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Dance in Musicals: Analysis of West Side Story, Chicago , and Cats

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Dance in Musicals: Analysis of West Side Story, Chicago , and Cats essay

Dance in musicals, although it may seem like a dying art form, can be, if used properly, integral to a show. Whether it be the unique style that brings you to the era, pure enjoyment, its ability to tell a story and mood or even just to add a show stopper, choreography can impact a show’s success. In this essay, I will explore how each dance number led to the respective musical’s success in some way of establishing or advancing the theme, style, tone or plot of the show. Many times when thinking about Broadway musicals, iconic numbers come to mind. Non-dancers and dancers alike can enjoy the beauty, spectacle, and mood that choreography can bring to a performance. 

The plot of West Side Story is a reinvented idea of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. Central to the story are two rival gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo and The Jets led by Riff. The two star-crossed lovers in West Side Story are Maria, Bernardo’s sister and Tony, a member of the Jets. Maria and Tony fall in love despite the opposition of her brother and the two gangs. In a terrible turn of events, Tony Kills Bernardo, but Maria reunites with him while he is a fugitive on the run. Tragically the musical ends with Tony being shot by a Shark. West Side Story relies heavily on choreography not only to tell a story but to set the emotionally charged mood. The show was choreographed by Jerome Robbins and music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Surprisingly, the musical was not originally a smash hit, as many would expect of such a classical standard of musical theatre. However, the movie that came out in 1961 propelled the musical forward into fame. What is so fascinating about Jerome Robbins’ choreography is the varied stylistic differences of each number. As incredible as the choreography is to watch it also tells a story in itself. In the third number of the musical, we are once again able to see the tension and pent up energy between the Sharks and the Jets in a number called the Mambo. And although this number is titled after a Cuban dance style there is also a mix of ballet and other styles. 

West Side Story has so many iconic numbers, however, what makes the Mambo (The Dance at the Gym) so memorable is that it introduces the two love interests as well as the dynamics of the other characters. The dance in the original 1961 film begins with parade music with a mix of the Sharks and Jets men moving in an outer circle and the women moving in a smaller inner circle, all the while looking back and around the space waiting to fight. A loud whistle is blown and everyone stops in place and turns to see who their partners are. They are paired with opposing gang members, the drums begin with a very rhythmic beat and the mambo starts with Bernardo extending his arm out to Anita and this cross of arms continues until each gang is with their respective group and the room splits. A dance-off commences and the Sharks movements are very subtle with an isolation of the hips, the dance crescendos into larger movements and the groups move to polar opposite sides of the room. The dance choreography becomes key in setting the mood and the differing dance styles define the Jets and the Sharks. You can almost feel the tension between the gang members. In the most recent revival of the Broadway musical, the choreography is nearly a reflection of the original. The groups begin to move towards each other with very large movements dancing with their partners and Tony enters the dance. Then we see the sharks congregate in a corner where they calculate their next move as they initiate the dance-off. The Jets stop their dancing and reluctant give up their spot on the dance floor as the music transforms into a very romantic and slow beat with subtle movements including isolation of the hips, the dance crescendos into larger movements and the music reflects this shift. The Jets bust through as they make their move, and although they were initially dancing the mambo they move onto a more head bobbing and swing style. They eventually create two separate semi-circles where they dance-off for just their friends, which is also a reminder to the audience that these are kids, at a high school dance and with all of the dramatic things they get twisted up in throughout the show it is easy to forget. 

The choreography in the dance at the gym tells a story of rivals and we see the differences in the ethnic dance styles of the Sharks Latin dance compared to the Caucasians dance style of the Jets. An interesting scene is when they stop mirroring one another as we see the groups transform the same choreography into what each group thought was the right way “style”. Robbins’ choreography in this dance especially shows the differences in the way the groups move while also showing what can be seen as a fun high school dance. By the end of the number, the blaring trumpet and music dissipate as the lovers Maria and Tony first make eye contact and all of the tension fades. They are clearly attracted to one another, but there is something so much purer. The dance between Maria and Tony is a perfect transition to set up the moment when they fall in love and it’s at that moment that the audience also falls in love with the doomed couple.

In West Side Story the choreography is front and center in weaving the story and the choreography is more than just great dance numbers, it emphasizes and tells a story were monologue alone cannot. Fosses’ influence on choreography has brought his unique style to mainstream popularity. An influential show he choreographed and also directed was Cabaret which has been on both Broadway originally in 1966 and on film in 1972. This show is set in Berlin on the verge of World War II. The show itself has a dark them and ominous tone with the impending war around the corner. Intertwined throughout are bits of humor in the nightclub to provide levity and escape from troubles. The number “Mein Herr” in particular is impressive and requires strength to perform a plank on a chair, however, it also brings a certain style to the slinky club in Berlin where the show is set. The Mein Herr number specifically captures a picture, the women on stage pose and keep perfectly still in a broken doll-like stance. They also roll their ankles as if they were snapping their fingers, once again in Fosse fashion. What is so interesting about this production is that while the dance appears odd there is something about the exact timing and synchronization that makes the dance extremely sensual. 

