On Broadway: Celebrating Its 50th: The Public Theater Created a New Kind of Dance Musical

By Gold, Sylviane | Dance Magazine, February 2006 | Go to article overview

On Broadway: Celebrating Its 50th: The Public Theater Created a New Kind of Dance Musical


Gold, Sylviane, Dance Magazine


When you think about the preeminent figures in our musical theater, producers don't come to mind first. You might cite Florenz Ziegfeld, or George Abbott, or Harold Prince. Maybe David Merrick or Cameron Mackintosh. But the list is pretty thin, and there are reasons to argue about all of the above: Ziegfeld's shows did little to advance the musical form itself; Abbott's broke ground but quickly became formulaic; Prince's most innovative musicals were financial duds; and the hits of Merrick and Mackintosh were geared unapologetically to popular taste.

But there is a producer whose shows managed to change both the form and the content of musicals and make scads of money at the same time. The Public Theater, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has had such a profound influence on the American theater in general that it's easy to overlook the extraordinary impact it has had on musicals, and on dancing in musicals.

The Public, after all, was the birthplace of two dance landmarks, A Chores Line and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, both of which will be duly celebrated at the Public's birthday bash at City Center on January 30. From its very beginnings as The Shakespeare Workshop in 19%, the theater that Joseph Papp built (and that George Wolfe took over) was about breaking the rules: taking Shakespeare, the ultimate high-brow writer, to the gritty streets of New York, and casting the plays with American actors speaking in American accents. Soon called the New York Shakespeare Festival, its first musical, Hair, broke all the rules, too. And it wasn't just because the performers were taking off their clothes. In 1967, Broadway was the home of four-square shows like Mame, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. Off-Broadway was not exactly taking chances either: The big-deal musical was Man of La Mancha--darker than most Broadway productions, but hardly pioneering.

With a free-form book, rocking score, and counterculture sass, Hair jolted musicals into the '60s. And when it moved to Broadway the next year, it also signaled the beginning of the end of Broadway as the creative center of the American theater. With increasing frequency, not just new plays but new musicals as well would originate in the small non-commercial theaters established by Papp wannabes in New York neighborhoods and across the country. …

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