving human body, sets, and lights—and joins them with music and text to accelerate the energy of the production and to focus on the demands of the scene.

One particularly striking juxtaposition is the back-to-back movement from the “Cool scene,” in which the Jets are nervously anticipating what will happen when (p. 316) Bernardo and the Sharks show up, and the following “Rumble scene.” In the first, Robbins and Laurents start this danced scene with quick accentuated dialogue:


. . . You wanna live? You play it cool.

            Music starts.


I wanna get even!


Get Cool.


I wanna bust!


Bust cool.


I wanna go!


Go Cool!43

Riff sings a few more lines of encouragement to his gang, and they slip into a dance that is at first accented with simple yet forceful turns, a leap into the air, a fall to the ground, and then punctuated with gestures of wild-eye looks, a fist slamming into the palm of another hand, a stomping of the feet. The dance begins in fits and starts in which Robbins might create a short ballet chassé combination with a quote from the jitterbug. A unison combination breaks up into lines of bodies running askew. Sharp diagonal crosses are met with multiple turns—some jazz-like in terms of the angularity of the limbs, while others more familiar from classical ballet. What may start out as simple pedestrian movement, such as striking one’s fist into the palm of the other hand, explodes into a highly stylized, deeply resonating expression of the emotion behind that gesture. In this manner, Robbins moves from a literal interpretation of gesture to a multilayered movement phrase that invites more varied ways for the audience to engage with that action. The shifting movement vocabularies that he employs from one phrase to the next broadens the language of musical theater dance and thus expands its communicative potential with the eclectic audience that attends this form of theater. There is a palpable nervousness and anxiousness that sits on top of their fear and bravado. Toward the end, the music recedes and the movement become quieter, with contained interruptions at times with small nervous ticks. The Jets leave the area more unified and now ready to meet their rivals.

In the “Rumble scene” that concludes Act 1 and leaves Riff dead at the hands of Bernardo, and Bernardo dead at the hands of Tony, there is a tautness from the very beginning. “It is nightfall. The almost-silhouetted gangs come in from separate sides: climbing over the (p. 317) fences or crawling through holes in the walls. There is silence as they fan out on opposite sides of the cleared space.”44 Then, suddenly, there are loud taunts and jeers being flung back and forth and the dialogue between the principals is lean, sharp, mean, and directed. Everything happens so fast. There is an inevitability that words must end and it is time for action. From the time Riff throws the first punch at Bernardo, a rapidly accelerating intensity brings out each man’s knife. An ongoing and repetitive taunting by Bernarda toward Tony calls him out: “Are you chicken?” “He is chicken.” “Yellow-bellied chicken.” This is the reverse of what we see between Romeo and Tybalt. In Chapter 7 of this volume, Brandon Shaw argues that Tybalt is trained in the swordplay associated with the Italian school popularized by Vincentio Saviolo. In this style, there are clear guidelines regarding how to carry the body, how to attack and recoil with the sword, and how to engage with footwork. In that regard, Tony is similar to Tybalt. He expects to engage in a “fair” fistfight. There are rules to be followed. There is a sense of integrity that he values and presumes without realizing, of course, that the rules have changed in the short time that he has stepped away from the gang. Bernardo is more like Romeo in the sense that he is not tied to martial convention. He has an objective and he strives in whatever way possible to achieve that objective. As Shaw succinctly points out, “. . . Tybalt thinks he is dancing, while Romeo is primed to kill.”45 For Tony, the goal is to stop the rumble; for Bernardo, it is a question of honor. Robbins cleverly stages the fight so that it is never static or predicable. He plays back and forth between movement that is “realistic” in the sense that there is a push, or shove, or a strike with the knife toward the opponent, and a turn or somersault or jump that is more recognizable from dance. This back and forth between movement vocabularies creates a blurring of reality supported by Bernstein’s strong, percussive music and the ad libs from the other gang members. By the time it ends, there is a free-for-all brawl, and the choreography becomes an extended three-dimensional, kinesthetic Jackson Pollock painting. With the sound of the police sirens, it dissipates as quickly as it had begun, and we are left with two young men lying dead in the alley and “a distant clock begins to boom.”46 This ending of Act 1 prefigures the ending of Act 2, when Tony is shot by Chico and a distraught Maria waves a gun toward the members of both gangs and the adults.