Fosse’s unique style can also be seen in the musical Chicago, like Cabaret it has also seen plenty of success on Broadway and in film. Chicago has seen its longest-running revival since 1996 and its success can be attributed to Bob Fossee and his creation of jazz as a new art form. The musical Chicago begins with the introduction of Velma Kelly, the scene cuts to Roxie Hart who has murdered her lover. Roxie is sent to prison where other inmates are accused of murders, including Velma who is accused of killing her husband and sister. The first night in jail opens up with the number “Cell Block Tango” in which each of the women tells their stories of how they were thrown in Jail. Roxie fears she will be put on death row and so she pursues Billy Flynn who had never lost a case for a woman and uses media/press attention and sympathies to get out of jail. Velma isn’t pleased with the new developments as she was previously the media darling. Velma watches this she tries to form an alliance with Roxie which is declined. A competition between the woman starts as to who can get more press coverage and get bailed out. Eventually, both women conspire together and they both team up and become a famous duo in jazz. 

Chicago is set in a speakeasy in the twenties. From the beginning of Velma’s entrance where she is wearing a black slip as she appears from the floor and the lights echo her silhouette. In the back, there is an immediate focal point of her walking down the stairs the ensemble forms a pyramid and create a shadow of her simple movements which catch the eye. Then all of a sudden halfway through the number, the chorus breaks off into chaotic movements and then comes back in unison with her swaying arms. The choreography clearly sets the tone and mood. The audience is then introduced to Roxie and a lover. Which the chorus forms back in a pyramid formation for just a glimpse and then they dance freely again. We then see Roxie and Fred again as they say goodbye after their rendezvous which is when the ensemble forms again in formation but instead of being as in sync the chaos grows into a crescendo where we have a picture of the ensemble reaching up with jazz hands and then suppressing them down. 

The next scene we see is of Roxie shooting Fred and then the song ends after the ensemble is shaking their arms up in the air and Velma whispers “All that Jazz”. Fosse created the new style of Jazz at the time, and it told a story without every movement giving it away. What is incredible about Fossee was his ability to expand his work outside of choreographing, as a director for Cabaret he was able to share his work with others, this resulted in the Chicago film that came out in 2002. His choreography in both these shows was so influential to dance further down and changed the way we see dance today. But his style was not just unique it opened doors to see people explore their sexuality whereas before the dance was much more conservative. 

Cat’s is another defining musical in which choreography was integral to its success. Opening in 1982 Gillian Lynne’s choreography was a transformation of the art form from a classically based genre to a high energy modern dance which can be best seen in Jellicle Ball, number in the first act. No matter the conflicting personal views of the show “Cats, its success cannot be denied. This musical launched Andrew Lloyd Webbers’ career. The dances are a mix of classical ballet training and an eighties workout video. The stamina necessary to perform the numbers is incredible and the unique choreography does resemble mannerisms of a cat. The musical has been said to be “a revue about the world of cats”, based on T.S. Elliots Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats which Andrew Lloyd Webber set music to. The set looks like a dystopian junkyard. The iconic dance number being the Jellicle ball where the cats are excited to see who will be granted an extra life. The cast begins on the ground huddled together and one by one they perch up in search of something. The group disperses and three different dances are happening all blended on the stage as the cats dance. Then they all come together in the same choreography as we see them stretching out with the foundation of ballet, but a jazz style. We see this in the movement of beautiful lines created by the leg being kicked and yet the back is hunched and the arms are pulled back. The lighting completely shifts to a dark blue and we see a group branch off as they dance almost intimidating and dangerously as they pass through another group leaping. This moment is brief however as another group enters and the lighting and music shift again while they contort their bodies and move across the stage this continues. After what seems like an exhausting number of individual gymnastic feats and dance-offs the cast comes together stretching their arms up and bringing both the music and choreography smaller and more classical and then collapse to the floor and pose. The excitement and the anticipation of the cats in the number are evident by the choreography, each of the cats’ movements defines their personalities. This show, in particular, is so different than anything produced before it, and yet it has succeeded greatly with national tours and revivals. 

The original Broadway show was open on Broadway for eighteen years and now has a film coming out. This musical brought people outside of the typical Broadway consumers as well as the opportunity to engage a new audience as there is little language barrier because the dances bring it to life. There are many differing opinions on this musical, however, its success is evident. The choreography itself is interesting to see how transformative dance can be and how it was cleverly used to mimic the movements of cats. West Side Story’s clever portrayal of discrimination in choreography, Cabaret and Chicago Fossee’s creation of Jazz, and CATS unique dance style that held the show together. Each musical had its unique journey to success, however, each of these shows has numbers that were critical to their success. In all these shows the choreographer and numbers were an essential part of developing characters, mood and telling a successful story while being innovative and influential in choreography. The choreography in these dance numbers is iconic because of how integral they are to the show and the shows would not be the same without the unique style and grandiose choreography. 

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