Lists13 Choreographers Every Broadway Fan Should KnowFrom Bob Fosse to Jerry Mitchell, these are the Broadway choreographers every theatre aficionado must know.
November 17, 2017
You may have some favorite numbers from Broadway history, but can you name who choreographed them? Any true Broadway history buff needs to know these 13 history-making and genre-defining choreographers, all of whom helped shape the Broadway we see today. From Bob Fosse to Jerry Mitchell, we’re taking a deep dive into the must-know choreographers from throughout Broadway history.
Editor’s note: This is not a complete list of musical theatre’s great choreographers, but rather a map of must-know choreographers who spurred the evolution of musical theatre dance.
Agnes de Mille Best known for: Oklahoma!
When Rodgers and Hammerstein came to Agnes de Mille to choreograph what would become their landmark 1943 musical Oklahoma!, she was already well known in the theatre and ballet world. Her uncle, Cecil B., had been an actor, director, and producer on Broadway before heading to Hollywood and becoming one of the most influential directors of the early film industry (Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond utters her infamous climactic line to this “Mr. de Mille”). Agnes had also made a name for herself working with the American Ballet Theatre, specifically with a work called Rodeo, which remains in ballet repertoires today.
With her choreography to Oklahoma!, de Mille revolutionized the role of dance in musical theatre by using it to actively communicate plot and story, rather than a break to entertain. Though numbers like “The Farmer and the Cowman” used dance to express the text of the song to an unprecedented degree, it was her Dream Ballet that was the most groundbreaking, using dance to delve into the existential crisis that lies at the center of Oklahoma!’s plot. Earlier musicals had integrated their plots with the score, but it was Oklahoma! that first integrated these with dance, cementing de Mille's status as one of the most influential choreographers in Broadway history.
De Mille went on to choreograph many more Broadway musicals, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Paint Your Wagon, 110 in the Shade, and Brigadoon, for which she won a 1947 Tony Award. Though she was less successful in Hollywood, the 1955 film adaptation of Oklahoma! did preserve her original stage choreography.
Jerome Robbins Best known for: West Side Story
Like Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins began his career working with American Ballet Theatre, though as a performer. He soon began choreographing for the company as well, including the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, about three World War II sailors on leave in New York. This ballet, featuring a score by the then-relatively unknown Leonard Bernstein, ended up being Robbins' entre into the world of Broadway: it was adapted into the full-length musical On the Town later the same year.
But Robbins’ Broadway hallmark was 1956’s West Side Story, a modern spin on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that Robbins conceived, choreographed, and directed. Robbins devised the musical as a true dance piece, linking his specific choreography to the piece in a way that had never happened before—each of the three Broadway revivals of West Side Story has used Robbins’ original choreography. The work is also often credited with creating the notion of a “triple threat” Broadway performer; whereas most earlier shows used a separate dance ensemble, the bulk of West Side Story’s principal cast had to be skilled actors, singers, and dancers. Robbins also went on to direct and choreograph the original productions of Gypsy, Peter Pan, and Bells Are Ringing.
When talking about West Side Story, honorable mention also has to go to Peter Gennaro. Robbins’ choreography associate on the original production, Gennaro choreographed most of the material for the Sharks, including “America” and “Mambo,” though this went uncredited. Gennaro would go on to have an illustrious career as a standalone Broadway choreographer, working on productions like Fiorello! and Annie.
Jack Cole Best known for: Being the father of theatrical jazz dance
You may not know any of Jack Cole’s major Broadway numbers, though he did choreograph a string of well-known shows, from Kismet in 1953 to Man of La Mancha in 1965. Cole was more prolific as a Hollywood choreographer, working on such films as Cover Girl, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Some Like It Hot, and many others, but it was as a teacher and innovator that he made his true impact, more than for the individual musicals and movies he choreographed.
Today, Cole is considered the father of theatrical jazz dance, the style of dancing that remains the foundation of most dance in entertainment today. Cole developed the movement vocabulary for this style of dancing that favors smaller groups and angular lines. At the time, his work was revolutionary for focusing on the kinds of dance then more at home in dance clubs than the ballet studio. His influence on the art form is nearly unmatched, touching almost every other artist on this list and a host of prominent performers as well, notably Gwen Verdon, who served as Cole’s assistant for the better part of a decade.
