On Broadway

December 26, 2007

The Right Step

How directors pick a show’s choreographer.
(Hint: Movement may not top the list.)


There is no supermarket for choreographers. When musicals are in need of someone to craft the movement that will accompany the songs, directors and producers can’t just walk up the high-energy manic aisle, down the tap specialists aisle, and then rummage among the props-are-us guys until they find the right match. The process has no generally accepted guidelines or official rules; it’s catch-as-catch-can.

In a series of recent conversations, I asked some Broadway professionals about choreographer-shopping. They all had different experiences to offer, but one thing became clear: Dance steps are not high on the list of things they care about.

They care about storytelling, personality, and teamwork. If a choreographer also happens to be good at the nuts and bolts of dancemaking—creating lively combinations and sculpting the stage space—well, that’s fine too.

If there were a supermarket, it might look like an enlarged version of DanceBreak, the annual showcase that provides six choreographers with 10 dancers and 12 hours of rehearsal time apiece, then lets them create two numbers for an audience of Broadway insiders. A director watching DanceBreak may still do his or her next show with the same choreographer who did the last—but then again, maybe he won’t.


Rounding Up the Usual Suspects

Like most other businesses, show business runs on contacts. Even someone like Mark Brokaw, an admired director of straight plays doing his first Broadway musical this season, has worked in musical theater elsewhere and has a circle of colleagues he feels comfortable with. For Cry-Baby, which is based on a John Waters film, Brokaw turned to Rob Ashford, his choreographer on a regional-theater musicalization of the movie Marty. Brokaw had enlisted him for that after seeing Thoroughly Modern Millie and being bowled over by the typewriter number. “It was very flashy dance but also incredibly successful, fantastic storytelling.”

A Tony voter, Brokaw sees everything on Broadway, as well as many off- and off-off Broadway productions. When he looks at choreography, he says, “My response isn’t going to be about that move or this move. It will be about what the story is telling me.”

For Cry-Baby, which begins previews in March, he wanted more than storytelling skills; he needed versatility. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story about a cool kid who falls in love with a square. “It had two very distinct worlds with two very distinct physical vocabularies,” he says. “The dancing had to show how these two disparate physical vocabularies merge into a third along the way.”

Falling in Love

Thomas Kail didn’t know any choreographers in 2006, when, after some four years of work, he and the rest of the creative team of In the Heights were finally ready to get the show on its feet. “We wanted someone who could articulate in movement what the authors were doing with words,” Kail says.

He relied on the producers to suggest people who might be right, and one of the names that came up was Andy Blankenbuehler’s. “We met with a number of choreographers. There was something about Andy that just made sense to me,” Kail says. “We spoke the same language.”

Blankenbuehler also impressed Kail by showing him past work that he thought matched Kail’s intentions for In the Heights. “He basically chose a number that would represent his storytelling,” Kail says, and it meshed perfectly with his view of the show as one “that has a momentum that wouldn’t stop moving until the end of Act One.”

The show, which was a hit off-Broadway and moves next month to the Richard Rodgers Theater, is about a Latino community in Manhattan; Blankenbuehler was not an obvious choice. “He had very little experience in hip hop or Latin dance,” Kail says. “But I feel like Andy can do anything. We saw his work ethic, and we knew he was going to check every possible reference point, do everything he could do to get there.”

Making Matches

Ira Weitzman is the associate producer for musical theater at Lincoln Center Theater. His job often requires him to arrange matches between directors and choreographers, and he’s gotten to the point where he uses his intuition as much as any step-by-step method.

“It’s not a booga-booga thing,” he says. “But every show is different. There’s no formula that can be applied. Some directors like to meet a lot of people and make a choice. Some directors like to know that somebody else has met a lot of people. And sometimes the show is telling me what to do.”

Mostly, he sees as much as he can—concert dance as well as musical theater—and gets to know anyone whose work he likes. He rarely does job interviews per se, he says. “Choreographers aren’t necessarily the most articulate people. If you ask them, ‘How do you see this number?’ they might not be able to tell you. I got to sit in the room with Jerome Robbins at the end of his life—a guy I idolized. And he was not an articulate man. He was not able to voice the feelings that clearly led to such brilliant work. If I had sat and interviewed him, I might have said, ‘He doesn’t know how to choreograph this.’ ”

Weitzman’s latest match-up is for the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, starting previews in March under the direction of Bartlett Sher. Weitzman had seen and enjoyed Altar Boyz, a satirical show about a Christian rock band, and met afterward with its choreographer, Christopher Gattelli. Altar Boyz would seem to most observers to have nothing in common with South Pacific, but Weitzman’s gut told him that Gattelli would mesh well with Sher. “I think I have a knack for that,” he says.

A Convenience Store

As an intern in the musical theater program of Manhattan Theater Club, Melinda Atwood, who’d come out of the world of dance, wondered why the support networks that existed for fledgling songwriters and would-be playwrights did not extend to choreographers. Her boss made a suggestion: “Why don’t you create something?” Seven years ago, she did. Since then, nearly three dozen choreographers and some 400 dancers have strutted their stuff for Broadway directors and producers in the annual show-and-tell called DanceBreak.

Applicants begin by sending resumés. If Atwood sees indications that a choreographer is ready, she invites him or her to submit reels. Those who pass muster participate in the DanceBreak show, for which they prepare a short piece of their own choosing and a traditional Broadway ensemble number. DanceBreak provides the space, the dancers, the musicians, a videographer and, ultimately, the handpicked audience. It also holds a reception afterwards so everyone can network away. (This year’s show is scheduled for Feb. 11 at New York City’s New World Stages.)

Atwood says DanceBreak was crucial in launching the careers of Casey Nicholaw (Spamalot), Blankenbuehler (The Apple Tree), and Josh Prince, who was called by Jason Moore, the director of next season’s stage adaptation of Shrek, the day after his DanceBreak performance. “In 2008,” she says proudly, “five DanceBreak alums will have Broadway shows.”

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