Broadway’s Remarkable Year Of The Female Choreographer
Updated: May 4
While it’s true that show-biz can’t escape the fact that it holds a long and storied history of under-appreciating the contributions of women in leadership positions, — a truth it frankly shares with much of the rest of global business — 2020 presented theatre-lovers with something never before seen. Something unheard of. Something new.
This season, Broadway was completely and utterly dominated by female choreographers.
That’s right, of the 14 new or revival musical productions initially scheduled to arrive on The Great White Way prior to the pandemic shutdown this year, an incredible 10(!) used, or had planned to use, choreography created and curated by women.
In other words, the world of Broadway choreography's glass ceiling just got a serious crack in it.
And yet, for an industry that prides itself on standing above the rest in terms of representation, the mere fact that a large faction of female choreographers creating on Broadway in the same season is newsworthy, is telling in and of itself.
Breaking Out Is Hard To Do
When you take a look back, history has shown that for female choreographers, breaking out in modern and contemporary commercial theatre has proved extremely difficult. In a world long dominated by men that often requires years of assisting or associate work, simply scoring that first gig choreographing on Broadway is hard enough. But, when it comes to the almost mandated community recognition required to pave a path forward, — namely earning a Tony Award nomination — that acknowledgment is seemingly even harder to come by.
Nonetheless, this year was different… well, it was supposed to be, anyway.
45th street in Manhattan. Photo credit: Dane Biren.
When Broadway went dark on March 12, everything changed. The struggle to hire, celebrate, and (eventually) recognize female choreographers — something it seemed the theatre industry had finally started coming to grips with — suddenly had an enormous wrench thrown into it.
This once-in-a-lifetime health event has managed to silence the bustle of Broadway like never before. During these early spring months, normally a time when buzz would be beginning to bloom in midtown’s theatre district, shows are instead ground to a halt. Female choreographed musicals, some still in rehearsals or previews — like Lorin Latarro’s ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’, and Kelly Devine’s ‘Diana’ — are now dark with work still to be done. Others like Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s ‘Six’, which was quite literally rolling out the red carpet for its opening night when the shutdown began, or, Lucy Hind’s ‘Girl From The North County’ which had just started to secure its footing after opening, will both, upon Broadway’s restart, be forced to regain momentum.
Others, like Ann Yee’s ‘Caroline, Or Change’ and Michelle Dorrance’s ‘Flying Over Sunset’, both lucky enough to be backed by two of Broadway’s non-profit producers — Roundabout Theater Company and Lincoln Center Theatre, respectively — have been postponed to the fall.
Even Sonya Tayeh’s explosive quick-to-become-juggernaut, ‘Moulin Rouge’ — a show whose company suffered deeply from the virus — will have to hope travel returns to New York City quickly.
And, of course, once the grim numbers of the virus’ toll on patients in the US began to rise, it seemed only a matter of time until Broadway’s biggest night — the Tony Awards themselves, held annually every June — would also be affected. As predicted, last month on March 25th, The American Theatre Wing announced the evening’s postponement.
Now, even though theatre’s biggest night won’t happen as scheduled, we, as a collective arts-loving community, should not allow the breadth of dance work created by women this year to slip by unnoticed. Moreover, we need to actively recognize and celebrate how rare and unprecedented this season was.
How unprecedented, you ask? Well, let’s take a look at some of the statistics.
To breakdown how extraordinarily unrivaled this season was, let’s take a look at the history of the Tony Award for Best Choreography.
For the record, Broadway’s biggest dance prize has been handed out every year since the Tonys started in 1947 (with one notable exception in 1985, due to their being “only one eligible candidate”.)
That said, since last year’s 2019 ceremony marked the 73rd Annual Celebration of the Tonys, the math on that means there have been 72 chances* to win the award for Best Choreography.
Also of note, the first ten years of the Tonys didn’t feature nominees** — only winners.
The Startling Statistics
The Tony Awards celebration has long been held at Radio City Music Hall. The 2020 ceremony, however, has been postponed. Photo credit: CC.
— Of the 72 opportunities* to have won a Tony Award for Best Choreography, there have only been 12 years in which the winner of the award was female. Meaning, only 16% of the time the Tony has gone to a woman.
— Of the 62 opportunities for a nomination for the award**, only 17 seasons have featured fields with two or more female nominees. That works out to only about 27% of the time
— Only ONE season in Tony history has featured an all-female nominee field. That was in 2000 when Lynne Taylor-Corbett was nominated for ‘Swing’, Kathleen Marshall was nominated for ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, and Susan Stroman was nominated for both ‘The Music Man’ and ‘Contact’ (which won).
— With that last stat in mind, there have been at least 16 years in which the nominee field was all-male. Which, at about 25% of the time, means that one-quarter of the Best Choreography nominee fields have been all men.
— And, of those 16 all-male nominee field seasons — four of them have occurred in the last decade.
It Gets Crazier...