Michael Kidd Best known for: Guys and Dolls
Though Michael Kidd may be best known today for his work in Hollywood—The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Hello, Dolly!—he won a staggering five career Tony Awards for his work as a choreographer on Broadway. After a brief career as a dancer, Kidd made his choreographic Broadway debut with 1947’s Finian’s Rainbow. He quickly became known as a choreographer who, like de Mille and Robbins before him, focused on storytelling through dance, though with a Cole-inspired style noted for its athleticism.
As choreographer of the 1950 classic Guys and Dolls, he staged the opening ballet “Runyonland,” which brings the audience into the world of Damon Runyon through stylized movement. Kidd was building on the work started by de Mille and Robbins in their Broadway dream ballets, while injecting a more naturalized jazz-based dancing style. It was his work on Guys and Dolls that first caught Hollywood’s eye, and though he would periodically make a Broadway return, the bulk of his career remained in the movie industry after he choreographed the film adaptation of Where’s Charley in 1952.
Gower Champion Best known for: Hello, Dolly!
If you’re a fan of classic Golden Age Broadway, you would certainly be a fan of Gower Champion. He appeared in three Broadway shows as a performer before choreographing Small Wonder in 1948. He earned his first Tony Award for his choreography to Lend an Ear in 1949, but he truly made his mark ten years later with Bye Bye Birdie, winning Tony Awards for both his direction and choreography.
These days, he’s best remembered for directing and choreographing the original production of Hello, Dolly!, one of a small group of older shows that continues to be presented on Broadway in productions that largely—if not completely—recreate its original staging and choreography. His expert staging of such numbers as “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Dancing,” “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” and “Elegance” are all true Broadway classics, representing the gold standard of big, showy, joyous musical theatre.
He went on to direct and choreograph such Broadway shows as Sugar, Mack & Mabel, and his final Broadway work, 42nd Street—producer David Merrick famously kept Champion’s death a secret for more than 12 hours so that he could announce it to a press-filled house following the production’s opening night performance.
Michael Bennett Best known for: A Chorus Line
Michael Bennett started his Broadway career as a dancer, appearing in the original casts of Subways Are for Sleeping, Here’s Love, and Bajour, but after making his debut as a choreographer with the short-lived 1966 musical A Joyful Noise, Bennett remained behind the scenes as a choreographer and later a director as well. Though he was Tony-nominated for his work on 1967’s Henry, Sweet Henry, 1968’s Promises, Promises was Bennett’s big splash, and his earliest iconic dance number: “Turkey Lurkey Time,” originally danced by Baayork Lee, Donna McKechnie, and Margo Sappington.
After Promises, Bennett went on to choreograph such Broadway classics as Company, Follies, and Seesaw, but his most lasting impact came with A Chorus Line, which opened on Broadway in 1975. Bennett is credited with the work’s direction and choreography, as well as its conception. Developed from a series of recorded conversations with Broadway chorus dancers in a then-unprecedented workshop process, Bennett was the guiding force of this landmark and long-running musical from its inception to its Broadway opening, and it has yet to receive a major revival production that doesn’t use Bennett’s original choreography. His other notable post-Chorus Line work was Dreamgirls, which opened in 1981.
If Bennett’s choreography was decidedly less ballet-based than de Mille or Robbins, it was every bit as focused on storytelling and expression. Bennett’s concise, tight, but often athletic movement style fused popular dance with theatrical storytelling. His influence can still be seen today in the work of modern choreographers like Jerry Mitchell.
Honorable mention here should also go to Bob Avian, Bennett’s longtime associate and collaborator, who is credited as co-choreographer on A Chorus Line and Ballroom (both of which won him Tony Awards). Working solo, Avian staged the original production of Sunset Boulevard, as well as both the original and current revival productions of Miss Saigon. Avian has also remained associated with A Chorus Line; he directed the 2006 Broadway revival production.
George Faison Best known for: The Wiz
George Faison began his career dancing for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City until 1970, when he left to join the company of the 1970 Broadway musical Purlie. He also founded the George Faison Universal Dance Experience the following year, where he honed his skills as a choreographer. His hallmark was the blend of ballet with contemporary dance. He made his Broadway debut as a choreographer in 1972 with Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, a sung- and danced-through show that focused on the African-American experience.
