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Charles Weidman - Who?

Since December 28th was my birthday I looked around for something interesting to write about. And I did. But it happened on December 27, 1944. It was a musical titled Sing Out Sweet Land. What? Yes, I know that no one remembers it, let alone hearing about it, but after looking at some very impressive credits I saw that Charles Weidman had choreographed the production. Who was Charles Weidman? One of the twentieth century's outstanding modern dancers who spent very little time in the musical theatre. He began his career with a mega hit, Irving Berlin's revue As Thousands Cheer and closed it was the mega flop Portofino.

I thought I would take one person from the dance world and devote a short column to him/her each month. Too many are forgotten, but it's nice to remember them just for the simple fact that they helped contribute and enrich the dance world and brought modern and Broadway dance further along on their current day maturation and popularity, depending on your viewpoint.

Just a short look at Charles Weidman and a brief biography: he was a modern dancer and choreographer who began his career with Denishawn in 1920, partnering the young and ambitious Martha Graham. In 1927 he and Doris Humphrey (one of the titans of modern dance) established a school and a dancing partnership that was to last for many years.

There's so much more I could write about Weidman, but so as not to go into too many details (if you want you can contact me), I would like to concentrate on his Broadway works since they usually go unmentioned, along with those of Robert Alton and George Balanchine, both of whom contributed excellent and innovative work to the musical stage in the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, most of what we know of their work is based on newspaper reviews and surviving memories of original cast members, since we have little else to judge them by otherwise.

The first Broadway musical Weidman choreographed was the topical revue As Thousands Cheer, a satire about the people and events of the early 1930s. I am not quite sure what Weidman did, but it must have been riotous. He, no doubt, created the movement for Ethel Waters while she sang Heat Wave and Harlem on the Mind; had the entire company sauntering around the stage to the strains of Easter Parade; created one number to the song Lonely Heart and put Marilyn Miller (the most famous musical comedy performer of her time) through her steps in the Funnies song, which incorporated the celebrated comic characters appearing in the Sunday newspapers. At least I think that's what he did. Newspaper reviews don't say a great deal, so I'm leaving this all to my imagination, and I'm going to let it run wild.

The second hit Weidman had was the Rodgers and Hart musical I'd Rather Be Right, the one with George M. Cohan impersonating a singing-dancing FDR!!!! I know it sounds incredulous, but did anyone really care when Cohan appeared on stage? The choreographic credits for this one were really strange: choreography by Charles Weidman and modern dances staged by Ned McGurn, Huh? Who did what? Charles Weidman was a modern dancer, so why would he need someone to do the modern dancers? Did Weidman create those steps for Cohan in the number Off the Record, magnificently performed by James Cagney playing Cohan in Yankee Doodle? Or was this the job of the two choreographers credited for the movie, LeRoy Prinz and Seymour Felix, not to mention John Boyd (who was none other than James Cagney?)

On the basis of these two shows alone Weidman should have had a bigger career in musical theater. But the other shows he choreographed were all failures and he went back to the thing he knew best: the creation and teaching of modern dance. I am sure that we lost something along the way. There was a Broadway style, and an amazing one, long before Agnes De Mille.

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