When Jerome Robbins accepted the Tony Award for best choreography in 1957 for West Side Story, few people knew that it was not his achievement alone. He neglected to thank his co-choreographer Peter Gennaro, whose work on the show included the famous “America” and “Mambo” numbers. Gennaro had signed away the rights to his dances.
Today, Gennaro (1919–2000) is not as well-known as his contemporaries Robbins, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s he was one of the most popular dancer-choreographers. He and his dancers introduced audiences across America to the inherent sensuality of jazz dance through weekly television variety shows like Perry Como’s “Kraft Music Hall.”
“The whole world knew who Peter Gennaro was,” says Rosemary Novellino-Mearns, his former assistant at Radio City Music Hall. He was the gleeful man on TV, whether it was The Judy Garland Show or Ed Sullivan, and Gennaro’s choreography, Novellino-Mearns says, “was tight and underneath you.” His trademark was quick hips, fast footwork and a jaunty physical sense of humor. As Chita Rivera said, “He had the fastest feet I had ever seen.”
Last October, Gennaro’s dancers and colleagues paid tribute to the 5’6″ son of Sicilian immigrants at a “Dancers Over 40” event, where musical theater notables remembered him as the most amiable of choreographers. “Nobody was ever late for rehearsal when he was choreographing,” says Broadway dance veteran Harvey Evans. “You walked in laughing and you left laughing. He was so kind.” Unlike Robbins, who read the riot act to dancers before the West Side Story premiere, Gennaro showered his dancers with loving support.
So how—in a business known for its high-strung personalities—did Gennaro cultivate joie de vivre? His daughter Liza says he was born with it. Raised outside of New Orleans, Gennaro’s remarkable disposition toward joy and dancing found fertile ground in the birthplace of jazz. “He always talked about his experiences as a child watching the jazz funerals on the banks of the Mississippi River,” says Liza. “He would join them and dance alongside the musicians.” This experience coincided with Gennaro winning prizes at age 5 in local Charleston competitions. Gennaro’s mother encouraged his nascent talent. His father did not. Nonetheless, Gennaro took his earnings from working at his father’s restaurant to study acrobatics and tap at a local studio.
When Gennaro graduated from high school circa 1936, he expressed interest in becoming a graphic artist. Although he occasionally performed in French Quarter clubs, a dance career seemed unrealistic. As America prepared to enter World War II, Gennaro voluntarily enlisted in the Army, where he serendipitously joined actor Melvyn Douglas’ entertainment troupe as a dancer. Gennaro performed for eight months through the India-China-Burma theater of war, entertaining the Allied troupes and honing his skills as a hoofer. With the Armistice, he moved to New York and used the GI bill to study with dance pioneer Katherine Dunham and her chief teacher, Syvilla Fort.
In 1947 Gennaro found full-time work with Chicago’s San Carlo Opera Company. There he met his future wife Jean Kinsella, a former Agnes de Mille dancer. Two years later, he made his Broadway debut in Make Mine Manhattan. Gennaro also taught while working with Hanya Holm and Michael Kidd during his chorus dancing years. Grace Kelly took his Dunham-oriented class, which featured subtle body isolations, quick footwork and polyrhythmic movement phrases.
In 1954 Gennaro got his big break dancing alongside Carol Haney and Buzz Miller in Bob Fosse’s “Steam Heat,” from The Pajama Game. What made “Steam Heat” churn was a skewed, subtle sexuality, and it was so popular that the director threatened to take it out because it didn’t feature any of the lead performers.
After “Steam Heat,” Gennaro’s choreography career flourished. He made work for 11 original Broadway productions and numerous films, including The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In 1977, 20 years after Robbins’ West Side Story Tony, Gennaro won the same award for Annie. His ambition, says his daughter, was not linked to becoming the authoritative choreographer. “It was about getting out there and dancing.” DT
Freelance writer Rachel Straus is working on a PhD in dance history.
Photo of Judy Holliday and Peter Gennaro in the “Mu-cha” number from Bells Are Ringing (1956), courtesy of Dance Magazine Archive.