— A total of 271 nominations have been filed for the Best Choreography Tony (that excludes the two times companies were nominated — specifically the “Forever Tango Dancers” from ‘Forever Tango’ in 1998 and the “Tango Argentino Dancers” from 1986’s ‘Tango Argentino’). So, how many of those nominations went to women? 67 — less than 25% of all nominees.
— And, of those 67 female nomination filings — when you account for women who've received multiple nominations, it works out to only 29 different women.
— When you do that same math for their male colleagues, it works out to a stunning difference. Of the 271 nominations, 204 have gone to male choreographers, breaking down to 85 different men. Over 75% of the time. That's three male nominee spots for every one female spot.
Agnes de Mille, (pictured here, center, with Aaron Copeland and Oliver Smith) was one of two winners for the first-ever Tony Award for Best Choreography in 1947. She won for 'Brigadoon', while Michael Kidd also won for 'Finian's Rainbow'. Photo credit: LOC.
— Also, remember that very first stat listed? The one that says only 12 Best Choreography Tonys have been awarded to women? Let’s break that down one step further:
Seven of those 12 Tonys have gone to only two women, (Susan Stroman and Kathleen Marshall) — which ultimately means that, in the history of the Tony for Best Choreography, only seven different women have won the award in 73 years! (They are Susan Stroman who's won four, Kathleen Marshall with three, and one each for Twyla Tharp, Ann Reinking, Gillian Gregory, Helen Tamiris, and Agnes DeMille.)
What Does It All Mean?
There's no way around the fact that these statistics are staggering. They’re mind-bogglingly sexist, unbalanced, and blatantly opposite of the theatre’s self consideration that it’s the most representatively progressive of our major commercial art forms.
Now, while it’s fair to say that the Tony Awards don’t account for the totality of the commercial theatre as a whole, they can act as a measurable microcosm for it. And, in using that analysis as a model when comparing the history of the Tony for Best Choreography to what was planned to happen on Broadway this year, one can see a very noticeable and far more feminine line beginning to appear in the sand.
'Mrs. Doubtfire' choreographer, Lorin Latarro. Photo courtesy: LSG Public Relations.
Well, 10 of the 14 new musicals on Broadway this year were slated to be choreographed by nine different women. Six of those women were first time Broadway choreographers, and, even more remarkably, one of them — Sonya Tayeh — was slated to choreograph two shows: ’Moulin Rouge’ which opened last summer and ‘Sing Street’ which was in rehearsals when the shutdown began.
While all three of the veteran choreographers this year are well established, only one, Kelly Devine, has previous Tony nominations. Devine, the choreographer behind ‘Diana: A True Musical Story’, has been nominated twice before: once for ‘Rocky’ in 2014 and secondly ‘Come From Away’ in 2017. Devine’s veteran contemporaries are 2017 ‘Sunday In The Park…’ revival choreographer Ann Yee — whose production ‘Caroline Or Change ’ has since been rescheduled for the autumn — and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ choreographer Lorin Latarro, who not only danced in 14 shows prior to her creative transition but has also created, among many other things, the movement to Sara Bareilles’ smash hit, ‘Waitress’.
Olivier winner and Tony nominee, Kelly Devine. Photo courtesy: LSG Public Relations.
And, the newcomers to the Great White Way this year might be fresh on the radars of American theatre dance fans, but they're hardly green. The first-time choreographers include West End vet Lizzi Gee who was tapped to bring ‘A Christmas Carol’ alive last winter, tap phenom Michelle Dorrance — who is creating the movement to the now rescheduled ‘Flying Over Sunset’, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker — the Belgian born contemporary choreographer who stands as the first person in history to create new dances for a production of ‘West Side Story’ on Broadway, ‘Girl From The North Country’ choreographer Lucy Hind, and Carrie-Anne Ingrouille — who is creating the movement to the all-female musical, ‘Six’.
All In All
'Moulin Rouge' and 'Sing Street' choreographer, Sonya Tayeh.
It's been a hell of a year these past three and a half months, but there's been some light, too.
When you look at the fact that nine different women were hired to choreograph Broadway musicals this season — when only 29 different women have been nominated and seven different women have won Tony awards for choreography in the last 73 years — 2020 might suck, but it’s time to get your umbrella out, cause it's starting to rain glass.
**UPDATE -- Pod De Deux Podcast Digs Deeper!
**Based on the early response of this article, the Pod De Deux Podcast team is diving in with a summer series -- The Women Of Broadway -- with the goal of interviewing all 9 of 2020's female choreographers. Michael Mahany is joined by co-hosts Kevin Michael Raponey and Ellyn Marsh. Check out Pod De Deux's page for episodes coming soon. For more details on the upcoming series, watch the video above and check out DN&C's"Amidst The Pandemic There's Still Reason To Celebrate #InternationalDanceDay".
Michael Mahany serves as NYC Dance News & Culture’s founder and Editor-At-Large. Additionally, he is a professional actor, singer, dancer who appears nightly in the 10th Anniversary production of 'Rock Of Ages' in New York City. He's also a co-host of the 'Pod De Deux' dance podcast. Follow him on Instagram, Twitter, or visit www.michaelmahany.com for more. Story tips? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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