Breaking Out: Nancy Lemenager
It’s every gypsy’s dream: to be pulled from a Broadway chorus line to do a featured solo; to parlay that solo into bigger roles around the country; to return to Broadway as the star of a new musical. Nancy Lemenager lived that dream, and the big question is, What happens next?
A leggy strawberry blonde equally at home blithely tapping to the melodies of Jerome Kern in Never Gonna Dance and grinding her pelvis to Billy Joel in Movin’ Out, Lemenager knows that careers like Gwen Verdon’s and Chita Rivera’s don’t happen very often in today’s musical theater. “They used to take people’s assets and foster them and nurture them,” she mused one cold afternoon before a performance of Movin’ Out. “They would take your comedic abilities and your dance abilities and your quirkiness, and they would just roll it all up and make things for you—like having a tailor make you a suit. Somebody like a Bob Fosse took a Gwen Verdon and made her a star—you just don’t have that any more.”
Which means that dancers like Lemenager, 34, can’t wait for opportunities to come their way—they have to be more entrepreneurial. “I would love the chance to create pieces with people and see where that leads,” she said. “I want to play interesting roles, and truthfully, I’d like to be a part of creating those roles. With who, I don’t know.”
What she does know is that playing the sugary Penny in Never Gonna Dance made her hungry for something with a little more to chew on. Based on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Swing Time, the deliberately old-fashioned show gave her charming tap riffs and sweeping ballroom passages to dance. “The style was beautiful, but also incredibly limiting,” she said. “Penny was in a nice neat little box, and that to me is sheer torture.” Playing the more complicated, hot-tempered Brenda in Twyla Tharp’s all-dance musical Movin’ Out was more satisfying.
Lemenager is one of Broadway’s famous “triple-threats”: accomplished actor-singer-dancers. So it’s especially hard to believe that she once found it difficult to do a dance step and snap her fingers at the same time. It was back when she was first making the transition from gymnastics to dance, at the Charlotte Klein Dance Center in Worcester, Massachusetts.
“The teacher was trying to get me to plié and snap at the same time. And I really couldn’t get it,” Lemenager recalled. “When I started dancing, I was a little robotic.”
Watching Lemenager as Brenda—blowing up at her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, warming in the heat generated by Desmond Richardson’s Tony, and then venting her anger at him in a furious, pummeling duet—it’s impossible to picture the stiff little dancer she’s described. But, Lemenager said, “You see it even now in the gymnasts. You’re striving to get a perfect 10, you’re not striving to be creative. You’re trying to stay on a 4-inch balance beam.”
She got involved in gymnastics because of a good Samaritan who lived up the street from the Lemenager family—Nancy was the youngest, with four older brothers. Their neighbor, an older woman, was impressed with the way six-year-old Nancy did the cartwheels and handstands her mother had taught her, and she offered to pay for gymnastics classes.
“That training really prepared me, even for this show,” Lemenager says. “It was the groundwork for my dance career. Getting good basics and starting really young was such a good jumping off point, because it formed those muscles. I had great ballon and strength and long line, because in gymnastics it’s all about form and perfection—reaching and stretching as far as you can. The principles apply.”
She was on track for the Olympics when, at 12, she decided she’d had enough. “It was too intense. Five hours a day, six days a week,” she said. But once she quit, she found herself with all that kinetic energy and all those extra hours. Charlotte Klein filled the void.
“I fell in love with it right away,” Lemenager said. “She gives you a really well-rounded program. Tap. Jazz. Ballet. And every piece that you do is about something—there’s always storytelling involved.” She found herself growing emotionally as well as physically, coming out of the shell that she’d been in as a gymnast. “Gymnastics is so intense and so focused,” she said. “I had to be so driven.” Some of that drive spilled over into dance, too, and she started winning competitions.
By 18, she said, she “wasn’t thrilled” with the idea of heading right to college. “Let me go to New York to dance for five years—then I’ll go back to school,” she thought. She got her first job quickly, and spent nine months in Meet Me in St. Louis. “I still had my baby face, this very period look—red hair and freckles—and they needed a big ensemble of people who could ice skate and dance on pointe.” She went on to work in other shows, and five years went by in a flash. Then in Dream, a 1995 compilation of Johnny Mercer songs, she got a solo that put her front and center.
It was the tipping point for her. She could probably have continued finding ensemble jobs, but she decided to be “pickier,” instead taking out-of-town jobs that gave her bigger roles and new challenges. That’s how she came to play both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in Chicago. “I would never be cast as Velma here in New York,” she said. “The interesting thing to me, having played both of them, is that Roxie and Velma are very interchangeable. You can imagine that Velma started out like Roxie.”
Lemenager feels there’s a lot more of Velma and Brenda in her than there is of Roxie and Penny. About Brenda, she said, “I like that she gets to punch and yell and scream and fight. She gets to play and be sexy and be coy and get frustrated and run the spectrum.” Part of that spirit, she said, she owes to growing up with all those older brothers. “They made me tough. I had to stand up for myself—which really works for these kinds of roles.”
Four weeks after Never Gonna Dance closed, Lemenager was invited to audition for the role of Brenda. She knew that the Tharp choreography would be more demanding than what she had been doing, but her initial intimidation quickly turned to confidence. “I’d been trained with a strong base,” she said. “And her choreography is such a mixture of different kinds of movement. It excited me to have to dance that hard—you’re not really given that opportunity in musical theater.”
Even though Lemenager came into Movin’ Out as a replacement during Elizabeth Parkinson’s maternity leave, Tharp, who calls Lemenager “terrific,” did not demand that she duplicate the original choreography count for count. “Twyla lets you play,” said Lemenager. “She wants it to be organic to you. She knows that’s the way her work is going to look the best.” The alterations didn’t make the choreography any less strenuous, however. “The show pushes you to the limit,” Lemenager said. “It’s just so physically aggressive—that is exciting and freeing and energizing.”
The most dramatic dancing for Brenda and Tony comes in “Big Shot,” and Tharp has left them room for improvisation. “We’ve got this big lift that has to happen center stage on a certain count,” Lemenager said. “But three counts of eight before that, I may come over and slug him, I may walk over to the other side of the stage, I may drop down on the floor. Every night it’s a little different.”
“I love when she does something different,” said Richardson. “The work is about relationships, and within that, on any given day, there’s never going to be the same thing done every time.” He said that the “great abandon” she brings to their duets is something he particularly relishes after all his previous ballet partnering.
Lemenager conceded that while doing Movin’ Out was exhilarating, it was also “exhausting and depleting.” But the show, she said, has taught her a lot. “I didn’t think doing just a dance show would. But by switching partners often, I learned a lot. From the freedom that I get in the show, I learned a lot. It’s been a really good experience.” As Parkinson’s return approached, Lemenager was getting ready for her own next move. And she didn’t seem at all troubled by the one small problem: that she didn’t know what it would be.
Sylviane Gold is the magazine’s “On Broadway” columnist.