Faison is probably best known to Broadway fans as the choreographer of the 1975 megahit The Wiz, a re-telling of The Wizard of Oz with soul music and an all-black cast. In addition to setting the steps to high-energy dance numbers like “Ease on Down the Road,” Faison contributed four ballet sequences to the production: “Tornado,” “Lion’s Dream,” “Funky Monkey,” and “Emerald City Ballet (Psst),” the latter of which he co-wrote the music to, as well. Faison’s choreography brought a new style of concert-influenced modern dance to Broadway, helping to elevate The Wiz into the long-running hit and cultural touchstone it would become. The show’s single Broadway revival recreated Faison’s choreography, as did a 1990s national tour and 2015 NYC concert presentation.
Though he would go on to choreograph productions like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and The Moony Shapiro Songbook, most of Faison’s more recent work has been with the concert dance world—specifically through his Faison Firehouse Theater, which he founded in 1997—but his Broadway work remains essential to musical theatre today.
Bob Fosse Best known for: Chicago
There are a scant few people as synonymous with modern Broadway dance as Bob Fosse. While many of the names on this list might only be known to theatre aficionados, Fosse is a household name thanks to his wildly successful career as a choreographer and director on Broadway and in Hollywood, and the 1999 Broadway revue of his work. His movement style is more individual than any of the other choreographers on this list—if you’ve ever seen someone doing a sideways shuffle while rolling their wrists or shoulders and wearing a bowler hat, you know what Fosse was all about. Fosse turned what he saw as his “flaws” into a style; his movement hinged on angles and subtlety.
Like many before him, Fosse started as a dancer on Broadway, making his choreographic debut with 1954’s The Pajama Game. Numbers like “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “Steam Heat” quickly established Fosse as a powerful force in the Broadway dance world, allowing him to quickly move on to a string of hits including Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, New Girl in Town, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He began directing in 1959 with Redhead, though it was the ’60s and ’70s when he saw his greatest success as a Broadway director-choreographer. Sweet Charity in 1966, Pippin in 1972, and Chicago in 1975 were all huge successes, enjoyed Broadway revivals, and remain closely associated with the legacy of their original director and choreographer.
Of course, Fosse may actually be most-closely associated with the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, though he did not in fact have anything to do with any of its stage productions. The film version of the Broadway hit was his second movie, and the most successful of his career; it won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director. The movie was so successful, in fact, that much of its style and added material has been interpolated into subsequent stage productions. The long-running Broadway revival of 1998 (which was re-mounted again on Broadway in 2014) featured choreography by Rob Marshall, though it paid heavy homage to the choreography of Fosse. Marshall would go on to channel Fosse’s style when he directed and choreographed the 2002 film version of Chicago.
After making the leap from dancer to choreographer, Gillian Lynne worked predominately in the world of opera and ballet. Her Broadway credits aren’t numerous, but they include shows like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.
The idea for Cats began with Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a child. When he toyed with the notion of adapting the plotless group of poems into a full-length musical, it turned out to be a hard sell—the biggest question being how a human cast could compellingly portray cats for an entire evening. Though the solution to that was partially answered by John Napier and Candace Carell’s iconic costume and make-up designs (respectively), the importance of Lynne’s work finding the physical language for the cats can’t be understated. Lynne served as choreographer for Cats, though she was also associate director underneath Trevor Nunn. Anyone who’s seen Cats knows it is wall-to-wall dance, with both sung numbers and standalone dance pieces like “The Jellicle Ball.”
Given her opera background, Lynne also proved the perfect choice to choreograph The Phantom of the Opera, making Lynne the choreographer of both the first and fourth longest-running Broadway shows of all time.
Savion Glover Best known for: Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk
Though many of the choreographers on this list have notable tap numbers in their body of work, Savion Glover is best known primarily as a tap dancer. His unprecedented work at modernizing the generations-old dance technique quickly made him one of the industry’s more famous performers and choreographers, even with a relatively small amount of Broadway credits to his name. He started out as a child performer on Broadway, appearing in 1985’s The Tap Dance Kid, 1989’s Black and Blue (receiving a Tony nomination for Featured Actor in a Musical) and 1992’s Jelly’s Last Jam (playing the younger counterpart to Gregory Hines, one of Glover’s tap teachers), but it was his dance piece Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, co-conceived with director George C. Wolfe, that brought Glover to major prominence. The show also made him a Tony-winning choreographer.
