In 1953, Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus was directed by Broadway choreographer John Murray Anderson. Operetta vocalist Harold Ronk auditioned for ringmaster. Anderson's idea light-bulb lit: Voila!, the singing ringmaster was born. And, with Ronk's use of Broadway tunes as background for many of the acts, a new tradition was born to circusdom.

Increasingly through the years, with fierce competition from TV and the VCR, the circus has reinvented itself. From 1988 to 1994, Ringling impresario Kenneth Feld pushed out tried-and-true traditions in favor of Vegas razzmatazz and stunt spectaculars. Audiences and performers have gotten younger. Music has changed to reflect the times. The new generation wanted a new kind of music to drive them. For a while, the attitude was anything goes, as long as it works. There was perhaps too much variety, with everything from urban/street rhythms, rock 'n roll and soul to Broadway and original songs. In RBB&B's 127th edition, you won't find much that's old-fashioned. There are plently of daredevils and pyrotechnics, but Feld, hopefully realizing The Greatest Show On Earth was a bit too firmly rooted in the 90s, has brought back such traditional kid-pleasers as sea lions, chimps, dogs, and ponies. And, of course, there are still fierce Bengal tigers and Indian elephants.

To recapture the Broadway atmosphere, even the Felliniesque feel of such competitors as Canada's Cirque du Soleil, he wisely turned to the multi-talents of theater choreographer/director Danny Herman. The first thing he took a look at were the showgirls. "Past requirements were that the girls just be pretty," explained Herman. "They did basic steps you really couldn't call dancing. The ensemble was made up of daughters, wives, and girlfriends of performers and female artists not performing their act at the time. It was basically a celebration of the female form. I still wanted a modicum of that but to add more finesse. And with an array of musical rhythms and my wanting everything from modern and classical ballet to high energy routines, I needed pros." The annual auditions in major cities on the tour route took on new significance as Herman vied for Broadway quality. Once hired, the dancers are taught the choreography in daily, two-and-a-half hour classes.

Herman, 36, came to New York from Pittsburgh at 17 with quite a local reputation for gymnastics. He quickly found work in the Broadway choruses, taught by some of the best choreographers. Herman went on to choreograph for the stage [his 1993 work for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song And Dance earned him Chicago's Jeff Award], TV specials, and industrials. "My gymnast background helped immensely in staging the circus," he said. "But I also like to do choreography that tells a story. When I came to Ringling Bros. and watched the shows, I thought my choices would be endless. I really wanted to break the rules, but the circus acts are what they are."

There are animal trainers, aerialists, acrobats, motorcyclists, roller-bladers, basketball players on unicycles, clowns, and kids galore who cavort in the opening and closing parades and who must exhibit some type of choreographed movement in the "specs." That's circus lingo for extravagant production numbers showcasing the entire RBB&B company, such as this edition's Egyptian-themed sequence with a guest appearance from larger-than-life femme fatale, Zusha, Queen of the Nile, only four feet, one inch tall with lush, two-feet-wide lips and sparkling choppers. She weighs 3,710 lbs. and waddles when she walks (her dainty daily diet consists of 100 lbs. of veggies). Yes, she's a performing hippopotamus. "So you see there are some limits," Herman laughs. "But on the human side, though each perfomer exhibits a different level of movement skill, the artists are more ambitious and enthusiastic than theater people I've worked with. And they don't hold back. If I can get that, I feel I can make anyone move! Essentially, there're no limits to using your imagination." Herman stresses he doesn't work alone. "Something I learned from the late Michael Bennett is that you can have vision and skills, but without the ability to collaborate you only get one point of view."


Key Subjects: 
Circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Danny Herman Takes The Greatest Show On Earth Into A Broadway Age