Onna White, Groundbreaking Broadway Choreographer, Dies at 83

Obituaries   Onna White, Groundbreaking Broadway Choreographer, Dies at 83
 
Onna White, who found a quarter century of work in the male-dominated world of Broadway choreography, died April 8 of natural causes, according to her daughter Jeanne Douglas. She was 83.

Ms. White collected eight Tony Award nominations over her long career, the first for her choreography of the classic musical The Music Man in 1958, with its memorably humorous "Marian the Librian" number, and the last for 1977’s I Love My Wife, one of her final assignments. In between came Whoop-Up, Take Me Along, Irma La Douce, Half a Sixpence, Mame and Ilya Darling. In fact, she was recognized by the Tony people roughly two out of three times she graced a Broadway program’s title page. However, she never won the award.

Other credits include the original productions of Carmen Jones, Gigi, 1776, I Had a Ball, Let It Ride, Gantry, 70 Girls 70, Goodtime Charley and Working.

A classically trained ballerina, she began her Broadway career as a performer, dancing in the original staging of Finian’s Rainbow, which was choreographed by Michael Kidd. Other chorus work included Silk Stocking and Guys and Dolls, on which she assisted Kidd.

Her relationship with Kidd would be the most important one of her career. Kidd took the young White under his wing early on, hiring her as his assistant on the London debut of Finian's Rainbow. He used her in the same capacity for the London premiere of Guys and Dolls. Then, in 1955, she was chosen to recreate Kidd's work in a Broadway revival of Finian.

Her work was preserved in the film versions of The Music Man, Mame and 1776. She was also used on the movies of Bye Bye Birdie, Oliver! and the half-animated film Pete’s Dragon. She won an Oscar for her work on Oliver!, which boasted a host of memorable dance sequences, including "Food Glorious Food," in which dozens of children danced about an orphanage. It was a rare honor, as Oscars are not typically given out for choreographic work. Ms. White married Larry Douglas in 1948. They divorced in 1959.

She was born March 24, 1922, in Inverness, Nova Scotia. She was a sickly child, and, according to Ms. White, some health-inducing exercises a doctor prescribed for her led her by chance to the basic movements of dancing. She started taking dance lessons at the age of 12 and later studied in San Francisco. Her daughter said she would be cremated and her ashes taken to Powell River, British Columbia.

Looking back on her career, she said, "I realized I had a lot of nerve. I had stride. I had guts. If you really want to be a choreographer, get down to business. Give it all you’ve got. You’ve got to prove yourself honey; and if you do it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman."

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