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Thanks to Sara Miller McCune’s glorious Kismet on October 23 at the Granada, I’ve been inspired to spend some time exploring the show’s origins over the past two weeks, which led to some exciting discoveries about the history of dance on Broadway. William Soleau’s brilliant original choreography for this new production of Kismet made me wonder where the idea for a Broadway musical populated with such exotica as the sword-wielding Princesses of Ababu might have come from. The answer surprised me.
Kismet‘s original choreographer, Jack Cole, a figure much less well-known (at least to me) than Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, and Bob Fosse, got the Kismet ball rolling back in 1944. That’s when Cole served as the uncredited choreographer for this astonishing dance sequence featuring Marlene Dietrich in the 1944 non-musical film Kismet directed by William Dieterle. Sure, that’s likely not Dietrich in the long shots, but those are her legs and feet painted gold. Holy Goldmember!
Jack Cole was a contract choreographer at MGM studios in the 1940s, and after the success of this and many other film projects, Broadway came calling, and in 1953, Kismet the musical became one of his biggest hits. At the time, Cole was learning traditional Indian dance, in particular the Bharatanatyam. He studied with Uday Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s brother, among other Indian choreographers, and referred to the hybrid style he developed for Hollywood and Broadway as “Hindu Swing.” Here’s a great example from the 1955 film version of Kismet‘s number “Not Since Nineveh.”
One of Cole’s many proteges at MGM was a young dancer named Gwen Verdon. She became his assistant and dance partner before leaving for Broadway to star in Can-Can, another big Broadway hit in the same year as Kismet, 1953. Her devotion to Cole provided the template for her more famous partnership with Bob Fosse, the subject of the recent FX/Hulu television series Fosse/Verdon. Watching this great duet of “Who’s Got the Pain” from Damn Yankees, it’s easy to focus on all the things that people the world over now recognize as “Fosse.” From the hat tricks to the Chaplin walks to the isolations, these are his signature moves. Knowing about Gwen Verdon’s history with Jack Cole and Cole’s fascination with Bharatanatyam adds, I think, another layer. Thanks to all who contributed to the Granada Kismet for offering a rich experience of Broadway’s storied past.