John Travolta, Harold Prince and More Size Up 5'1" Choreographic Luminary Patricia Birch

By Harry Haun
01 Jun 2014

Patricia Birch
Patricia Birch
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Veteran Broadway choreographer Patricia Birch will be honored with The Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award during the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards June 2. Her contemporaries, including Hal Prince, Ann Reinking, John Travolta and more, weigh in on her giant-sized contributions to the industry via Broadway, film and television from Pacific Overtures to "Grease" to "Boardwalk Empire."

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Harold Prince knows ‘em when he sees ‘em,  so if he sees “a theatre giant” in 5’1½” Pat Birch as he says he does, believe it. Certainly, he’s used her enough to choreograph and, in his view, characterize his shows (Exhibits A-F: A Little Night Music, Candide, Pacific Overtures, Roza, Parade and LoveMusik). “Her great gift is to choreograph character so it isn’t just dancing–it’s dancing as a particular human being.”

This pint-sized sparkplug of theatrical energy will be honored with The Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award June 2 at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. As lifetimes go, that’s close to six decades of dance on Broadway and off and in every medium imaginable.



Unlike, say, Susan Stroman, who sticks to musical theatre (save for a film version of one of her shows), Birch goes after any medium that moves. “I don’t stay on course,” she’s the first to admit. “I think what I do best--and I could be all wrong because I don’t know what I do—is take pop forms and use them in the period I’m working.”

Still, you’d expect someone who learned her craft from the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham, not to hang out on “Boardwalk Empire,” or do Carly Simon videos, or animate the William Bolcom opera of Robert Altman’s A Wedding, or set Steve Martin and Gilda Radner twirling to “Dancing in the Dark” on “Saturday Night Live.”

The triumphs of this “Lefty”—the left-handed person who diversifies as opposed to the right-handed person who plays it safe and keenly focused—are apparent in the prizes she gets: two Emmys, two Drama Desk Awards, five Tony nominations.

Her hit of hits was Grease, the 15th longest-running Broadway show of all time and, in its time (1972-1980), the leader of the pack. She reprised her hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll gyrations for the film, then choreographed and directed its sequel, "Grease 2."

When the original publicist for Grease, Betty Lee Hunt, was asked to explain the success of Grease, she said with simplicity and finality that it was The Beat.

“Yes, there was that,” concedes Birch, who got maximum mileage out of that beat, “but I’ll really tell you what the audiences responded to—and I know this for a fact: It was the relationships. I don’t care where you went to school or when you went to school. In your class—think back—there was the fast girl, the leader of the gang, the kid who wanted to be part of everything, the nerd—they’re all there. We would do improvs about the prom, what it was like to have a date, what it was like not to.”

And, of course, Birch identified who was who by the character-signaling moves that they made. She set a whole generation of Broadway boppers into motion—in particular, Barry Bostwick, Adrienne Barbeau, Patrick Swayze, Treat Williams, Richard Gere, Judy Kaye, Nick Wyman, Randy Graff, Jeff Conaway, Ilene Graff, Peter Gallagher, David Paymer, Cynthia Darlow, Pippa Pearthree, Walter Charles, Kathi Moss and two who became Tony-winning directors, Walter Bobbie and Jerry Zaks.

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