An Exciting Ride: Gower Champion’s Carnival! Legacy

Stephanie Ruozzo with photos and scrapbooks from the Marge Champion Papers. Photo credit: Cait Miller.

The following is a second guest post from Stephanie Ruozzo, a doctoral candidate in musicology at Case Western Reserve University. As a summer CWRU Fellow in the Music Division, Stephanie organized the additions to the papers already held in the Marge Champion Collection. For this post, Stephanie highlights the variety and extent of documentation of the 1961 production of Carnival!






Recognized as one of the first “director-choreographers,” Gower Champion made history at the Imperial Theatre with the 1961 musical Carnival! Champion was one of the pioneers of a new era of musical theatre in which a single auteur molded the entire aesthetic of a production. Along with Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, Champion set the trend for a new generation of Broadway creators who shouldered the burden of shaping all aspects of a show.

Nowhere is Gower Champion’s influence and charisma more tangible than in the wealth of Carnival! mementos stored in the Marge Champion Papers at the Library of Congress. As Gower’s then-wife, dance partner—and seasoned choreographer in her own right—Marge Champion had a strong hand in shaping the musical through rehearsals and tryouts. Present in her collection are the original script, Labanotation score, and scrapbooks documenting the immediate success of Carnival!

Two Carnival! scripts exist in the recently acquired papers: Gower Champion’s copy with pencil markings intact, and a published version licensed by Tams-Witmark. Assets like these are at a premium when studying musical theatre, the collaborative and commercial nature of which makes it difficult to establish a definitive urtext edition. As well as containing complete musical and dramatic synopses, the scripts give readers insight into Champion’s directorial vision by incorporating notes on how he wanted the action to flow. We can even compare different versions of the same scene to observe how his recorded additions, deletions, and adjustments to dialogue were incorporated into the show’s final form.

Gower Champion’s Script (left) juxtaposed with the published version (right). Marge Champion Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

In Champion’s copy, the stage directions/notes are wonderfully detailed: for the production numbers (the show, of course, takes place at a carnival after all!), they even document the routines of each performer involved in the dance.

To get a sense of the visual, however, it might be most accurate to view the Labanotation score. Labanotation is a way of graphing organized body movements in great detail. For us non-dancers, the most comprehensible part of the score may be the sketches preceding the notated dances showing how the stage is to be set and where each dancer stands. For trained dancers, though, it’s instructive to see how complex and demanding the choreography could be.

A single page of the Labanotation score. Marge Champion Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Labanotation is read from bottom to top, and each set of letters at the bottom of the page represents a different character (for example, “AA” stands for Lili, the show’s protagonist, while “EE” signifies Marco, a potential love interest). Most often, the score shows each character performing her own dance, full of movement, rarely doing the same thing twice or anything in unison. The intricacy of Champion’s choreography on the page is overwhelming, and even those of us who have no experience with Labanotation can get a sense of how thrilling it must have been in 1961. Labanotation was also crucial to protecting Champion’s intellectual property as choreographer of Carnival! Artwork is not considered protected until it is “fixed”—that is, preserved on paper or film. The notated score, dated 1961 but certified by the Dance Notation Bureau and copyrighted in 1962, allows Champion credit as the creator.

Al Hirschfeld’s sketch celebrating Carnival! as preserved in Marge Champion’s scrapbook. Marge Champion Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The collection’s scrapbooks truly bring Carnival! to life. One item of interest is Al Hirschfeld’s caricature tribute to the show.  A young Jerry Orbach, making his Broadway debut as Paul the Puppeteer after rising to prominence in The Fantastiks off-Broadway, stands glaring in the background holding his two alter-egos, the puppets Carrot Top and Henry. Kaye Ballard smiles glibly behind star Anna Maria Alberghetti as a magician’s assistant (and Lili’s romantic foil), The Incomparable Rosalie.

Carnival! was so lauded that less than a month after its opening, Life featured it in a cover story focusing on its star and Champion. The reviewer is enthusiastic enough to note that Carnival!’s “smash-hit quality is the work of Director-Choreographer Gower Champion,” whom the writer goes on to describe as “Broadway’s hottest new director of musical shows.”

A news clipping highlighting Anne Hathaway as the show’s protagonist. Marge Champion Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Champion’s work continues to receive accolades in the present. Carnival! received a New York City Center Encores! revival in 2002. This revival sounds as star-studded as the original, with Brian Stokes Mitchell stepping into the role of Paul and Anne Hathaway making her New York stage debut as Lili fresh after a year at Vassar. (Hathaway’s program bio modestly lists a project called The Princess Diaries about halfway down under film credits.) Broadway connoisseurs may be excited to learn that the puppets for this revival were created by the Jim Henson New York Muppet Company and handled by none other than the pre-Avenue Q John Tartaglia and Stephanie D’Abruzzo. The revival was fittingly helmed by one of today’s most prominent director-choreographers, Kathleen Marshall.

Carnival! was one of many shows on which Gower Champion worked, but it was only his second as director-choreographer (after the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie). The richness of the artifacts preserved in the Marge Champion Papers gives us glimpses of the creative process underlying his monumental achievements. Chronicling the navigation of multiple roles in an era where key players in the musical theatre industry when creating the new occupation of “director-choreographer,” this collection is a fascinating tool for anyone seeking to understand Broadway’s Golden Age.

Read Stephanie’s earlier blog post on Marge Champion and the use of rotoscope prints for animation of Disney’s Snow White.

Stephanie Ruozzo is a fourth-year doctoral candidate whose research centers on early musical comedies and the relationships between their texts and songs. She also lectures and publishes on operas and their sociopolitical contexts.

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