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By Sylviane Gold
“They are the unsung heroes,” says choreographer Sergio Trujillo. Yet most theatergoers and plenty of Broadway professionals read the credit for “dance arrangements” on their Playbills with no idea what dance arrangers do.
The job exists because Broadway composers don’t always know where dance numbers will be, or how much time they’ll take, or what kinds of tempos and accents they’ll need. Most composers write songs that tell the story and leave it to someone else to adapt them for choreography.
“You need imagination and the ability to be uninhibited and just try things, to start banging something out that sounds messy and not feel self-conscious,” says Michael O’Flaherty, the veteran music director and dance arranger at Goodspeed Musicals. “A lot of musicians can’t do that. But that’s what the choreographer needs.”
This month, O’Flaherty will be impressing those needs on budding music directors during a six-day intensive run by Goodspeed’s educational arm. “Almost all dance arrangers come from the ranks of music directors,” says O’Flaherty, whose credits include Big River, Singin’ in the Rain, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And what they will learn is that no one size fits all.
Sometimes arrangers and choreographers discuss a number’s purpose and the musician goes off to write. Sometimes arrangers sit at the piano improvising as the choreographers build the numbers with the dancers. Often, the end result will be a combination of both methods. However the dance arrangements are created, they are tailor-made to express the vision of a particular choreographer. Susan Stroman once said that she would never have agreed to choreograph the 2002 revival of Oklahoma! if the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization had not agreed to let her get new dance arrangements. David Krane, who got his first Broadway credit for dance music back in 1978, was her arranger. To listen to him describe how he arrived at just one moment in Laurey’s dream ballet is to understand how essential the work is. “The girls dancing around Laurey do these little fouettés, and I’m catching all these different things in the music. I’m watching and I’m adding filigrees to give you the sense of having experienced the movement more intensely, to create a musical basis for what’s happening visually.”
Krane, who is also doing Stroman’s next project in London, and who worked with Rob Marshall on the dance music for the film version of Nine, thinks of himself as a composer rather than an arranger. “I hate the word,” he says. “It sounds like something you do with flowers.”
Whatever they want to call themselves, Trujillo says, dance arrangers have been crucial to his success. “So much of what I do is very specific to my dance music. A lot of the time I spend in preproduction I spend working with the dance arranger to create this music, so that the steps and the music are married.”
On Memphis and The Addams Family, Trujillo worked with August Eriksmoen, who fits O’Flaherty’s generalization: He began as a conductor and an orchestrator. “It’s hard to make a living just doing one thing,” says Eriksmoen. But there’s another reason dance arrangers tend to have experience in other areas of musical theater: “You have to understand all of it,” Eriksmoen says. “You have to understand the full context of a show and how it all works together.”
Eriksmoen and Trujillo first partnered on the touring production of All Shook Up, the 2005 Elvis Presley jukebox musical. As music director, Eriksmoen was there when Trujillo decided to make changes in the choreography, and they hit it off—a critical factor in any choreographer-arranger relationship. “We are so in sync,” Trujillo says.
As Eriksmoen describes their process, it sounds a lot like two jazz musicians riffing off one another. “It’s very much a back and forth, with a lot of improvising,” he says. “I’ll play something, and it’s not about whether he likes it. He’ll say, ‘That doesn’t make me want to dance.’ I’ll try 10 things, until something will make him want to dance. He does some moves, and that leads me musically to something. ‘Or what about this?’ And then he says, ‘Yeah, but I need it to be twice as long, because then I could do this.’ And I say, ‘But if you’re gonna jump there, I need to make the musical phrase climax at the end of those four bars. And maybe I’ll change the key.' "
The process, he says, “is just from the gut. There’s a lot of refinement for weeks afterwards. But in the initial stages, it’s just whatever comes to me, whatever comes to him, and throwing it out there.”
These collaborations, O’Flaherty says, are based on chemistry: “If your brains are not in sync, it doesn’t really work.” But arrangers are collaborating not just with choreographers but with composers too, whether they are in the room or long gone. Krane says Maury Yeston gave him a piece of advice before he started working with Yeston’s score for Nine: “Pretend I’m dead.” But no good dance arranger wants to create something that doesn’t sound as if it belongs in the musical that the composer wrote. “It’s our job to honor the composition of the piece,” Eriksmoen says. “You don’t want to just repeat the melody. The composer would have added a verse if he wanted that. So you rework it. You rework the rhythms, or you use half of it, or you turn it upside down.”
The result will kick when the dancers kick, lift with their lifts, glide with their glides. And if the dance arranger is the choreographer’s unsung hero, the dance arranger has an unsung hero too: “The drummer,” says Krane. “Good drummers”—kick, step, kick, step—“are worth their weight in gold.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Photo of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Diane Sobolewski, courtesy Goodspeed.