Glover choreographed and appeared in Noise/Funk, a musical revue that led audiences through black history from slavery to present day using rhythm tap and projections to tell the story. Lauded by audiences and critics, Glover was specially noted for his groundbreaking work pushing tap dance to tell stories in new, exciting, and modern ways.
Glover’s success with Noise/Funk led to years of focusing his career on film and television, though he returned to Broadway, reuniting with Wolfe, for 2016’s Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Like Noise/Funk, Shuffle Along told an important black history, this time that of one of Broadway’s first hugely successful all-black musicals. Glover again brought his signature tap stylings to the productions, earning another Tony nomination—and a Drama Desk Award—for his work.
Susan Stroman Best known for: The Producers
Though Susan Stroman appeared as a performer in the 1979 Broadway musical Whoopee!, her illustrious career has been almost exclusively as a director and choreographer. She served as assistant director and choreographer on the short-lived 1980 musical Musical Chairs, then spent years building a name for herself Off-Broadway. A 1987 production of Flora, the Red Menace began a long association with the work of Kander and Ebb, one that would go on to include co-creating the 1991 revue And the World Goes Round and Broadway musicals like Steel Pier and The Scottsboro Boys.
Stroman first landmark production arrived with the 1992 Gershwin jukebox musical Crazy For You; her choreography for that production earned Stroman her first Tony Award. She won a second for her work on Hal Prince’s 1994 revival of Show Boat, and directed and choreographed a string of major dance musicals like Contact and the 2000 revival of The Music Man.
Her biggest hit to date started with a knock on the door from comedian and writer Mel Brooks, looking to adapt his 1967 film The Producers into a stage musical. Brooks had originally intended for Stroman’s husband Mike Ockrent to direct the piece with Stroman providing choreography, but when Ockrent died during the development process, Stroman took on both tasks. The Producers, of course, became the giant hit of 2001, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards—two of which went to Stroman, for both her direction and choreography. That record remains unbroken today.
Jerry Mitchell Best known for: Hairspray
Jerry Mitchell started out as a Broadway dancer, appearing in the ensembles of a 1980 revival of Brigadoon and the 1983 revival of On Your Toes. In 1989, Mitchell got the opportunity to serve as assistant to Jerome Robbins as he prepared Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, a career-retrospective revue that recreated much of Robbins’ most iconic choreography. Though Mitchell appeared in one subsequent Broadway show as a performer—The Will Rogers Follies—he has dedicated the rest of his career to choreography, and he became one of the most successful and prolific Broadway choreographers of the last 20 years.
Mitchell’s work includes Broadway productions of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, The Full Monty, The Rocky Horror Show, Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and La Cage Aux Folles, for most of which he received Tony Award nominations; in 2005, Mitchell was Tony-nominated twice in one season for his work on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and La Cage Aux Folles, winning for the latter.
He added director to his list of credits with 2007’s Legally Blonde, and has predominantly worked as a director-choreographer ever since. His 2013 hit Kinky Boots is still playing to packed houses, and On Your Feet!, for which Mitchell was solely director, just embarked on a national tour following a successful Broadway run. Mitchell is poised to return to Broadway next fall with Pretty Woman, which premieres in Chicago this spring.
Andy Blankenbuehler Best known for: Hamilton
The newest face on this list is Andy Blankenbuehler, who made his Broadway choreographic debut with the 2006 revival of The Apple Tree after a career as a dancer that spanned more than a decade. Blankenbuehler’s second show, In the Heights, both won him his first Tony Award and set him on the path towards his greatest success to date, Hamilton, the creative team of which was a reunion of the Heights team.
While Blankenbuehler has been on the scene for a relatively short amount of time so far, he is remarkable for the degree of his success within that time frame. He is a three-time Tony-winner for his work on In the Heights, Hamilton, and Bandstand, and has become one of the most sought-after choreographers working on Broadway today. More than anyone else on this list, Blankenbuehler’s style is inherently modern. Much of his work uses a modern dance vocabulary to explore and heighten real-world “pedestrian” movement, a technique that has allowed Blankenbuehler a wide berth in the types of characters and situations he’s able to explore and interpret through stage movement. Fortunately, it would appear that Blankenbuehler has an illustrious career ahead, with lots more choreography to give us.