Dance in Musicals

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By Lindsey Huster
Edited By Angie Rentmeester

From the advent of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, to more recent Zac Efron moves in High School Musical, one component of the film musical genre has remained constant: dance.

“Dance provides another level of emotional expression, taking the characters beyond where they function within the traditional confines of the narrative and beyond where they sing,” said Jerome Delamater, author of Dance in the Hollywood Musical and professor of communications at Hofstra University.

With roots in cabaret, operas, vaudeville and theater, film in the 1930s began to take on a different shape, combining elements of both song and dance to create the film musical. Now, with almost a half of a century under its belt, the film musical has come a long way and has subsequently provided a few favorites to choose from.

West Side Story (1961)
Choreographed by Jerome Robins

A not-so-typical Romeo and Juliet love story strongly reflected in dance sequences marked with cultural flare. In particular, the gym scene readily displays the dualistic nature of the Jets and Sharks through their different approaches to the mambo. Other dance sequences, such as “America” reflect the perceived cultural differences between America and Puerto Rico.

“West Side Story is the perfect marriage of passionate composer Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, a choreographer grounded in classical ballet,” said Rick Heiman, artistic Director of Hollywood Ballet and Southern California Dance Company.

Singing in the Rain (1952)
Choreographed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Nothing can dampen Gene Kelly’ s opening tap dancing scene as he hangs off lamp posts and skips puddles and police officers, proving that love can dispel even bad weather.

“In the ‘ Singin’ in the Rain’ number, the character learns something about himself because he has danced those feelings and as a result of the dance….can have a meaningful relationship with his love interest,” said Delamater.

This enthusiasm is equally matched with a tap dancing sequence found in “Good Morning” as the dancing trio, Gene Kelly, Donald O’ Connor, Debbie Reynolds, trip over couches, up stairs and down.

Hairspray (1988, 2007)
Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell

With a recent musical reincarnation of the John Waters film, Hairspray’ s best moves are not just a blast from the past. With the help of plus-sized Tracy Turnblad and her best friend Penny Pingleton, songs like “You Can’ t Stop the Beat” show off the best moves of the 60s, including the Twist and the Mashed Potato. The most updated version, that stars High School Musical’ s Zac Efron’ s, has as much bubble-gum sweetness as the Broadway musical.

“Hairspray is both serious and fancy free at the same time,” said Diane White, a dancer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “It combines music, dance and dialog with ease making for a fun musical to watch.”

Chicago (2002)
Choreographed by Bob Fosse

The entire film musical moves with the beat of the jazz-era mixed with a fosse-flare. A favorite for most fans is the Cell block Tango, a piece that describes the unapologetic murders of fellow inmates of Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly, which mixes modern with the slinky, seductive, (and perhaps deadly) quality of the Tango. With all that jazz, (and tap too) it’ s not hard to love this film musical.

Regardless of the genre and musical styling, dance continually plays a significant component to any film musical. “Dance has become an integral part of the musical’ s storyline and creates multidimensionality in telling the story,” said Heiman.

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