How Three Broadway Choreographers Create in Nontraditional Theater Spaces

April 15, 2024

Even conventional Broadway prosceniums can present plenty of challenges for choreographers: steep rakes, gargantuan moving set pieces, awkward sightlines. But what happens when a show’s creative vision includes a total overhaul of the theater’s playing space, eliminating the familiar stage-and-seating setup in favor of something more immersive? What goes down with the dancing when the physical boundaries between the audience and the cast become less defined—or even nonexistent?

The choreography steps up to the challenge, of course. Shows like Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (2016), Here Lies Love (2023), and this month’s new revival of Cabaret made avant-garde stages their own.

Letting the Movement Evolve

Choreographer Sam Pinkleton joined the Great Comet creative team during its second off-Broadway iteration, in 2013. That version was performed in a small custom tent—a naturally intimate environment. Its 2015 American Repertory Theater run was in a more traditional space, where it began experimenting with some of the elements featured in the 2016 Broadway production at the Imperial Theatre. Pinkleton found himself with onstage audience members to involve, a series of cascading staircases to navigate, and a cast of 30 (up from 16 in 2013) at his choreographic disposal.

What saved Great Comet from getting lost in its new digs, he says, was the creative team’s focus on its original intention. Scenic designer Mimi Lien “was really fierce about maintaining a level of intimacy,” Pinkleton says. “She wanted every person in the room to have a personalized, specific experience to this show that is only theirs.” The entire creative team, led by director Rachel Chavkin, was aligned on this mission. Pinkleton used the staircases Lien designed to connect the main and upper levels of the theater as tiny stage spaces for individual performers to interact personally with theatergoers.

a male performer downstage looking sullen with a large group of performers standing behind him cheering
Josh Groban and the cast of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Photos by Chad Batka, Courtesy Matt Ross PR (2).
a male performer holding a bottle and moving around other performers on stage

Julia Cheng, choreographer of the 2021 West End version and current Broadway revival of Cabaret—which eliminates some of the orchestra seating to create a small stage space in the round—met spatial challenges by focusing on choreographic authenticity. Cheng’s movement training is in street styles, like hip hop and waacking, and she wanted to capitalize on the way those genres naturally lend themselves to an up-close audience experience.

“Those styles are about holding space, and that requires a different skill set,” she says. She created what she refers to as the prologue to the show, when arriving audience members encounter a small group of dancers and musicians “already vibing,” as if the theatergoers have walked into a club. “The prologue ended up becoming a show in itself,” she says. She let her dancers’ particular strengths shine, too. “I wanted to draw out their fortes, their specialisms from the underground and subculture—forms not usually represented on the musical theater stage.”

Sometimes choreographers even help shape transformative theater designs. When working with choreographer Annie-B Parson on Here Lies Love, scenic designer David Korins knew there needed to be give-and-take between the show’s unusual, immersive playing space—one long catwalk, with the audience below on either side, plus smaller spaces throughout the theater with room for a performer or two—and its movement vocabulary. “I think Annie is an extraordinary visual storyteller,” he says. “There were tentpole moments we wanted to accomplish, and in those, she really held her ground—‘If we’re going to do this, then we need to do that.’ When she had a sense of that, you listened.”

a woman wearing a fur coat holding a drink at the end of the catwalk. a group of performers together update with the audience surrounding them
Conrad Ricamora (left), Arielle Jacobs (right), and the cast of Here Lies Love. Photos by Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy, and Evan Zimmerman, Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

Rising to the Challenge

In revamped theater spaces, changes that might at first seem like challenges can actually offer opportunities for innovative thinking. Pinkleton found that to be true on Great Comet, where he had to convey a sense of closeness in a large house without a central meeting place where the entire cast could fit. Eventually, he landed on placing dancers throughout the house—on the staircases, in the aisles, on platforms, in an audience member’s lap—and choreographing intentional eye contact. “It was, ‘I am looking at you in the sixth row and waving at you and saying I’m glad you’re here,’ ” he says. “That became more important than asking people to kick their leg on five.”

From Korins’ perspective, the disparate stage spaces of Here Lies Love allowed Parson to create a different kind of Broadway dynamic. “Annie could stage these beautiful, isolated islands of dance and movement,” he says. “You might be looking at two people dancing in unison, but they’re doing it 150 feet away from each other. That tension and connectivity between the bodies in space was really effective.”

a glowing, pink theater with surrounding lights and platforms around the room
For Here Lies Love, scenic designer David Korins created one long catwalk plus smaller performing spaces throughout the theater. Choreographer Annie-B Parsons used them to stage “islands of dance and movement,” Korins says. Photos by Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy, and Evan Zimmerman, Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown (2).
neon lights, glow sticks, and a large crowd dancing in a space with a catwalk down the center

For Cheng, the task of choreographing in the round was a welcome one, not a thorn in her side. “When I’m in the club cyphering, that’s my comfort zone: You’re in the circle, there’s a community around you,” she says. “It’s sometimes difficult to get that in a really big space.” She saw typical theater choreographic taboos—turning one’s back to the audience, for example—as a chance to offer unexpected perspectives. “I don’t mind having a back to the audience,” she says. “I think that’s interesting.”

Overhauled theaters, with their myriad challenges, require a special kind of mind-meld between the members of the creative team. When all of a show’s leaders are invested in the same idea, however out-there it might seem—what Pinkleton calls “everybody working on the same show”—that’s when the real magic happens. When it does come together, Pinkleton says, “it doesn’t feel insane. It feels inevitable.”

Broadway Theater Revamps of the Past

Most revolutionary staging choices in Broadway’s history have had the same aim: to get the audience closer to the action than a proscenium stage can.

✦ Before transferring to what’s now known as the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, Man of La Mancha (1965) opened at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village, which boasted an experimental stage with the audience seated on three sides. Jazz dance pioneer Jack Cole was nominated for a Tony Award for his Latin-influenced choreography, described as “blistering” and “orgiastic” by one critic.
✦ The 1974 Broadway production of Leonard Bernstein’s often-revised Candide ripped out much of the Broadway Theatre’s orchestra seating. This meant that many audience members had an immersive experience with Patricia Birch’s choreography, which New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes likened to a rocket booster.
✦ For its 1998 revival, Cabaret transformed the former disco nightclub Studio 54 into a Broadway house—but with a small thrust stage surrounded by tables and chairs, to lend an authentic­ Kit Kat Klub vibe. Choreographer and co-director Rob Marshall used the audience’s nearness to highlight his raw, rough-edged choreography.