Broadway, the Golden Years

Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors 1940 to the Present

by Ben Varkentine


Soaring Again in Heaven Sent Euphoria

Robert Emmet Long has written biographies of several literary figures including James Thurber and served as drama critic for the North American Review. His new book, Broadway, the Golden Years, is an examination of the great choreographer-directors in recent history, the “Golden Age” of the title. The book divides Broadway history into before-Jerome Robbins and after-Jerome Robbins, and Long sets him as the greatest of all the choreographer-directors. He makes his arguments well in terms of what Robbins brought to the theater with his seamless, fluid integration of dance with music and book, and for his influence. I cannot fault his case.

The book is fashioned in three parts. “Establishing the Tradition” includes a chapter on Agnes de Mille and three on Robbins (early fame, West Side Story, and the later career.). “Extending the Line” devotes a chapter each to Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett, and Tommy Tune. “Broadway Today” is self-explanatory—it takes snapshot looks at current choreographer-directors like Graciela Daniele (Ragtime) and Susan Stroman (The Producers) who may, 20 years from now, be subjects for a book like this themselves.

cover art

Broadway, the Golden Years

Robert Emmet Long

Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-directors 1940 to the Present

(Continuum International Publishing Group)

Long emphasizes the “line” that connects the great choreographer-directors in not just their influences on each other but surprisingly often their direct intersections. One of the dancers de Mille hired for Oklahoma! was Joan McCracken, who would later marry Bob Fosse, and Jerome Robbins also made his first solo appearance as a dancer in a de Mille show. Robbins in turn recommended Fosse for his first show as a choreographer, and Champion took classes from Robbins long after he was himself established.

Fosse and Champion’s birthdays, coincidentally, were only one day apart, and there are a fascinating number of other connections between the two men. Early in his career, Fosse did an act with his then-wife Mary Ann Niles. This was very much in imitation of Gower and Marge Champion, and Fosse once told an interviewer he used to introduce the act by saying “You’ve heard of the Champions? We’re the runners-up.” Fosse and Champion later danced together in Stanley Donen’s Give a Girl a Break. Strengthening the link, Long quotes Marge Champion comparing the scene at Gower’s deathbed—with herself, Champion’s second wife, and his present girlfriend, as being “like something out of a Bob Fosse movie.” Finally, Long presents a haunting image contrasting Champion with Fosse at the end of their lives: “. . . alike and different even in their frustrations, with Fosse unable to get out of himself and Gower unable to find himself.”

Michael Bennett was less directly connected with those who came before him, but he was one of the first to come up with them as his idols rather than his contemporaries, however admired. He was openly, consciously and deliberately dancing in their footsteps, comparing his relationship with Donna McKechnie as his dream collaborator to Fosse’s with Gwen Verdon.

Tommy Tune seems to have been blessed by luck as much as if not more than talent in his career—a chance meeting with Bennett in an elevator in 1965, he told Long, “changed the course of (his) entire life.” And Graciela Daniele is perhaps the best “credentialed” of todays generation—inspired by Robbins, she danced in shows for Bennett and Fosse, was the latter’s dance captain, and was encouraged by both as a choreographer.

In some ways this is the kind of theater book which I love most because it’s purpose is to examine the work of it’s subjects, not to air their dirty laundry. This is not to say that it is a whitewash job—where they are relevant, such topics as Robbins’s naming names, Fosse’s infidelities or Michael Bennett’s drug addiction are introduced. For the most part, Long does not judge or forgive his subjects their “transgressions” (for lack of a better word), but reports them as part of the context in which they did their work. One senses that he would especially like to explicate why Robbins, at least, should be excused, but he is fair in telling the reader of the great bitterness that Robbins’s choice engendered, and the shadow it cast over his career and life.

Only rarely does Long’s gift for presenting a clear picture of a performance elude him; he has a smooth knack for the turn of phrase which concisely gets his point across, such as this line on Gower Champion: “If his choreography were a film, any frame of it would yield an aesthetically satisfying image.” He has clearly researched and is well-informed about his subjects, and I detected only one minor factual error, actually something like a half-error, in the text. One of the last projects Michael Bennett worked on was the musical Chess, which was not inspired, as Long writes, by an album by the Swedish pop group Abba. Chess was originally a concept album with music written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (lyrics by Tim Rice) who were the songwriting half of Abba, but it was not an Abba album any more than Madonna is Julie Covington. Still, I concede, I am a member of the cult following the Chess score has acquired in the U.S. and otherwise would probably not have noticed.

One of the top-grossing shows on Broadway, as I write this, is Mamma Mia!, which is based on an Abba album, and tends to symbolize for me the conflicted feelings I think many theater lovers, certainly I, have for Broadway today. But then, I am extremely reluctant to pass pronouncement on this, for sitting in Seattle; I would be the ultimate unmarried marriage counselor. I must rely upon video clips, original cast albums and film adaptations at least until the road companies come out. And oh yes—books.

In at least one way, a writer on theater has a greater responsibility than one who writes on almost any of the other arts. If I write a review of a film or album, and I don’t report it’s nature accurately, the film and/or album, at least, still exist and can be discovered and rediscovered anew, completely independently of me. But a writer is often the only way we have of transmitting the experience of theater even partially to those who did not witness it. The theater writer must, if he or she does nothing else, portray the performance so that it comes vividly alive in the readers minds eye, whether the portrait is flattering or not. And especially for the shows that were never filmed or taped, a good theater writer is conscious of the fact that he is writing for posterity, preserving a show, passing down to a next generation what it was like to sit in a theater and watch Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth.

Long, by my lights, is a good theater writer. Check out his description of Susan Stroman’s staging of “I Got Rhythm” in Crazy For You: “Mining prospectors’ pans and pickaxes, washboards and the corrugated tin roofs of porches all become part of a dance pandemonium that went on and on, soaring and abating and then soaring again in heaven-sent euphoria.” Now that is the kind of writing that bids an image to appear behind your eyes, and leaves you champing at the bit to see the show to see if your image is right. Which is one of the things any decent theater book should do.

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