Musicals Blog

Onna White - Dancing on the Street

by Claire J Rottenberg

Onna White, choreographer of numerous Broadway musicals and the movie version of "Oliver!," introduced large street scene choreography to the big screen. She created lively dances that involved large numbers of dancers in natural environments. Her work on "Oliver!" in 1968 earned her a special Academy Award.

White started dancing as a preteen and then progressed to joining the San Francisco Ballet Company. At the age of 25, in 1947, she made her Broadway debut as a dancer in "Finian's Rainbow." This musical began an eight-year mentoring relationship between White and her predecessor, Michael Kidd. From 1947 to 1956, White appeared as a dancer in six Broadway musicals, four of which were choreographed by Kidd. In 1955, she got her first job as a choreographer on a revival of "Guys and Dolls," a musical originally choreographed by Kidd. She followed this that same year with her second job as a choreographer on another Kidd revival, "Finian's Rainbow."

White got her first job as the choreographer of an original Broadway musical, "The Music Man," in 1957. Her work on this project earned her the first of eight Tony nominations. Although White's career as a choreographer spanned 24 years with several major hit Broadway musicals, such as "Half a Sixpence," "Mame" and "1776," she surprisingly never won a Tony award.

In 1962, White went to Hollywood to choreograph the film version of "The Music Man." She followed this a year later with "Bye Bye Birdie." White then returned to Broadway to choreograph four musicals. When she once again worked on a film musical in 1968, it was her most known and acclaimed film, "Oliver!" Her work on the Academy Award winning film resulted in unique and energetic choreography that used large groups of dancers in street scenes, an approach that was new to film media. Interestingly, similar type scenes were choreographed a year later by Michael Kidd in the film version of "Hello, Dolly!" White received an honorary Academy Award for her exceptional choreography for "Oliver," 28 years before her mentor Kidd received his honorary Academy Award.

After "Oliver!," White continued to work as a choreographer on both Broadway and film musicals. From 1969 to 1978, she choreographed seven Broadway musicals and four movie musicals, including "1776" and "Mame." She retired as a choreographer after her last Broadway musical, "Working," in 1978. White died in 2005 at the age of 83.