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By David Parker
“I’m the greatest star. I am by far, but no one knows it,” sang the shimmering Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, one of many musicals that brightened my boring suburban childhood. I think of this now because I’m a choreographer and I know that dance, at its most authentic, is a popular art form, but nearly no one else knows it. I’m also thinking about it because I’m working on a contemporary dance piece based on a musical. I’ve waited for this my whole life.
As a butterball toddler I “tapped” across my kitchen floor with quarters clutched between my toes while The June Taylor Dancers hoofed on The Jackie Gleason Show. In those days one could see not only Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Gwen Verdon, and Fred Astaire on television variety shows, but also the likes of Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Jacques d’Amboise, Edward Villella, and Patricia McBride. High art and low, brought to you all mixed up by Ed Sullivan, Kraft cheese, and Bell Telephone. There they all were, and then quite suddenly, they went away—or so it seemed.
This was the 1960s, a time of social and aesthetic revolution that, perhaps unintentionally, liberated us from good old musical comedy along with the pageboy and premarital chastity. Apart from late-night showings of antediluvian movies, the only tap dancing on television in my teenage years was found in the polyester precincts of The Lawrence Welk Show.
At 16, feeling the loss of this tradition, I began to study tap with the ferocity of a seminary student poring over the Gospels. I became a devotee of the Astaire–Rogers and Gene Kelly films—especially Singin’ in the Rain, then being rediscovered in revival houses by young cinephiles. I was an autodidact with a Greg Brady haircut. In the time before home video recording I learned to concentrate utterly on what I saw, knowing I had to get it all at once.
In the expansion of each prosaic situation into sublime, syncopated evocations of romance, high spirits, eroticism, and competition, I found my métier. I longed to burst free from the buffoonish suburban culture around me and plunge into these rhapsodic numbers. The men especially captivated. Not conventionally gorgeous (with the exception of Kelly), men like O’Connor and Astaire achieved a ravishing beauty in their dances that was heightened by their glinting, jazz-infused rhythm—it means a lot of things when it’s got that swing. I identified with the thrill Debbie Reynolds must have felt pressed shoulder-to-shoulder between Kelly and O’Connor while tap dancing upside down over a sofa.
It made me giddy but also pointed toward a kind of masculine finesse and breadth of emotion that sports (which I loathed) didn’t offer. It also opened onto a world that didn’t observe quotidian rules of decorum and conformity. Every living room was a set, every sidewalk a stage.
Musicals were democratic, finding art in the common things around us, transforming them as the dances transformed O’Connor and Astaire. Today, the conventional sexual politics of Hollywood’s golden age are much maligned and rightly so. But these entrancing choreographic expressions of love and camaraderie render them moot, or at least beside the point.
When Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor jammed together through “Moses Supposes” in Singin’ in the Rain, friendship, eros, amity, and synchrony curled around each other in one thrilling rush of piston-thighed tapping. They forged their bond through rhythm. This then would become the basis for my work.
Since I began choreographing, I’ve made all manner of rhythmic pieces, from dances in which two men clad in Velcro suits make music by sticking to and ripping apart from each other to others featuring percussive pointe work, bubble-wrap-popping, barefoot hoofing, and actual tap. But what I’d never done before is face up to my musical comedy heritage.
Enter Robin Staff, artistic director of DanceNow/NYC. Staff’s idea was to drop musical comedy themes right into the laps of contemporary choreographers. Like Gene Kelly jumping from the top of a trolley down into Debbie Reynolds’ jalopy, this can be startling. Staff relishes the collision of these genres, and her first match was made in heaven. Fräulein Maria, a rollicking, all-dance reinvention of The Sound of Music, was choreographed by my good friend and esteemed colleague Doug Elkins. In this hilarious and loving show, I have the tremendous good fortune to play Liesl, the eldest Trapp daughter. I am 16 going on 50 but bromidic and bright as a moon-happy night pouring light on the dew. The show has been, to put it mildly, a hit.
Her second commission was for me. She saw Jeff Kazin and me sing and dance a number from Annie Get Your Gun called “Old-Fashioned Wedding” at a party. She found it resonant with our current struggle for marriage equality but in a fresh and comical way. In 2008 she asked me to take on the whole show.
My version, called Show Down, is, like Annie Get Your Gun, about an initiate, a novitiate even, to Show Business. Which is just how I feel. So far, the process of making it has been like coming home, only without the quarters between my toes—now I’ve got the taps.
I asked Staff why she started doing this. Her answer surprised me, for it points well beyond entertainment. “In this time of woe, the world is starting to look to this musical genre again for its richness and ability to transform,” she said. “More than ever, we need a place to escape to these days. We need to recharge beliefs and to strengthen ourselves.”
Making Show Down and dancing in Fräulein Maria has recharged and strengthened me, especially my legs—or in Liesl’s case, gams. And, speaking of legs, both shows seem to have them. They’ll keep playing, hopefully at a theater near you.
David Parker just finished an encore-run of Show Down at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in NYC. Excerpts of Show Down appear at Summer Stages in Concord, MA, on July 23. Fräulein Maria will be at ADF July 13–15 and Jacob’s Pillow Aug. 26–30. His comic, neovaudeville Nutcracker, called Nut/Cracked, will play in repertory with Fräulein Maria at DTW this December.
Photo: Steven Schreiber, Courtesy DanceNow