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By Sylviane Gold
When I last checked in with Noah Racey (“On Broadway,” January 2004), it looked as though he was poised for a big career as a song-and-dance man. Just a few years after his Broadway debut, as a replacement in the ensemble of the 2001 revival of Follies, Racey was starring—yes, the word is starring—with Nancy Lemenager in Never Gonna Dance, the stage version of the classic 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Swing Time.
With charm, good looks, a smooth singing voice, and a wicked way with Jerry Mitchell’s golden choreography, Racey seemed to have everything required to make him the first 21st-century entry on the list that included 20th-century Broadway luminaries like George M. Cohan, Gene Kelly, Ray Bolger, Tommy Tune, and, of course, Astaire.
Didn’t happen. The critics found various ways of saying that Lemenager and Racey were not Rogers and Astaire (as if anyone thought they could be). The show closed after 84 performances, and Racey’s next Broadway gig was a minor featured role in Curtains.
But the fact is that since Never Gonna Dance, there hasn’t been a single new musical with a lead role for a traditional Broadway song-and-dance man—only the brief seasonal run of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas fits the bill, and as it happens, Racey did that show on tour.
But, Racey says, the big Broadway break that wasn’t worked out for the best. “It was sad to see it go,” he says of Never Gonna Dance. “But it affirmed something about Broadway for me that was probably much better for my career than if it had become a big, big hit. I learned that Broadway operates on its own agenda, and the work you put in has nothing to do with it. In one fell swoop I gleaned what this business can do to people—how high it can lift you and how it can throw you down, too.” He feels he got “lemonade out of lemons,” saying that Never Gonna Dance gave him “exactly the tools I need now.”
Since 2002, when he was Rob Ashford’s associate on Thoroughly Modern Millie, he has slowly but surely been building a resumé as a choreographer—in 2008 he was named one of DM’s “25 to Watch.” The “now” he’s talking about is this summer’s revival of the Irving Berlin classic Annie Get Your Gun at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, for which he’s doing the choreography.
He brings his hard-won knowledge to the jobs he’s been getting. “I definitely still am a performer, and I tend to get totally wrapped up in the details of a step,” he says of choreographing. “That’s where my challenge is: learning how to go from being the man who does the step to being the one who makes sure the step and the moment are everything they can be.” He learned from Tommy Tune, he says, that the job is to “hush your mind, keep your spirit open, keep the storytelling going, keep your larger eyes open.”
In Annie Get Your Gun, his “larger eyes” were focused on injecting “a lot of dance into what is usually not a dance show.” His plan was to accent the contrast between turn-of-the-century formality and the “complete openness” of country bumpkin Annie Oakley and her show-biz pals in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Having starred at the Goodspeed in Where’s Charley?, he knew all about the constraints imposed by its small 19th-century stage. But that’s about the only thing in his experience there that was relevant. “It doesn’t do much as far as being in charge of an ensemble of people,” he says.
He calls that part of the job “remembering what the room wants,” and he’s been getting more and more practice in recent years. He’s been a regular choreographer (and performer) at Scott Siegel’s Broadway by the Year series at Town Hall, which excerpts standout musical numbers from a given year and offers plenty of stage time to song-and-dance men. And he’s put together a touring group, the New York Tap Ensemble, that performs Broadway-style tap and soft-shoe numbers around the world. It may not be quite like a years-long run on Broadway in a full-fledged musical, but he and his group have played in Italy, Jordan, and Israel and are scheduled to return to Amman, Jordan, this month.
Performing in the Middle East opened his eyes, he says, to the “amazing” spirit that allows culture to survive in the midst of terror. A few days after we talked, police were cordoning off Times Square as a parked car spewed smoke into the air. So here, too, Racey’s experience turns lemons into lemonade: “In the face of the fact that a bomb can go off,” he says, “you’ve got to live more.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
Photo of Racey in the Goodspeed's Where's Charley? by Diane Sobolewski, Courtesy Goodspeed.