Remembering Michael Kidd

Michael KiddThe news just came out that dancer/actor/choreographer/director Michael Kidd died this past Sunday, and it was sad to hear.  No one who is a fan of musical theater or movie musicals is without fond memories of Kidd’s prodigious talents, and many of us probably have favorite Kidd moments that we may not have even known we owed to him.  While perhaps not as much of a household name as Bob Fosse, Kidd’s contributions to the art of dance were many and he richly deserved his reputation as one of the dance world’s greatest talents.

A genuine kid from Brooklyn, Michael Kidd was born in 1915 and discovered his attraction for dance while still in high school, though he was unable to pursue the interest at that time.  He enrolled in college as an engineering student, but a couple of years into his studies he was fortunate to secure a scholarship to the School of American Ballet.  The world of engineering’s loss was show business’s gain; Michael’s natural talents soon brought him success in the modern ballet world, and it wasn’t long before his interests led him into theatrical choreography, where he won a Tony Award in 1947 for his first musical Finian’s Rainbow.  From that point on Michael Kidd owned Broadway choreography.  His string of musical theater hits over the years included the blockbusters Guys and Dolls in 1950, Can-Can in 1953, Li’l Abner in 1956, Destry Rides Again in 1959, Wildcat in 1960, Subways are for Sleeping in 1961, Here’s Love in 1963, Skyscraper in 1965, The Ray Bolger does a Kidd-flavor Flamenco in Where's Charley?Rothschilds in 1970, Cyrano in 1973, the revival of The Music Man in 1980, and The Goodbye Girl in 1993.

And of course Hollywood wanted him to choreograph, too.  In 1952 he worked at Warner Bros. on the movie adaptation of Ray Bolger’s stage hit Where’s Charley?, and in 1953 Kidd was hired by MGM to stage the dances and musical numbers for its classy insider musical The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan.  Kidd supervised the gangster-themed “Girl Hunt Ballet” and the comic terrible-toddler trio of “Triplets” and the rest of the brilliant numbers in what many consider the smartest musical ever made.  Next he went to Paramount to fashion musical sequences and dance numbers for the Danny Kaye ventriloquism comedy Knock on Wood in 1954, where he was particularly successful with the climactic comic ballet set to music by Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine.Danny Kaye dances Kidd-style in Knock on Wood  Kidd’s next work for MGM was original choreography for 1954’s boisterous outdoorsy musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Howard Keel and Jane Powell, as well as talented dancers such as Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, and Julie Newmar.  Kidd’s energetic sensitivities were a perfect match with the exuberant score and script, and his “Barn Dance” number may be his very best known movie work, a real crowd-pleaser, and perhaps most characteristic of his wonderful style.

Though most often behind the camera at that point since transitioning into choreography, Kidd was tapped by directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly to co-star in the post-War musical It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), a sometimes silly, sometimes sardonic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothersalways entertaining tale of three soldier buddies who reunite in NYC years after WWII and find out that their friendship hasn’t stood the test of time — or has it?  Michael Kidd is adorable as Angelo Valentine, and he more than holds his own against Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey as his cohorts.  Cyd Charisse and Michael Kidd, Danny Kaye and Norman Panama Knock on WoodDolores Gray co-star in this slick and fantastic musical, known especially for Kelly’s dance on roller skates and for Dolores Gray’s campy, vampy numbers.  I especially like the crazy energy of the dance by Gene, Michael and Dan where they tap with trash can lids on their feet.  It’s adorable and unbounded and just has to make you smile.  The whole movie is a cynical delight and one of my personal favorites.  Great skewering of television, too, and the cynical take on it is as contemporary as tomorrow.  Definitely catch this one if you haven't yet.   

Choreographer Kidd Works with Marlon BrandoIn 1955 Michael Kidd was hired by Samuel Goldwyn to re-create his choreography and stage all musical numbers for the lavish screen version of his Broadway triumph Guys and Dolls.  Kidd is credited with helping non-musical actor Marlon Brando develop a More Kidd with Brandocredible, effective and downright charming musical sense for his role as Sky Masterson, as well as help serious actress Jean Simmons become such a wonderful Sarah Brown.  Of course his work with the Kit Kat girls is solid, as are Sinatra's numbers, as well as the brilliant opening sequence that’s as theatrical and artificial as they come and yet completely works for the movie.     