Robbins’s meticulousness to detail can be best illustrated in the manner in which he staged the final scene of the musical. Biographer Amanda Vaill writes,

He did the simplest thing possible. With the two figures of the lifeless Tony and the mourning Maria center stage and everyone else in the wings, he called the others onstage one by one, using their character names, and froze them in a tableau that remained essentially unchanged through Maria’s monologue (“You all killed him!”). Only then—as the orchestra came up under the silence—did he let both Jets and Sharks move forward to lift Tony’s body like Hamlet’s and bear it off stage with Maria following behind. “Remember the order you came out in,” Jerry told them and never touched the scene again.47

Following this simple yet poignant staging, the final line in the script reads, “The adults—Doc, Schrank, Krupke, Glad Hand—are left bowed, alone, useless.”48 This staging corresponds in intensity to the pathos and sadness inherent in the Prince’s final lines in Romeo and Juliet.

(p. 318)

  •        Capulet! Montague!
  • See what a scourge is laid upon your hate.
  • That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
  • And I for winking at your discords too
  • Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d. (5.3.291–295)

In these two plays, there is an immediacy and intensity to the relationships of the young lovers of Romeo and Juliet, and Tony and Maria in West Side Story. Once there is an acknowledgment of “true love” and a recognition of one’s self in the eyes of the other, time rushes forward and demands fulfillment. Robbins was able to capture this by combining danced movement and intense directed gesture with the vibrant urgency of Bernstein’s music. At the top of Bernstein’s copy of Romeo and Juliet, he wrote in large letters: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.”49 But, in both the play and the musical, the writers are demanding tolerance now, rather than waiting years or decades. Many critics and others viewed this musical at the time as “a musical fusing the timely subject of juvenile delinquency with the classic story of the two young lovers in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”50 Yet, this is a perception devoid of the rich complexity of this musical. For Robbins and Bernstein, the personal and the social were entwined. Theater historian John Bush Jones acknowledges that the creators of this musical share a dark vision of the naïve plausibility that individual idealistic lovers can overcome obstacles within their social milieux. The musical ends with a triple homicide and the near gang rape of Anita by one of the gangs. He points out that the creators seriously question whether the American Dream is truly available for all to obtain. He concludes his analysis with the observation that the librettist, Laurents, “replaced Shakespeare’s reliance on chance and circumstance with largely character-motivated actions that ultimately doom the young lovers.”51 There had been previous musicals with serious subject matter, like Pal Joey starring Gene Kelly, or Agnes de Mille’s “Civil War Ballet” in Bloomer Girl, that attempted to mitigate its dark approach with visually engaging dance and choreography, but the audiences at the time would not accept these early attempts. With West Side Story, it may have a combination of the right musical at the right time in terms of America starting to remove its rose-colored glasses in favor of a more serious or at least cynical self-critique, and the increasingly higher level for choreography on the musical theater stage, resulting from the high expectations of concert dance choreographers.

The volatility of the play was noted by other critics as well. Preeminent theater critic Walter Kerr begins his review: “the radioactive fallout from ‘West Side Story’ must still be descending on Broadway this morning. Director, choreographer, and idea-man Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we’ve been exposed to in a dozen seasons.”52 Brooks Atkinson was both startled and admiring in his assessment following the opening night of West Side Story at New Century Theatre:

Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable. [ . . . ] Pooling imagination and virtuosity, they have written a profoundly moving show that is as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tender and forgiving. [ . . . ] Using music and movement they have given Mr. Laurents’ story passion and depth and some glimpses (p. 319) of unattainable glory. They have pitched into it with personal conviction as well as the skill of accomplished craftsmen.53

