With the an ever-growing movement to modern styles of dance onstage, Conor Capplis looks at the evolution of dance on Broadway.
Opera and musical theatre have been popular forms of theatrical expression for hundreds of years, and one key element has been bringing these exciting and heartfelt tales to life: Dance!
Since the Ancient Greeks toyed around with the idea of having musical ensembles on stage dance around to enhance the performance, we have been enjoying this art develop into its contemporary form today. The choreography that we see on stage in modern Broadway musicals such as Hamilton, The Lion King, and In the Heights serve as fine examples of what Broadway has come to be.
Dance on Broadway is so much more than just a spectacle to wow its audience. The fascinating study in Dance in Musical Theatre by Stacy Wolf and Liza Gennaro, gives an insight into the industry tips and tricks behind those well-choreographed Broadway dances fans know so well. Behind the surface of what we see as entertainment, dance can be used as an exploration of character in psychological terms, as a narrative tool, as an unspoken aspect of libretto or as a transitional device.
“The 1955 film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! pioneered the use of jazz, square dancing, and tap to further enhance the excitement of farmers and cowboys.”
The styles of dance on Broadway vary widely today. Starting from a resurgence of dance in theatre in the mid-20th Century, producers and choreographers began to get creative with how dance could be used as a tool to better tell a story. The 1955 film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! pioneered the use of jazz, square dancing, and tap to further enhance the excitement of farmers and cowboys. Its famous Dream Ballet sequence incorporated melodies from the show with various forms of ballet, mime, jazz, and other dance techniques, in a way that dazzled the protagonist and the audiences who were still new to seeing dance on Broadway used so creatively. Oklahoma! went on to become a modern classic, with audiences still drawn to theatres today to experience the show first-hand.
Another film musical, which used dance in an innovative way on stage, was Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. This Romeo and Juliet inspired musical has gone down in history as one of the greats, having its lively and chaotic dance numbers at its core. With further examination of the use of dance in Broadway shows over the years, it’s not hard to find yourself in awe of the talent that has graced the stage.
“The passion brought to the stage imitated the hustle and bustle of city life and all its social elements, blossoming into a beautiful arrangement of dance.”
The 1999 production of In the Heights, set in New York, was filled with traditional Latino dancing, something that seemed bizarre on Broadway only half a century earlier. The dance element suddenly became one of the main attractions for audiences to see the show, changing perceptions for what dance should be in musicals. The passion brought to the stage imitated the hustle and bustle of city life and all its social elements, blossoming into a beautiful arrangement of dance.
Though these classic 20th Century musicals have cemented the foundation of dance onstage, it’s easy to see why modern audiences are flocking to see the classics of today, live onstage. The latest musical sensation Hamilton takes us back to revolutionary America, with a hip-hop and rap twist. The use of contemporary music and dance styles are fresh and appealing to a new generation, and modern audiences are latching onto it, gaining worldwide fame and popularity.
Looking at the evolution of dance in musicals over the past few decades, we can see that dance has developed from being an isolated spectacle on stage, to a relevant art that is intertwined deeply into the rest of the performance. The future of Broadway will always dabble in nostalgic influences from the past, and looking at the latest musical productions to take the stage, it’s exciting to anticipate what’s to come.