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.