Before the dream ballet was a cliche, it was an innovation. And the mother who birthed the form was choreographer Agnes de Mille. It seemed to many that Miss de Mille was destined for greatness since birth. Her grandparents were playwrights, her father was a film director, and her uncle was thee Cecil B. DeMille— movie magnate responsible for lavish epics throughout the first half of the 20th century. But, despite her family’s abundant financial successes, Agnes swore she never took a handout. She did, however, benefit from some slight nepotistic reward. In 1933, when Agnes was 28-years old, Uncle Cecil put her to work as choreographer on his film Cleopatra. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make nice with her uncle’s de facto dance director. When placed between, Cecil deferred to his go-to guy; his niece was shown the door.
Never one to wallow, she promptly moved to London. She made a home for herself there until the German Luftwaffe readied their arsenal in an attempt to bring the city to its knees during the Second World War. To dodge the bombs, she flew back home to the US, only this time she did not return to her native California. No, on this journey she was eastward bound. And not long after she arrived in New York did she begin her association with the Ballet Theater (known today as American Ballet Theatre). It wasn't, however, until 1942 that Agnes struck gold.
The Ballet Theater had commissioned de Mille to choreograph a new piece composed by Aaron Cropland. Called simply "Rodeo", the work premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in October of 1942. Not only did Agnes de Mille choreograph the piece, but she also danced the leading role. The critics adored it. The New York Times proclaimed it a, “Heartwarming piece full of flavor, effortless, and extraordinarily well composed.” They went on to say that, “In nothing she has previously done has Miss de Mille exhibited so much pure choreographic skill and resourcefulness.” For her efforts, the corps de ballet was awarded 22 curtain calls at their premiere.
If you can believe it: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Teresa Helburn just happened to be in attendance that evening. Needless to say, they liked what they saw. For their new adaptation of Green Grow the Lilacs, they were toying with the idea of concluding act one with a ballet. It wasn’t necessarily a new idea— Richard Rodgers had been one of the first composers to tackle ballet on Broadway in On Your Toes. But those dances— the “Princess Zenobia Ballet” and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”— choreographed by the much-esteemed George Balanchine, were extraneous to the plot. For the musical version of Lilacs, the dance would be of equal importance to the book. "Rodeo", with its simple cowboy love story, was tonally comparable to their ideas. They sent her a telegram that very night. They wanted to meet with her on Monday.
In her memoirs, de Mille recalls awaiting the results of that initial meeting. “Even after the success of "Rodeo" I just barely succeeded in getting [Oklahoma!]. Indeed, I heard nothing official until I met Oscar Hammerstein, by chance, in a New York drugstore, and knocked a plate off the counter in my haste to speak to him. Dick had qualms, he said. I continued pressing until Dick capitulated.”
Although she was deemed a worthy collaborator, her compensation reflected her experience. She was awarded $1,500 for six weeks’ work and $50 per week for the first ten weeks after the production recouped its investment. (If my math is correct, that’s a $2,000 cap— which is equivalent to $31,000 when adjusted for inflation. On Broadway today, a choreographer’s median salary is $37,500. Those numbers seem to have held a standard!) But Agnes knew the money barely mattered; this was her big break. After having been played the score just once, she went out on tour with the Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo. She brought with her a notebook labeled “Lilacs” and began to dream.
Of all the songs for which she needed to supply dances, the heaviest thought weighing on her mind was that of the pesky first act ballet. Strangely enough, Hammerstein had originally conceived of the piece with a circus theme. Hammerstein’s justification: “You’ve got to have a light ballet to end our act one with, you can’t send them out into the lobby with gloom.” Agnes de Mille simply replied, “Why not?”
As soon as rehearsals began, she toiled ceaselessly to create what would become her masterpiece. Remembering those days some years later in her 1951 memoir “Dance to the Piper”, she wrote, “I had coughed and cursed and quarreled. I had run from the stage to the basement and back to the roof. We worried and groused and fretted. I knew the show had possibilities of greatness, but it was being wrecked, wrecked, wrecked.”
Now, as is the case in many a new show, too many conversations were being had about the problem areas to be addressed. These conversations are sometimes fruitful, but usually amount to nothing more than your standard “piss and moan”— we theater people just can’t seem to help ourselves. One day early on, some of the usual suspects had gathered backstage at Oklahoma! to offer unsolicited opinions to the air. It wasn't long before Richard Rodgers emerged from the shadows. “Would you like me to tell you what I think is wrong with the show?" he asked them. "Nothing. I think it’s simply wonderful. Now, why don’t you all quiet down?”
But, despite Rodger’s steadfast belief in their show, there was still plenty work to be done. Aside from the dream ballet, which they had started calling “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind”, de Mille was responsible for yet another ballet in “Many a New Day”, a two-step in “Kansas City”, and a hoedown in “The Farmer and the Cowman”. The cast was rehearsed at every possibility, even while they were on the train from New Haven to Boston while the show was out-of-town. As de Mille recalled of that trip, “I was ordered to produce a small three-minute dance in twenty-four hours. I did. But the skin came off the dancing girls’ ribs from continuous lifting, and I couldn’t seem to stop throwing up.”
According to the critics, agony begat ecstasy. As early as Boston, one critic pointed out the significance of de Mille’s contributions to the evening. From the Boston Herald: “Agnes de Mille’s dances are an outstanding feature of the show and at one point come close to turning Away We Go! into a dance drama rather than a musical comedy.”
Producer Teresa Helburn went on to speak quite highly of de Mille’s work. “With those ballets created out of so much travail and turmoil, nerve strain and confusion, Agnes came into her own as one of America’s leading choreographers. If she was sometimes annoyed past endurance with me during the exhausting weeks while the show went into production, she had some justification for it.” (This likely refers to an incident where Helburn interrupted de Mille’s dance rehearsal and demanded an impromptu performance in order to wow some backers she had in tow. In response, de Mille lost her temper and screamed in the producer’s face.)
Then all the hard work paid off. Opening night reviews on Broadway were more than kind to de Mille. The New York Times said Oklahoma!, "Included some of her most inspired dances. There is more comedy in one of Miss de Mille’s gay little passages than in many of the other Broadway tom-tom beats together.”
A few weeks later, John Martin of the New York Times dedicated an entire column to de Mille’s work in the show. Of particular note, he said her dances were a, “First-rate work of art. For one thing, it is so integrated with the production as a whole that it actually carries forward the plot and justifies the most tenuous psychological point in the play, namely, why Laurey, who is obviously in love with Curly, finds herself unable to resist going to the dance with the repugnant Jud. Many a somber problem play has been built on just such a question of emotional compulsions and has failed to illuminate it half so clearly after several hours of grim dialogue. Yet this is a ‘dance number’ in a ‘musical show’!”
What de Mille had set out to do, she had done. Her mission was accomplished.