But the “workmanship” capable of overcoming the “horrifying” qualities attached to “city jungles” is due to a concerted embrace of excessiveness and a trend-breaking denial of dramatic realism. He concludes with the following observation: “The hostility and suspicion between the gangs, the glory of the rumble, the devastating climax— Mr. Robbins has found the patterns of movement that express these parts of the story.”54 For Atkinson, the staccato hipster-like lingo of the adolescent gang members’ speech patterns is complemented by the choreographic and movement choices imposed on the performers by Robbins. Having studied at the Actors Studio, Robbins incorporated much of the Stanislavskian approach advocated by fellow members like Elia Kazan and Bobby Lewis. Similar to Kazan’s activities with Marlon Brando in film or Bobby Lewis’s staged version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Robbins incorporated Stanislavskian methods into the American musical theater stage. Movement could at times be privileged over that of the comparatively simple delivery of lines. Finding the through line for a scene and connecting that to the emotional arch of a character required a keen attention to detail in terms of the use of gesture and staged movement. Robbins brought that attention to emotional arc into the rehearsal process, and he demanded not only high technical proficiency from the performers, but also a psychological understanding of character that would inform movement, voice, and musical choice. What Atkinson points to is the unique ability of dance to personify in kinesthetic terms the troublesome experience of adolescents in love, in conflict, and in search for identity and a “place to belong.” So often, language abandons them, and they resort to music and dance to express the inexpressible. Much has been written on the language in Shakespeare’s plays, but what Robbins was able to convey is what Shakespeare alludes to: the urgency with which young people experience their transition to adulthood in fits and starts.

Two months after the opening, Arthur Laurents wrote concerning why he was attracted to this musical: “It is the desire (almost a passion with me) to lower the curtain on the flatness of naturalism and to raise it on the incandescence of theatricalism or lyricism.”55 His sense of the American audience of the time was that they would often prefer the literal—the photograph to the painting, the familiar to the unexpected. Laurents and his colleagues wanted to challenge themselves and the audience. He continues,

But the easiest way for audiences to journey the farthest from conventional reproductions of naturalism to the unconventional illusions of the theatricality is to introduce music, song and dance. [ . . . ] The dialogue and costumes are based in reality, as are the problems, the characters, the emotions. But the treatment is impressionistic, theatrical, un-photographic.56

By stepping away from the Stanislavskian realism that dominated much of the Broadway stage at the time, they created their own “elevated language” of sound, movement, and design that would stand up to the source on which they based their musical.

(p. 320) John Martin concluded his review of the New York dance season for that year with this assessment of West Side Story with mixed praise:

Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story,” whatever one may think of its specific merits, is of high importance for the simple reason that it is, perhaps for the first time, a completely choreographic Broadway musical. Since it is a box-office success, it may well point the way to a whole new approach to Broadway musicals. Certainly, that is devoutly to be hoped, for Broadway’s dancing in general has slumped to a new low.57

There is certainly no love lost between the popular appeal of musical theater and the aesthetic taste of Martin. Nonetheless, as his reviews of both Holm’s and Robbins’s choreographies suggest, even he had to admit that this popular art form had successfully incorporated a quality on equal footing with concert dance. His appraisal was mirrored by New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Terry: “The great wonder of West Side Story is that realistic action flows into dancing and out of it again without a hitch or break, just as speech swells or snarls its way into poetry and song.”58 Robbins not only set a high bar for the quality of musical theater dance, but more important, his contribution of integrating dance and movement into the very narrative fabric of the musical was visionary in terms of a direction that later choreographer-directors like Bob Fosse, Michael Bennet, Tommy Tune, Susan Marshall, Andy Blankenbuelhler, and others would follow.