Michael Kidd got the chance to actually direct a movie with 1958’s delightful and underrated Danny Kaye vehicle for MGM entitled Merry Merry Andrew Poster 1958Andrew, a circus-set tale for which Kidd also did all the choreography.  A beautiful, colorful and comical extravaganza, with an excellent chimpanzee as co-star to Kaye and the lovely Pier Angeli, Merry Andrew benefits from lots of outdoor on-location photography which is exciting and liberating to behold.  (As a Danny Kaye fan I think this movie deserves more credit than it gets, and I highly recommend that you watch it if you haven’t.)  Kidd’s Everything is Ticketyboo!lighthearted touch with the musical numbers is perfect, and particularly so on “Everything is Tickety-Boo” (performed on bicycles) and “Salud” which is a crazy Italian romp under the big top.  The next year Kidd worked again on the screen version of one of his hits, this time Li’l Abner from Paramount.

Kidd’s work was absent from the screen while he continued his breakneck Broadway schedule, but in 1968 he came back to Hollywood to work on the lavish musical Star! with Julie Andrews in the lead playing legendary British actress Gertrude Script for Merry Andrew, Director Michael KiddLawrence.  He was particularly praised for his inventive staging of one of Lawrence’s signature tunes “Jenny” from her 1940s Broadway hit Lady in the Dark.  In 1969 he was the choreographer for Gene Kelly’s screen adaptation of the Broadway smash Hello, Dolly! with Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau (notoriously mismatched) starring.  Coming at the tail end of the grand musicals era, it wasn't greeted with as much praise as it might have been years before, but seen in retrospect it's plenty good. 

More directing followed, mostly in TV, including a stint with All in the Family, along with several interesting movie roles including opposite Bruce Dern in the cynical Michael Ritchie-directed teen beauty pageant comedy Smile in 1975, and of course the Broadway work as discussed above.  Michael Kidd was a tireless worker and a brilliant stylist, and one who kept his creative spark alive every day of his long and prosperous career, and afterwards, too.  Since there is no Academy Award for Choreography, Michael Kidd had to wait until 1997 to finally receive an honorary Oscar for his lifetime body of work, a richly deserved tribute. Michael Kidd’s incredible legacy in the world of dance and entertainment is unforgettable, and as long as people are watching musicals and discovering the best of them, they’ll be remembering Michael Kidd, and saying “thank you” for his wonderful gifts to us all.

Thank you, Mr. Kidd.

6 Responses Remembering Michael Kidd
Posted By Tom Vee : December 31, 2007 9:18 am

I love Michael Kidd in IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. He's the unpretentious blue collar ringer of the trio and the most down to earth. His disappointment at how his buddies turned out is so real. He should have made more movies and should definitely have DANCED more on screen. He's more fun to watch than Gene Kelly in FAIR WEATHER.

Posted By Tom Vee : December 31, 2007 9:18 am

I love Michael Kidd in IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. He's the unpretentious blue collar ringer of the trio and the most down to earth. His disappointment at how his buddies turned out is so real. He should have made more movies and should definitely have DANCED more on screen. He's more fun to watch than Gene Kelly in FAIR WEATHER.

Posted By Medusa : December 31, 2007 12:42 pm

Hi Tom!I agree!  He's wonderful in ITFW…hilarious, genuine, and completely watchable.As a Danny Kaye fan I've always been aware of Kidd and have particularly liked him — many interesting connections in their careers — and his star will no doubt shine even brighter in the years to come.Thanks for your comment!

Posted By Medusa : December 31, 2007 12:42 pm

Hi Tom!I agree!  He's wonderful in ITFW…hilarious, genuine, and completely watchable.As a Danny Kaye fan I've always been aware of Kidd and have particularly liked him — many interesting connections in their careers — and his star will no doubt shine even brighter in the years to come.Thanks for your comment!

Posted By RHS : January 4, 2008 12:41 pm

I think SMILE was probably my first exposure to Michael Kidd… I can't believe how old he was, because in my mind he existed in a kind of neverending twilight of being about 35 or 40.  What a life!  Michael Kidd really had legs.

Posted By RHS : January 4, 2008 12:41 pm

I think SMILE was probably my first exposure to Michael Kidd… I can't believe how old he was, because in my mind he existed in a kind of neverending twilight of being about 35 or 40.  What a life!  Michael Kidd really had legs.

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