Movers and Shapers

April 27, 2009

In a Susan Stroman show, everything dances. Happiness, her latest, features a pirouetting subway car, a levitating ladder, and beds, kitchen counters, and baseball bleachers that glide on and off the small thrust stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. People dance, too—in idioms ranging from ’40s jitterbug to ’60s rock. And Stroman, the show’s co-creator, director, and choreographer, orchestrated it all. She collaborated with John Weidman on the script (about “people with alpha personalities all trapped on a subway car”) and enlisted Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, of Grey Gardens, to do the score.


Stroman belongs to one of musical theater’s most exclusive clubs: director/ choreographers who can generate their own projects. Groundbreaking directors like George Abbott and Harold Prince and pioneering choreographers like Agnes de Mille and Michael Kidd made critical contributions to the history of the musical. But it was the hyphenates—conceiver-director-choreographers like Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett—who revealed the heights to which musical theater could aspire.


A generation ago, it seemed that the future of musical theater would belong to such director/choreographers. And then AIDS, age, and the ascendance of the big British musicals conspired to put a halt to that progression. But these days, a new generation is emerging—Stroman, of course, and Jerry Mitchell, Kathleen Marshall, and Rob Ashford among them. But whether these theater artists will take the musical in new directions, as the previous generation did, or will merely keep it humming along, remains an open question.


With her matched set of Tonys for directing and choreographing The Producers, Stroman is the most successful of today’s director/choreographers. But even though her novel, dance-heavy Contact seemed transformational, Happiness reverts to a more conventional structure. “It’s a new thing for me,” she says. “It has more book to it, more scenes.” Mitchell’s first Broadway outing as a director/choreographer, Legally Blonde, was also a traditional book show. Marshall has made a specialty of reviving straight-ahead musicals like Wonderful Town and Pajama Game. And Ashford’s first Broadway assignment in a double role, before it was put on hold by financial problems, was to have been a revamped version of the Lerner and Loewe classic Brigadoon.


Mitchell, whose current venture is Peepshow, an homage to burlesque, doesn’t find the conservative trend surprising. “What more can be done that hasn’t been?” he asks. “We’ve seen the concept musical—that goes all the way back to Company. We’ve seen the seamless musical—song, dance, and book—in A Chorus Line.” He views shows like  Contact and Tharp’s Movin’ Out as Broadway exposure for concert dance rather than a truly new approach. They seemed innovative he says, only “for people who have never gone to the ballet.”


However we classify such Broadway dance works, breaking ground in the theater has always required more than new ideas. It’s required producers willing to take risks. “The industry is reshaping itself,” says Ashford. “Things are going more and more to extremes. Either you’re creating a big commercial entertainment or you’re creating an artistic endeavor that is not going to be commercial in any way. What’s in between those two is disappearing.”


There are exceptions to this generalization, but they are rare. There are no exceptions, Marshall says, to the rule that director/choreographers have all been in the trenches as dancers. “Directors come at it from all kinds of different pathways,” she says. “But every director/choreographer was a choreographer first. And I don’t know of any choreographer who wasn’t a dancer.” Marshall was a dancer, dance captain, and assistant choreographer for a variety of choreographers and directors. “I got to see how all those people worked,” she says.


Stroman suggests yet another reason choreography provides good grounding for directors. “As a theater choreographer, you are choreographing for characters,” she notes. “You are a storyteller, servicing and supporting the lyrics and the plot. You are immersed in the scene work, because it should never look like the show stops or starts when a scene begins or a song begins.”


For Marshall, the tipping point came when she was artistic director of Encores!, that invaluable series of semi-staged vintage musicals at New York City Center, and decided to mount Babes in Arms. “I had actually sent it to a couple of directors who weren’t available. Then I said, ‘I think I know a way into it. I want to try this one myself.’ ”


In Ashford’s case, a collaborator made the call. Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London, hired him to choreograph and told him, “You choreograph like a director—you have a director’s mind.” He followed up in 2007 by inviting Ashford to direct and choreograph a show of his own choosing at the Donmar.


Ashford picked the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry musical Parade, based on the case of Leo Frank, the Brooklyn Jew who was lynched in 1915 Atlanta. Not much to dance about there. Oddly, it’s not that unusual for dance to take a back seat when a choreographer slides over into the director’s chair. There are 14 musical numbers in Happiness; the one set at a USO club is sung and danced, while the one set in a hospital room is only sung and spoken. “If a story is not appropriate for someone to move in, then it shouldn’t move,” says Stroman. “It has to be believable. Otherwise the choreography will look pasted on.”


Marshall says that when she’s the choreographer, she can give the director her casting picks for the ensemble and then fight for those who will best serve the dance. As director/choreographer, she can’t: “You’re there to serve the show. There might be a dancer you want, but the person might be unbelievable in the role they need to understudy. Or they can’t sing well enough. You bargain with yourself as to what’s best for the show.”


There’s no arguing that what’s best for most shows is having the choreographer directing and the director choreographing. “For choreography to get into the show in an organic way,” Marshall says, “you’ve got to be in on the ground floor.” She has already envisioned where the dancing will be in her forthcoming revival of Meredith Willson’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which had a workshop reading in Denver in February. Mitchell, who has been asked to direct and choreograph a musical version of the 2005 film Kinky Boots, says he’s already figuring out how the story of a failing shoe factory and a drag queen might move on the stage. Ashford is working on a retooling of Promises, Promises, the 1968 musical by Neil Simon, Hal David, and Burt Bacharach. “When I think about it,” he says, “I see it moving and dancing.”


There’s every reason to expect that these shows will have dance numbers flowing into scenes and scenes flowing into dance numbers. If there’s a downside to being in charge of both, Mitchell expresses it in two words. When he first started working on Legally Blonde, he recalls, he called his Hairspray collaborator Jack O’Brien with a complaint: “I’m lonely!” he said.


Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times and other publications.


Photo: Paul Kolnik, courtesy Lincoln Center Theater