West Side Story is often referred to as a landmark musical for many reasons—its extraordinary choreographic design, its initiation of the triple threat performer who can sing and dance and act, and its tackling of difficult subject matter by giving voice to a gritty and dangerous world in which many of its adolescents found themselves. But it is that, and more. Jerome Robbins offers this assessment:

I don’t like to theorize about how or if the show changed future musicals. For me what was important about West Side Story was our aspiration. I wanted to find out at that time how far we, as “long-haired artists,” could go in bringing our crafts and talents to a musical. Why did we have to do it separately and elsewhere? Why did Lenny have to write an opera, Arthur a play, me a ballet? Why couldn’t we, in aspiration, try to bring our deepest talents together to the commercial theatre in this? work? That was the true gesture of the show.59

Robbins hits on one of the fundamental creative aspects of musical theater production, which distinguishes it from other forms of theatrical production primarily based upon the work of the playwright. Directors, designers, and others will often describe their relationship to the playwright as “serving the needs of the play.” And, of course, when the playwright is Shakespeare, that relationship may be gratefully acknowledged. But, in musical theater, as Laurents points out, it is the combination of collaborative artists—in this case, the composer, the librettist, the lyricist, the designers, and of course, the conception and execution of the directorial and choreographic design of Jerome Robbins himself that created this entity—that could indeed realize fine art aspirations within the context of a popular art medium.60 Dash best pinpoints its achievement when she observes that “[t]he adaptors have achieved their aim: to create an American tragedy with the tools formerly reserved (p. 321) for comedy. Dance, music, language, and body movement combine to propel the story forward. Here is a work that evokes not only pity and fear, but also empathy and admiration.”61


When we examine the progression from The Boys from Syracuse to Kiss Me, Kate, we can appreciate how the choreographer from the classical ballet world and the choreographer from the modern dance tradition were able to bring their expertise from the concert stage onto the musical theater stage. Advancing technique, tying the dance to character development and plot advancement, and introducing a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to the moving of the human body in space all contributed to elevating musical theater choreography. Fundamentally, however, all of these factors legitimized the role of dance in the very conception of a musical theater piece. It was no longer something that could be added on as an entertaining afterthought—bring on the girls, give us a big production number, line everyone up in a linear fashion, and do some leg kicks.

Expectations surrounding the appropriation of Shakespeare as source material demanded more than superficial vaudevillian clown antics. Working with the writers and composers and looking closely at the source material and how it was to be adapted was critical for Balanchine, Holm, and Robbins, and that serious engagement with material was reflected in how they created the dances for the shows in which they were involved. Each was recognized as an accomplished concert dance choreographer. They knew how to respect the poetic potential inherent in the human body moving through space. They deeply valued the power of the spoken word in Shakespeare’s theater. They, along with their collaborators, strove to bring these highly refined sensibilities together in order to create a vibrant, exciting, and meaningful theatrical experience for the audiences of their time and for the contemporary audience of today.


Dash, Irene G. Shakespeare and the American Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Gilvey, John Anthony. Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Jowitt, Deborah. Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.Find this resource:

Laurents, Arthur. Mainly on Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story, and Other Musicals. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.Find this resource:

Long, Robert Emmet. Broadway the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors 1940 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2001.Find this resource:

Symonds, Dominic, and Taylor, Millie, eds. Gestures of Music Theater: The Performativity of Song and Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Vaughan, Alden T., and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Shakespeare in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Partial Listing of Broadway and Off-Broadway Musicals Based on the Plays of Shakespeare

Mr. Hamlet of Broadway based on Hamlet

Opened December 23, 1908, at the Casino Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: none cited (p. 325)

The Boys from Syracuse based on The Comedy of Errors

Opened November 23, 1938, at the Alvin Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: George Balanchine

Swingin’ the Dream based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Opened November 29, 1939, at the Center Theatre (Rockefeller Center)

Choreographer: Agnes de Mille with additional choreography by Bill Bailey for himself and Herbert White for the Lindy Hoppers

Kiss Me, Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew

Opened December 30, 1948, at the New Century Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: Hanya Holm

West Side Story based on The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Opened September 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer and Director: Jerome Robbins

