Karla Puno Garcia on Choreographing an Unusual Tony Awards

June 9, 2023

This year’s Tony Awards were nearly canceled. There was a moment when it looked like Broadway’s big night might be collateral damage in the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike. But a compromise was reached: The union wouldn’t picket the event as long as it wasn’t scripted.

Though that might sound a little risky, it also offered an opportunity, in the words of choreographer Karla Puno Garcia, “to lift dance in a really big way.” Garcia isn’t new to the Tonys; she was associate choreographer and a dancer for Sergio Trujillo’s opening number in 2021, and has performed in the show with the casts of Gigi and Hamilton. Now, as choreographer, she gets to help create the vision for a broadcast in which dance will definitely be taking on some main-character energy.

Although she couldn’t share details on exactly what that will look like (“You’ll just have to tune in!” she says), Garcia was able to offer the scoop on how the opportunity came together, and what it was like to collaborate with triple-threat host Ariana DeBose.

Garcia at a Tony Awards rehearsal. Photo by Morgan Marcell, courtesy Garcia.

How did you find out that you’d be choreographing this year’s Tonys?
Ariana DeBose called me and asked if I was interested and available. I said yes and yes! [Laughs]

That was a few weeks ago. I was in tech rehearsal for Days of Wine and Roses at the Atlantic Theater when she called. (I’m co-choreographer with Sergio Trujillo.) That just opened Monday night. I also just started a new immersive show called Tipsy Whispers on Monday. So I am not sleeping, but I’m so grateful, and my mind has just been creating content like wild.

What’s your history with Ariana? Did your time in Hamilton overlap?
Very briefly. She was on her way out while I was still learning the show. But that was one of many crossovers we’ve had. We’ve been in the trenches with each other as dancers, as performers, trying to book our slots in Broadway shows. We’ve performed in gigs together. And she has always been a supporter of my choreography. So we have a mutual respect for each other, and it was really cool to see a peer—now turned Oscar winner!—recognized in such a big way. She is a force!

Why do you think she chose you?
I think our tastes align. We both love musicality. We love dynamics and spicing things up in a similar way. Ari is an incredible dancer, an amazing showman, and, on top of that, she’s really funky. We both like kind of bringing the old and the new together, a classic vibe with a modern twist.

Is dance taking on a more prominent role this year because the show is unscripted?
I think in our industry, it’s easy to overlook a dance ensemble or just the element of dance. And this year, it’s really cool to bring light upon dance in a big way because of the circumstances. The opening number is just a huge celebration of dance. And, without giving too much away, I did get to choreograph another moment later in the show. And that’s all I’ll say. [Laughs]

Why do you think dancers typically get overlooked?
We tell stories through our bodies, and there are no words. Our bodies are the words. But I think we are at a point when we’re gonna start to see a huge wave of telling stories through dance, especially onstage. There’s a new generation of choreographers and creatives and directors that have different perspectives, and I think this diverse group is going to mix it up.

What does it mean to you to be able to work on something that reaches so many people?
I remember watching the Tony Awards with my family when I was 9 years old—seeing Broadway shows on my TV—and getting excited to not only watch them live but, eventually, hopefully get to be in them. To be a part of creating the vision that does that is super-super-special.