Neil Simon’s Legendary Contribution To Theatre Dance

by Michael Mahany | 8/29/2018 5:14 AM

Neil Simon. Photo Credit: People Magazine 


Neil Simon, playwright and book writer to countless Broadway plays and musicals, passed away Saturday evening at Manhattans Columbia Presbyterian Hospital after complications of pneumonia. He was ninety-one.  


Mr. Simons contribution to the world of musical theatre and dance is nothing short of legendary, and his passing is being mourned by many in the community as a major loss. Through a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Simon was the recipient of almost every major writing award there is. The awesome list of recognition he received includes multiple Emmys®, multiple TONYs®, four Oscar® nominations, Writers Guild Awards, the Drama Desk, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Mark Twain Prize For American Humor— among many, many others. 


For a lot of dancers, however, Mr. Simons name may not sit right on the tip of the tongue. In the scheme of careers— and Mr. Simons was monumental— he did write many more plays, films, sketches, and television programs than he did musicals. It is the significance and subsequent effects of his contributions to the musical theatre cannon, though, that make it remarkable nonetheless. Most notably, the librettos and books to musicals like Little Me, Sweet Charity, and Promises, Promises all carried the prolific playwrights name, and the opportunities these shows afforded their choreographers and dancers were game-changing. 


The original 1962 production of Little Me featured the choreography of the, at that point well established, Bob Fosse. Both Mr. Simon and Mr. Fosse were nominated for TONY® awards for that original production, and the moment marked the first of four such nominations for Mr. Simon. Mr. Fosses choreography won the TONY® that year and marked a turning point in Fosses epic shaping of modern musical theatre dance. 


Bob Fosse. Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images 


Little Me went on to be revived in 1982 and again in 1998. The 1998 production earned choreographer Rob Marshall his sixth TONY® nomination and featured in the ensemble future Broadway choreographers Denis Jones, Josh Prince, and Joey Pizzi. 


Sweet Charity, Mr. Simons most widely known musical contribution, was also originally choreographed by the late legend, Bob Fosse. The original production of Charity, which debuted on Broadway in 1966, brought audiences the return of dance and theatre icon, Gwen Verdon. Ms. Verdon had been on a six-year hiatus from the theatre, during which, she and Mr. Fosse wed. 


When Charity was revived in 1986, it was again choreographed by Mr. Fosse and featured Debbie Allen in the title role, Bebe Neuwirth in the role of Nickie, and longtime Fosse dancer and dance captain, Jeff Shade. 

Sweet Charity was last revived on Broadway in 2005, and recently, off-Broadway in 2016. The 2005 revival was choreographed by Wayne Cilento and featured some of contemporary Broadways most respected dancers, including Corrine McFadden, Manuel Herrera, Joyce Chittick, Tyler Hanes, Dylis Croman, Charlotte dAmboise, and Shannon Lewis. The 2016 off-Broadway production was choreographed by Broadways Joshua Bergasse and featured Sutton Foster as Charity and well-known theatre dancers like Asmeret Ghebremichael, Emily Padgett, and Nikka Graff-Lanzarone. 


Gwen Verdon and company members from Sweet Charity. Photo Credit: CBS/The Ed Sullivan Show 


Promises, Promises burst onto the Broadway scene when it opened in 1968. The new musical featured the some of Broadway catchiest tunes by pop writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David, a TONY® nominated performance by the late Jerry Orbach, and movement created by seven-time TONY® winner Michael Bennett. (The connection of Bennett and Simon here would later become important when Simon was brought in as an uncredited show doctor” on the 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical,  A Chorus Line. Bennett also directed Simons 1974 play, Gods Favorite.) Simon, as he had with other works, adapted the musical from another piece— this time from the feature film, The Apartment. 


The musical has had a successful revival in 2010 at the Broadway Theatre which starred Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenoweth, and featured the choreography by Rob Ashford. 


Donna McKechnie, Margo Sappington and Baayork Lee performing Its Turkey Lurkey Time’ from Promises, Promises on the 1969 TONY® Awards. 


Among Mr. Simons incredible musical achievements, he wrote or contributed to a few others of merit; his 1993 collaboration with Marvin Hamlisch called The Goodbye Girl, 1979Theyre Playing Our Song, and a 1973 comedy with music called The Good Doctor. 


Neil Simon was one of the few artists to have the distinction of a Broadway theatre being named in his honor while still alive. The Neil Simon Theatres name was officially changed from its original, The Alvin Theatre, in 1983— after the opening of Simons play, Brighton Beach Memoirs.  


Mr. Simon gave his life, soul, and being to his craft, and received many gifts in return for his efforts.  He often spoke to the tradition he felt he was continuing as a playwright, and the dedication he practiced toward his artistry proved his zeal. His works brought together and employed thousands of performers and dancers over his sixty years in show business, but moreover, the words, the crafted language, and the stories that he bestowed on those lucky enough to sing, speak, or move to them onstage, were a gift that will never again be matched. 


Broadway will dim its lights for exactly one minute this Thursday, August 30th, at 6:45 pm, in a tribute to Mr. Simon. 


Michael Mahany is a writer, host, actor, and serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.