As You Like It

Opened October 27, 1965, at the Theater de Lys (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: Joe Nelson

Babes in the Wood based on Midsummer Night’s Dream

Opened December 28, 1964, at the Orpheum Theatre (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: Ralph Beaumont

Love and Let Love based on Twelfth Night

Opened January 3, 1968, at the Sheridan Square Playhouse (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: Rhoda Levine

Your Own Thing based on Twelfth Night

Opened January 13, 1968, at the Orpheum Theatre (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: [Staged by] Donald Driver

Sensations based on The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Opened October 25, 1970, at the Theater Four (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: none cited

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Opened December 1, 1971, at the St. James Theatre

Choreographer: Jean Erdmann (p. 326)

Pop based on The Tragedy of King Lear

Opened April 3, 1974, at the Players Theatre

Choreographer: Ron Spencer

Rockabye Hamlet based on Hamlet

Opened February 17, 1976, at the Minskoff Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: Gower Champion with Tony Stevens

Dreamstuff based on The Tempest

Opened April 2, 1976, at the WPA Theatre (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: Lynne Gannaway

Music Is based on Twelfth Night

Opened December 20, 1976, at the St. James Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: Patricia Birch

Oh, Brother based on The Comedy of Errors

Opened November 10, 1981, at the ANTA Playhouse

Return to the Forbidden Planet based on The Tempest

Opened October 13, 1991, at the Variety Arts Playhouse (off-Broadway)

Choreographer and Music Director: Marvin Laird

Play On! based on Twelfth Night

Opened March 20, 1997, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: Mercedes Ellington

The Lion King based on Hamlet

Opened November 13, 1997, at the New Amsterdam Theatre (Broadway)

Choreographer: Garth Fagan

The Bomb-itty of Errors based on The Comedy of Errors

Opened December 12, 1999, at 45 Bleecker (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: n/a

The Donkey Show based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Opened August 18, 1999, at Club El Flamingo (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: Maria Torres

These Paper Bullets! based on Much Ado about Nothing

Opened November 20, 2015, at the Linda Gross Theatre (off-Broadway)

Choreographer: Kevin Williamson


(1.) When this production traveled from its Broadway run to Chicago, it was performed in the now infamous Iroquois Theatre fire in which a defective spotlight had caught some of the scenery on fire. Soon, the theater was ablaze and Eddie Foy remained onstage until the last minute, trying to assuage the audience from panicking. Unfortunately, despite his efforts and those of others, over six hundred people lost their lives.

(2.) Steven Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 81.

(3.) John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, and Stanley Wells, eds., The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 81. All subsequent quotations from Shakespeare’s works are from this edition unless otherwise specified.

(4.) It was not unusual for Balanchine to seek out American dancers and choreographers to learn about American forms of dance, from jazz and tap to popular social dances, before completing his choreography for a stage musical or Hollywood film.

(5.) Frances Teague, Shakespeare and the American Popular Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 118.

(6.) Dawn Lille Horwitz, “Balanchine on Broadway,” unpublished.

(7.) Ethan Mordden, Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musical in the 1930s (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 195.

(8.) Brooks Atkinson, “The Play in Review: The Boys from Syracuse,” New York Times, November 24, 1938, 36,

(9.) Irene Dash, Shakespeare and the American Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 33.

(12.) Edwin Denby, Looking at the Dance (New York: Horizon Press, 1968), 393.

(13.) Sally Banes, Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 55.

(14.) See Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996); Veve A. Clark and Sara E. Johnson, eds., Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005); Banes, Writing Dancing in the Age of Postmodernism; and Constance Valis Hill, “Cabin in the Sky: Dunham and Balanchine’s Ballet (Afro) Americana,” Discourses in Dance 3, no. 1 (2002): 59–71.

(15.) Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance, 63. These sources offer interesting material related not only specifically to Balanchine, but also to broader issues of collaboration, cross-cultural influence, and appropriation.

