Before the Parade Passes By
Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical
By John Anthony Gilvey
(St. Martin's Press, Hardcover, 9780312337766, 384pp.)
Publication Date: October 20, 2005
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During the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, few director-choreographers could infuse a new musical with dance and movement in quite the way Gower Champion could. From his earliest Broadway success with Bye Bye Birdie to his triumphant and bittersweet valedictory, 42nd Street, musicals directed by Champion filled the proscenium with life. At their best, they touched the heart and stirred the soul with a skillful blend of elegance and American showmanship.
He began his career as one-half of "America's Youngest Dance Team" with Jeanne Tyler and later teamed with his wife, dance partner, and longtime collaborator, Marge Champion. This romantic ballroom duo danced across America in the smartest clubs and onto the television screen, performing story dances that captivated the country. They ultimately took their talent to Hollywood, where they starred in the 1951 remake of Show Boat, Lovely to Look At, and other films. But Broadway always called to Champion, and in 1959 he was tapped to direct Bye Bye Birdie. The rest is history.
In shows like Birdie, Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, I Do! I Do!, Sugar, and 42nd Street, luminaries such as Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Robert Preston, Tony Roberts, Robert Morse, Tammy Grimes, and Jerry Orbach brought Champion's creative vision to life. Working with composers and writers like Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, and Bob Merrill, he streamlined the musical making it flow effortlessly with song and dance from start to finish.
John Gilvey has spoken with many of the people who worked with Champion, and in Before the Parade Passes By he tells the life story of this most American of Broadway musical director-choreographers from his early days dancing with Marge to his final days spent meticulously honing the visual magic of 42nd Street. Before the Parade Passes By is the life story of one man who personified the glory of the Broadway musical right up until the moment of his untimely death. When the curtain fell to thunderous applause on the opening night of 42nd Street, August 25, 1980, legendary impresario David Merrick came forward, silenced the audience, and announced that Champion had died that morning. As eminent theatre critic Ethan Mordden has firmly put it, "the Golden Age was over."
Though the Golden Age of the Broadway musical is over, John Gilvey brings it to life again by telling the story of Gower Champion, one of its most passionate and creative legends.
John Anthony Gilvey is a graduate of New York University’s doctoral program in educational theatre and is a professor of theatre and speech at St. Joseph’s College in New York.
"Packed with detail, anecdotes and insight, this look at director-choreographer Champion's work leaves no step unturned.In case anyone wonders, Gilvey (Theater/St. Joseph's College) makes clear that Gower Champion ranks next to giants Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Agnes DeMille, et al., as one of the great talents of Broadway's golden age. And in case anyone forgets, or wasn't on the scene, Gilvey's vivid descriptions recall the look and sound of a Champion show taking off. The author begins with Champion's early dance work in clubs with partner Jeanne Tyler, later replaced by Marge Belcher, whom he partnered in marriage and movies (notably 1951's Show Boat). From the start, Gilvey shows, Champion's dances always made a point--told a story, illuminated a character, celebrated a moment. Eventually, the choreographer aimed to direct on Broadway. He hit with Bye Bye Birdie, topping that with Carnival! and then Hello, Dolly! Gilvey provides a full, illuminating account of how Champion turned Dolly from an initially unfocused, battle-scarred show into one of Broadway's most critically acclaimed, longest-running musicals. The second act of Champion's career was less successful. I Do! I Do! did well, but The Happy Time wasn't, and Rockabye Hamlet, his attempt to wed the Bard and rock music, flopped, as did Prettybelle and Mack and Mabel. Tastes and styles were changing, and, Gilvey suggests, Champion's problems with drugs, affairs and divorce marred his work. About to hang it up, Champion returned to Broadway with 42nd Street, an all-out dance musical that summed up and topped off career. In one of the most dramatic finales in Broadway history, Champion, 61, died the day the show opened.Gilvey reaches the top shelf of high-kicking Broadway biographies."--Kirkus Reviews, STARRED Review "A vivid portrait of a wildly talented and wildly complicated man."
"John Gilvey's god-given talent for accuracy, sensitivity, tireless research, and objectivity over the past 13 years has surely filled a serious gap in the musical theater libraries of the world. I offer him a profound bow of thanks to the tune of my favorite song we danced to, 'They'll Never Believe Me.'"---Marge Champion
"Before the Parade Passes By is a meticulously researched, well written account of the life and, more important, the work of dancer-choreographer Gower Champion. Its detailed chronicling of the gestation of Champion's Broadway hits and flops makes it a must for anyone interested in learning about how a Broadway musical is made and sometimes unmade. Lovers of backstage gossip will relish the saga of the clash of control freaks Champion and producer David Merrick. Everyone interested in the American musical will enjoy and learn from this fine book."---John Clum, Duke University, author of Something for the Boys: Musical Theatre and Gay Culture
"Gower Champion's Broadway musicals make us smile, tap our feet and dance in our heads. Gilvey's "Parade" of Gower's life and work mesmerizes, as sure as, 'house to half,' the opening notes of Hello, Dolly's overture give us goose bumps."---David Hartman
"John Gilvey's insightful biography gave me a detailed glimpse of the workings of a great theatrical mind. Reading it brought back so many memories of these fantastic shows that I first saw from Broadway balconies."--- Charles Busch
"Before the Parade Passes By is fascinating. At last the many mysteries and questions concerning a major director/choreographer, Gower Champion, can be answered. At his best, beautiful successful musicals emerged. When his demons took over, look out! Enjoy reading about the glamour of Broadway in its Golden Age and the insight which John Gilvey has given us."---Don Pippin