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Onna White, Choreographer of Popular Stage and Film Musicals, Dies at 83

Onna White
Onna White, who choreographed some of the most popular stage and film musicals in history, died on Friday, April 8. She was 83.

White began her Broadway career as a dancer in the original Broadway production of Finian's Rainbow in the late 1940s, going on to perform in such shows as Regina, Arms and the Girl, Guys and Dolls, and Silk Stockings. Her first Broadway credit as choreographer was a 1955 City Center revival of Finian's Rainbow, but she garnered much greater attention for her work on the original production of The Music Man (1957). Among the many subsequent Broadway shows choreographed by White were the major hits Mame and 1776, as well as such shows as Whoop-Up, Take Me Along, Irma la Douce, I Had a Ball, Half a Sixpence, Illya Darling, Goodtime Charley, and I Love My Wife. Though she received eight Tony Award nominations for her choreography, White never won the honor.

In addition, White was known for her splendid choreography of large-scale musical sequences -- as well as more intimate numbers -- in the film versions of The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Oliver!, 1776, and Mame. For her work on Oliver! (1968), she received a special Academy Award for choreography, one of only two such awards ever given. (The other went to Jerome Robbins for West Side Story.)

Along with such other choreographers as Agnes de Mille and Hanya Holm, White achieved great success in a field that was largely dominated by men. ""When I look back on my career," she once said, "I realize I had a lot of nerve. I had stride. I had guts. If you really want to be a choreographer, get down to business. Give it all you've got. You've got to prove yourself, honey -- and if you do, it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman."

According to a posting by White's daughter, Jeanne Douglas, on the newsgroup yesterday, "my mother passed away this morning, at 83, of natural causes. She'd been suffering from Alzheimer's and, physically, she'd become more and more frail over the last year. She will be cremated and her ashes taken to her home town of Powell River, British Columbia. It's too soon for any planning, but I'm assuming that we will have a memorial service for Mom sometime soon."