On Broadway

January 21, 2007

Maurice Hines melds hip hop, jazz, Latin and even a little tap in his Broadway directoral debut,
Hot Feet.



The combination seems like a head-scratcher at first: a cherished, classic ballet movie; a genial, old-school tap master; and a hit-machine soul band from the ’70s. But scratch all you want: The biggest dance musical of the season is probably going to be Hot Feet—a retooling of The Red Shoes to a funk soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White that’s been conceived, choreographed, and directed by Maurice Hines.


It began, as so many things do these days, in an agent’s office. As Hines tells it, the literary department at William Morris was working on the autobiography of Maurice White, the founder of and musical driving force behind Earth, Wind & Fire. “He said to them, ‘I’d love to do something new with my music.’ And the agent said, ‘What about theater?’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t like these jukebox musicals—we’d have to come up with a concept and a story that wouldn’t be fluff.’ ” The agency hooked White up with Hines, who was also a William Morris client, to see if a musical would come of it.


Amazingly, a musical did, and Hot Feet was scheduled to open in the pre-Tony crush at the Hilton Theater on Broadway. Hines, who is 62, hasn’t worked on Broadway since 1986, when he won a Tony nomination for his performance in Uptown…It’s Hot!, the revue he put together to document America’s debt to black musicians. It ran a scant month, though it outlasted his previous Broadway gig, Bring Back Birdie, which died after a few days. He’s never quite achieved the fame attained by his younger brother and one-time tap-dance partner, Gregory. But he’s been working as a director and choreographer as well as a performer (I last caught him a few years ago as the rascally Captain Jonas in the City Center “Encores” presentation of House of Flowers). And he says that when the idea of an Earth, Wind & Fire musical was first put to him, he was “scared.”


“For the last 15 years I had been using their song ‘September’ to audition all my dancers,” he said. “I always found Maurice White a genius, in the diversity of the music, the versatility of it.” The two men hit it off when they met, and White loved Hines’ idea of updating the ballet movie classic The Red Shoes with a contemporary urban setting and a dance company more reminiscent of the Alvin Ailey troupe than the Ballets Russes.


This version of the story centers on a young dancer named Kalimba (former Ailey II member Vivian Nixon), who finds both love and temptation when she gets into the Hot Feet dance company. “To me,” Hines said, “the red shoes represent fame. Fame without talent. It will kill you. There are so many people around who are famous for doing nothing.”


At a recent run-through for invited guests, Hines showed off seven of the show’s 18 dance numbers, warning the audience, “We are in rehearsal, people. I’ll say it again: re-HEARS-al.” But he needn’t have worried: The high-energy, booty-shaking earthquake he unleashed went off without a hitch. Dancers—many of them making their Broadway debuts in this show—shot across the studio floor in split leaps, in cartwheels, in backflips; they popped and posed, bumped and shimmied, pirouetted and kicked. There were 18 dancers in the ensemble, four swings practicing behind them, and five featured performers. Broadway has waited a long time for a show that persuasively transfers the energy and sexiness of music video dance routines to the live stage, and the Hot Feet choreography seemed to promise just that.


As one number followed another—“Serpentine Fire,” “September,” “Shining Star”—elements of hip hop, jazz, funk, latin, ballroom, even ballet showed up in the steps. Tap, Hines’ calling card from the time he was 5 and working with Gregory in their highly successful dance act, was visible only if you were looking really, really hard. “A lot of people are going to be surprised,” Hines said. “I don’t believe what this music and these dancers are bringing out of me! It’s inspired me to become something I never thought I could be.”


His admitted impatience is partly to blame for his eclecticism. “I get bored with the same style over and over when I see a show. I want to see something that excites me. This evolved—it wasn’t something that I planned. I do my brand of hip hop. I love ballet. I love Dunham. I want to challenge my dancers—and challenge myself.”


Pulling off a big Broadway musical is challenge aplenty. Hines said at the showing that his dancers had learned 10 numbers in four days. But the book scenes, written by novelist and poetry slammer Heru Ptah, had hardly been touched. Still, Hines said afterward, he wasn’t worried about them. “The great George Abbott once said there’s no trick to directing musicals,” he said. “You just have to remember one thing—it’s a musical. Get to the music.”


Hines is well aware that he and White are outsiders in a Broadway culture that can be far from welcoming to non-members of the club. “I couldn’t get meetings with these people,” he said of producers who were approached about Hot Feet. “My mother and father raised Gregory and me to never limit ourselves,” he added. “But they also told us, ‘Other people will try to limit you.’ ” He’s braced for the barbs. “I know they’re gonna come for me,” he said. “But they can’t deny these dancers. I am at my happiest when I look at them. When I’m in a room with dancers, I don’t need anything else.”


Sylviane Gold has written about theater for
Newsday and The New York Times.