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By Sylviane Gold
Jeff Calhoun still gets compliments on the choreography he did for the revival of Big River—and they still make him smile. “I started winning awards for that show,” he says, “but ironically, there really wasn’t a lot of choreography per se.” What there was a lot of was American Sign Language—the 2004 Tony-winning production was mounted by Deaf West Theatre for a mix of deaf and hearing performers who signed throughout.
“They were using their bodies in a way that it looked like everyone was a dancer,” Calhoun says. “People felt the whole show was a ballet. It was profound for me. I realized, Wow, I can fulfill the choreographic element in a show without necessarily creating dance steps.”
Fast-forward to 2009. Calhoun is set to direct and choreograph the world premiere of Frank Wildhorn’s musical retelling of the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow at the La Jolla Playhouse. These notorious Texas-born criminals, who made local headlines in the 1930s, became a permanent part of American pop culture when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty played them in Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde.
“We could have made it a serious, tragic ballet,” Calhoun notes. “But in a book musical, it didn’t feel right to shoot somebody and then break into dance. It felt disrespectful to the subject matter and to the victims. But there still had to be an essence of choreography. In other words, the whole show should feel like a ballet, but not necessarily with pointed toes and choreography.”
Calhoun, 51, first got involved with pointed toes and choreography as a boy in Pittsburgh. His main influences were tapper Nancy Fairgrieve, whose mother taught Gene Kelly; Key Tronzo, who choreographed the high school musicals he performed in; and jazz teacher Mario Melodia, who took him, aged 16, to Ohio to dance with Ann Miller and the Kenley Players in Anything Goes. His career really took off shortly thereafter, when he was cast in the ensemble of the Kenley production of Pippin starring Tommy Tune.
“I was the tallest dancer in the ensemble,” Calhoun recalls. “Because I came closest to fitting into his costume, I became his understudy. We just instantly became thick as thieves, and he took me under his wing. For the next 21 years he taught me most everything I know about how to put on a show.”
Tune is usually associated with rousing tap numbers like those in My One and Only and The Will Rogers Follies (although it was Calhoun, as the associate choreographer, who devised the steps in Will Rogers). But, Calhoun points out, Tune also did less dance-y shows. One of the lessons Calhoun absorbed along the way came in handy when he was working on Bonnie & Clyde, which opens this month: “Choreography isn’t always just about dance steps. It’s about how a show moves from the minute the house lights go out until they come up.”
Tune still provides moral support. “Just a couple of weeks ago I was talking to Tommy,” Calhoun says. “I said, ‘Tommy, I have no signature.’ And he said, ‘That’s something that you should celebrate. That means you change and morph according to the job.’ So he made me feel better about that.”
Tune also inadvertently spurred the end of Calhoun’s performing career. When Tune took a two-week break from starring in My One and Only for another project, Calhoun took over the lead temporarily. Dancing every night with the legendary tapper Charles “Honi” Coles, he said, “was the dancing highlight of my life. I thought, ‘I’ll probably never have this again. It’s a good time to hang up my tap shoes.’ ”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.
A gun-toting Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes. Photo by Frank Atura, Courtesy Bonnie and Clyde.