NY Public Library's Dance Collections Manager Arlene Yu on Sono Osato and the Arrival of the Ballet Girl on Broadway!
BroadwayWorld continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Arlene Yu, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dance Collections Manager, on: Sono Osato and the Arrival of the Ballet Girl on Broadway!
Long before B.D. Wong and Lea Salonga won Tony Awards for their performances in 1988 and 1991, Sono Osato won the first ever Donaldson Award for dancing in the 1943-1944 season in One Touch of Venus. The Donaldson Awards predated the Tony Awards, running from 1944 to 1955.
While not the first Asian American to appear on Broadway, Osato's career and the recognition she garnered in the early 1940s is remarkable. The U.S. was at war with Japan after the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Japanese Americans had been incarcerated in camps beginning in 1942. Osato's father, Japanese-born photographer Shoji Osato, had been arrested by the FBI the day after Pearl Harbor and was still under house arrest when One Touch of Venus opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 7, 1943. (Osato's Caucasian mother had presumably lost her U.S. citizenship under anti-miscegenation laws when she married Osato's father, but she was not interned.) Osato herself had been barred from touring with Ballet Theatre in Mexico and California in her earlier ballet career.
Osato is one of the lucky dancers to have worked on Broadway with two of the great American musical choreographers of the mid twentieth century, Agnes De Mille and Jerome Robbins. De Mille, who cast her as premiere danseuse in One Touch of Venus, was the first choreographer to recognize Osato's rare combination of comedic ability and drop dead sexiness. In her memoir, And Promenade Home, de Mille writes that "thanks to her fastidiousness, [Osato] was able to perform comedy no lesser actress would dare attempt, managing most wonderfully to be irresistible and outrageous, sensual and funny at the same time....[Her] combination of mystery, courage, sportsmanship and magic drove people, I mean men, stark mad."
She was not the star of One Touch of Venus - that distinction belonged to Mary Martin - but Osato, "a girl with an impish, lovely dead pan" (John Chapman, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 17, 1943), was deemed "likely to be the toast of the autumn" (Lewis Nichols in The New York Times, October 8, 1943). Lee Mortimer even later claimed that she "stole the show - stole it from right under the pretty nose of Miss Mary Martin, its star" (Sunday Mirror Magazine, January 28, 1945).
One month after One Touch of Venus opened, Osato was granted billing on par with the other featured players by producer Cheryl Crawford and, on July 3, 1944, she received her Donaldson Award. A week after the Donaldson Award, however, Osato resigned from One Touch of Venus, citing exhaustion.
Still, Broadway beckoned. Eventually Osato was convinced to join Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins in On the Town, their musical adaptation of Robbins's smash hit ballet, Fancy Free. In On the Town, Osato, starring as Ivy Smith, wins the monthly Miss Turnstiles competition, and her publicity photo drives one of the three principal male leads, sailors on leave in New York City, to search all over the city for her. In that publicity photo Ivy is billed as "Exotic Ivy Smith," and Osato's mixed race heritage is perhaps echoed in the contradictory statements about her character: a "home-loving type who loves to go out night-clubbing," a "frail and flower-like girl -- who's a champion at polo, tennis and shotput."
Osato's comedic abilities were exploited by Robbins in a scene where Ivy Smith takes a singing lesson -- while standing on her head and being taught by an alcoholic, Osato's real-life voice coach, Susan Steell.
That both Bernstein and Robbins wanted her as their star and not merely as a featured player was perhaps a risk in light of the war with Japan. But the New York Theater world provided a bit of insulation, and Osato was one of many exoticized dancers from the former Ballets Russes and from modern dance who would be making their way onto other stages. By December 1944, prominent dance critic John Martin would recommend that dance enthusiasts "look into outside their custoMary Haunts" "since the trek of ballet and concert dancers to the Broadway field continues unabated," citing numerous productions with contributions by George Balanchine, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Agnes De Mille, and Eugene Loring - as well as the upcoming On the Town. Among other ballet dancers then appearing on Broadway Martin names Irina Baronova, Alicia Markova, and Anton Dolin. Indeed, by March 1945 author (and former chorus girl) Thyra Samter Winslow announced the arrival of the "ballet girl" to Broadway, in an article titled "Notes on a Theatrical Revolution" and subtitled "the chorus girl has been ousted by the ballet girl and, incidentally, the Stage Door John has also disappeared." On the Town, according to the article "represents the complete triumph of ballet over chorus," with "skillful choreography" rather than "dated rows of girls kicking almost in unison." Instead of conceiving of herself as "glamorous and desirable," Osato was one of a new breed of trained dancers, "serious about her work, about life" (The New York Times, March 11, 1945).
If you'd like to read more about Sono Osato, check out her memoir, Distant Dances, or Carol J. Oja's Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War.