As Playbill kicks off Choreography Week, which will bring you the best of features focused on dance and choreography, Mo Brady weighs in on the ways in which Broadway dancers are being pushed to new limits.
Almost half a century ago, A Chorus Line launched the era of the musical theatre triple threat. That affectionate term for a performer became synonymous with the characters in Michael Bennett’s musical opus, who could each consummately sing, dance, and act. (Well, except for Kristine who “could never really sing.”) Many of the show’s characters speak of “the gypsy life,” frequently traveling from show to show, racking up multiple Broadway credits.
For the decades to follow, new Broadway musicals championed the use of the triple threat. In the 1983, the Jellicles of the Cats junkyard began to sing and dance and transform into felines for almost two hours straight. Nine years later, the ensemble of Crazy for You took us to Deadrock, Nevada, by each playing an individuated character within the ensemble. While there were differences in choreographic styles, whether the staging was by Bennett or Fosse or Robbins etc., each was rooted in a mix of ballet, tap, and jazz dance often referred to as “theater dance.” From the stenographers of Thoroughly Modern Millie to the nicest kids in town in Hairspray, Broadway musicals ushered in a new generation of triple threats.
But the idea that a musical theatre performer can survive in the theatre industry by being able to only sing, dance, and act is a thing of the past.
Today’s musical theatre performers need to be quadruple threats—at the very least. Some of this is due to shrinking cast sizes and the amount of understudy coverage required by onstage ensemblists. It also seems to be that choreographers, in particular, increasingly ask more of their performers.
What is this additional “threat” musical theatre performers are asked to master? It’s not simply one specific skill or type of movement. As choreographers and creative team members look for new ways of telling stories onstage, they rely on performers to master additional modes of storytelling.
In the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of multiple dance techniques become a part of the theatrical lexicon. Beyond Hamilton’s high-profile codification of hip-hop on Broadway, we’ve seen men tumbling (Newsies), dancing in heels (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and tumbling while dancing in heels (Kinky Boots). Bandstand brought swing dance into the mix and Head Over Heels introduced voguing and ball culture to the Broadway stage in new ways. In Once, the full company sang, acted, and danced while playing their own instruments. In Moulin Rouge! The Musical two female ensemblists, Jodi McFadden and Khori Michelle Petinaud, begin the show by swallowing swords. While each show incorporates these special skills into traditional theatre technique, they each require adeptness at a skill set beyond typical theatre dance.
This isn’t to say that these additional skill sets don’t make for better theatre. When a show’s company takes on movement styles outside the norm of theatre dance, it often results in thrilling experiences for audiences. One of the most remarkable theatrical moments of the last theatrical season was watching 10 onstage actors manipulate the titular character in King Kong. Audiences love to be wowed, and one of the most surefire ways to achieve that sense of wonder is to share something they haven’t seen before on a Broadway stage.
But that raises the bar for ensemblists looking to work consistently on Broadway. Actors must now make the “special skills” section of the résumé a focus rather than an addendum. With thousands of actors auditioning for jobs, actors’ experiences in the past are less important than what they can bring to the future. Creative teams want to know what you can do that others can’t.
What this means for performers is that actors looking to perform on Broadway must diversify their portfolio of skills. If future musical theatres want to work and work steadily on Broadway, they must become as versatile in their skill sets as possible. In the 21st century on Broadway, versatility is a “threat” all its own.
Mo Brady is former Broadway performer and co-creator of The Ensemblist.