(16.) Abe Laufe, Broadway’s Greatest Musicals (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1977), 119.

(17.) Susan Manning, Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Claudia Gitelman and Marianne Marianne, “Dance, Business, and Politics: Letters from Mary Wigman to Hanya Holm, 1930–1971,” Dance Chronicle 20, no. 1 (1997): 1–21.

(18.) Mary Anne Santos Newhall, “Uniform Bodies: Mass Movement and Modern Totalitarianism.” Dance Research Journal 34, no. 1 (2002): 27–50.

(19.) William Hawkins, New York World-Telegram, December 31, 1948.

(20.) Stanley Richards, ed., Ten Great Musicals of the American Theatre (Radnor, PA: Chilton Book, 1973), 319.

(21.) Walter Terry, I Was There: Selected Dance Reviews and Articles 1936–1976 (New York: Marcel Dekker, 1978), 226.

(22.) Robert D. Moulton, “Choreography in Musical Comedy and Revue on the New York Stage from 1925 through 1950” (PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1957), 170–171.

(24.) Walter Sorell, Hanya Holm: The Biography of an Artist (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan, 1979), 112.

(25.) Ethan Mordden, Beautiful Mornin’: The Broadway Musical in the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 256.

(26.) John Martin, New York Times, January 9, 1949, section II, 1.

(27.) Martin, New York Times, 1.

(31.) Kiss Me, Kate was the first musical to have its dances scored in Labanotation and copyrighted. See Anthea Kraut’s excellent discussion about this in her book, Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance (New York: Oxford, 2015).

(32.) When the show was made into a film in 1961, it was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and received ten of those, including Best Picture; Jerome Robbins shared the Best Director award with Robert Wise.

(33.) Lin Manuel-Miranda also wrote the book, lyrics, and music for the current Broadway hit musical Hamilton: An American Musical. He also performed in the title role.

(34.) This was an attempt by Arthur Laurents, the original librettist and now director for this updated version of the musical, to equalize the shared responsibility for the tragic events in the musical between the two gangs. In the original, the scale was tipped in favor of the Jets, the “good” gang, against the Sharks, the “bad” gang.

(35.) It is interesting to note that in the winter of 1955, Will Herberg, a sociologist by training, published Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), in which he introduced the idea of the triple melting pot in which he articulates the shared values of these three religious traditions on the development of shared American values in its political and social sphere. What started off as a simple tripartite understanding of American identity in the 1950s has become far more nuanced and complex as the American musical adapts to a contemporary understanding of national identity. See Raymond Knapp’s The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006) and John Bush Jones’s Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of the American Musical Theatre (Lebanon, NJ: Brandeis University Press, 2003) for a more in-depth discussion and analysis of this topic.

(36.) Deborah Jowitt, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 279.

(37.) Arthur Laurents, Romeo and Juliet West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins (New York: Dell, 1972), 158.

(38.) Robert Emmet Long, Broadway the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors 1940 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 2001), 110.

(39.) Joan Peyser, Bernstein: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), 241.

(40.) Robert Emmet Long, Broadway the Golden Years, 102–103.

(41.) Elizabeth A. Wells, West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical (Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, 2011), 125–126.

(42.) Amanda Vaill, Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 276.

(45.) Brandon Shaw, Chapter 7 of this volume.

(49.) “Bernstein’s Inspiration from Romeo and Juliet,”, accessed December 7, 2016.

(50.) Louis Calta, New York Times, September 26, 1957,

(52.) “West Side Story,” New York Herald Tribune, September 27, 1957, cited at

(53.) Brooks Atkinson, “Theatre: The Jungles of the City,” New York Times, September 27, 1957, 14,

(55.) Arthur Laurents, “Musical Adventure,” New York Times, November 3, 1957, 137

(57.) John Martin, “The Dance: 1957,” New York Times, December 29, 1957,

(59.) Christine Conrad, Jerome Robbins: That Broadway Man That Ballet Man (London: Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000), 151.