Stroman was born in Wilmington, Delaware, to Frances and Charles Stroman.She was first exposed to show tunes by her piano-playing salesman father, and began studying dance, concentrating on jazz, tap, and ballet at the age of five. She studied at the Academy of the Dance in Wilmington, and majored in English at The University of Delaware. She started performing, choreographing, and directing at community theaters in the Delaware and Philadelphia area. After graduating in 1976, she moved to NYC. Her first professional appearance was in Hit The Deck at The Goodspeed Opera House in 1977. Her first Broadway credit was as an ensemble member in the 1979 musical Whoopie!. In 1980 she earned her first production credit as assistant director, assistant choreographer, and dance captain for the Broadway show Musical Chairs. Preferring to direct and choreograph, rather than perform, Stroman concentrated on creating for the theater. She started working in small venues as a director and choreographer in various industrial shows, club acts and commercials.
Stroman’s break came as choreographer in 1987 when director Scott Ellis hired her for his Off-Broadway revival of Flora the Red Menace (by Kander and Ebb). Her work in that was seen by Harold Prince, who then hired her to work on the dance sequences for his New York City Opera production of Don Giovanni. Her great relationship with Kander and Ebb eventually led to co-creating, with Ellis , the hit Off-Broadway musical And The World Goes Round in 1991. She went on to choreograph Liza Stepping Out at Radio City Music Hall in 1992, receiving an Emmy nomination for her work. She earned her third Broadway credit for her collaboration with director, and then-future husband, Mike Ockrent on Crazy For You in 1992. The show won the Tony for Best Musical and she won her first Tony Award for Best Choreography.
In 1994, Stroman won her second Tony Award when she collaborated with Prince on a revival of Show Boat, where she displayed some of her most innovative ideas. She boldly added several dance montages to the show, complete with a revolving door, to help guide the audience through the decades that are represented in the show. Stroman heavily researched the period in which the show takes place and learned that African-Americans are credited for inventing the Charleston; she would use that information in designing the montages, as the popular dance is introduced by and eventually appropriated from the black characters. In 1994, Stroman collaborated again with her husband, Mike Ockrent on the holiday spectacular A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, which ran for 10 years, as well as the Broadway show Big, The Musical (1996). She returned to her collaboration with Kander and Ebb, Ellis and Thompson on the Broadway show Steel Pier (1997). In 1999, her choreography of Oklahoma!, directed by Trevor Nunn at The Royal National Theater, won Stroman her second Olivier Award for her outstanding choreography. Devastatingly, her husband Mike Ockrent would lose his battle with leukemia shortly after that on December 2, 1999.
Still grieving, “Stro” immersed herself in her work by directing and choreographing her first Broadway show as director, the 2000 revival of The Music Man. At the same time, Stroman was approached by Lincoln Center Theater’s artistic director Andre Bishop, who offered assistance with developing the project of her choice. She and John Weidman, who had written the book for Big, began working on what would become the three-part “dance play” Contact, which she choreographed as well as directed. The show opened at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater in the fall of 1999, and later transferred to the larger Vivian Beaumont Theater, where it was reclassified as a musical. It won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical. Stroman won her third Tony Award for best choreography. Contact won a 2003 Emmy Award for Outstanding Classical Music-Dance Program when a live broadcast of the show appeared as an episode of PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center. For Lincoln Center Theater. Stroman went on to direct and choreograph Though Shalt Not (2001) with music by Harry Connick Jr. (2004), as well as Sondheim’s The Frogs with book by, and starring Nathan Lane. Stroman received the American Choreography Award for her work in Columbia Pictures Feature film Center Stage (2000). And in 2001, Stroman directed and choreographed Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers (Stroman’s late husband, Ockrent, had initially been named to direct). It was a massive commercial success and won a record twelve Tony Awards. Stroman won her fourth and fifth Tony Award for direction and choreography. She was the first woman to win in these two categories at the same time. In 2005, she made her feature film directorial debut with a film adaptation of the show. The movie was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards. In 2007, she again collaborated with Brooks, as director and choreographer of the musical Young Frankenstein. She was both director and choreographer of the musical Happiness, which has a book by John Weidman. The musical opened in 2009 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.
The riveting, and brilliant musical The Scottsboro Boys opened at the Vineyard Theater in February 2010. The music is by Kander and Ebb (in one of their last scores together); Stroman both directed and choreographed.The show later transferred to Broadway where it ran for only 49 performances (A CRIME!) at the Lyceum Theater, but received 12 Tony Award Nominations. Regional theaters such as San Diego’s Old Globe, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and The Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles have mounted successful productions of the show.Stroman will recreate the Broadway production in its UK premiere at the Young Vic in London from October 2013.
This busy lady also co-directed with Hal Prince the new musical Paradise Found, which premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London on May 19, 2010. The cast included Mandy Patinkin, Judy Kaye and Shuler Hensley. She is collaborating with Prince once again as co-director of a new musical entitled Prince of Broadway, a retrospective of the career and life of Hal Prince, which is currently looking at a 2014 bow in Tokyo. She is the director and choreographer of a new musical, Big Fish with songs by Andrew Lippa and book by John August. The show opened on Broadway in September, 2013 starring Norbert Leo Butz, and Kate Balwin. Stroman is now working with Woody Allen to ready the spring 2014 bow of the musical adaptation of his film Bullets Over Broadway.
Broadway would look very different without the distinctive, slick, yet organic style of Susan Stroman. Very few work harder than she to create the fantasy worlds that we theater goers love to be immersed in. We are grateful for her essential contribution to this American art form.
Click below to watch highlights from the career of Susan Stroman:
Crazy For You at the Tony Awards (1992).
Show Boat revival with Elaine Stritch at the Tony Awards (1994).
Big The Musical on Good Morning America (1996).
Steel Pier at the Tony Awards (1996).
The Music Man on The Rosie O’Donnel Show (2000).
The Producers in Chicago tryout (2001).
Though Shalt Not (2001).
Oklahoma! in London (2001).
The Frogs (2004).
Young Frankenstein (2007).
The Scottsboro Boys at the Tony Awards (2010).
Big Fish (2013).
Zack Braff talks Bullets Over Broadway (2013).