On Broadway: A Magical Role

September 30, 2009


Yes, it makes sense to network and audition and make rounds. But sometimes, a life-changing call just comes out of the blue. The latest evidence: Alina Faye, dancing up a storm in Finian’s Rainbow after walking out on her ballet career and shutting the door behind her.


In 2003, after four years in the corps at American Ballet Theatre, Faye went back home to California and embarked on a new life as a practitioner in Hellergwork (the massage-based bodywork system). Her misery at ABT had left her “not knowing why I ever started dancing,” she says. “I couldn’t remember.”  And it took that out-of-the-blue phone call—from a friend of a friend who needed a ballet dancer for a movie—to remind her. She put on her pointe shoes again in 2007, and the movie led to commercials, which led her to an agency and eventually to Finian’s Rainbow, one of the few Broadway shows with a big, juicy, pretty much all-dance role.


As unlikely as Faye’s story is—more on that later—the story of the show is unlikelier still. It was a hit in 1947, and the classic score, by Burton Lane and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg, brims with beloved music. The lead performances, by Irish comedian Albert Sharpe as Finian, Ella Logan as his daughter Sharon, and David Wayne as Og, the leprechaun, became the stuff of legend. The choreography, by Michael Kidd, and the dancing of Graham alumna Anita Alvarez as Susan the Silent, were much admired as well. But the book’s mixture of whimsy (leprechauns and Irish scalawags) and social criticism (poverty and racism in the Deep South), while progressive, was somewhat forced even in 1947. And the subsequent civil rights movement made its subplot, in which Og’s magic turns a crooked, bigoted white senator into a gospel-singing black man, downright unplayable. (Not that that stopped Francis Ford Coppola from turning it into a movie in 1969, with Fred Astaire as Finian.)


What made this wonderful but peculiar musical a viable possibility for Broadway in 2009 was the successful Encores! presentation in March. As readers of this column know, Encores! is the irreplaceable series that brings forgotten, underappreciated, or just plain dated gems of the American musical theater back to life in musically impeccable, semi-staged performances at City Center. In this case, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle decided to substitute a black actor for the white one when Senator Billboard Rawkins undergoes his miraculous transformation, thereby eliminating the cringe-inducing spectacle of a performer in blackface. As for the show’s Glocca Morra-meets-Missitucky giddiness, he let it speak for itself.


“Every twist and turn of the show brings something new,” Carlyle says. His great insight was to resist the urge to impose a uniform vision on it and instead go with the inconsistencies—“to honor what’s good about it.”


One of the things that was good about it was Faye, whose “lush, buoyant interpetation of Mr. Carlyle’s balletic choreography” was cited by Charles Isherwood in The New York Times as “among the best dance performances in any Encores! production I’ve seen.”


Carlyle, too, talks about how beguiling he found Faye’s “lightness.” But lightness was nowhere to be found when she arrived in New York as a 17-year-old with an ABT apprentice contract. The problem was “no one thing,” she says now. Her inexperience, insecurity, and her parents’ divorce all contributed to her growing unhappiness. She does fault the ballet company for not providing the support she needed in making the move from California to New York at such a young age. “Maybe they do that on purpose to see how you’re going to do. Maybe they were waiting for me to say something. I had this incredible feeling of not knowing what was going on.”


When she followed the man who is now her fiancé to San Diego in 2003, Faye thought that was that. Meanwhile, an ABT friend in New York had been asked by an acquaintance for the name of a strong ballet dancer on the West Coast. “He passed on my number,” she says, “but never told me.” The next thing she knew, there it was: a call from out of the blue that would bring her back to dance.


The movie, 2081, was an independent short based on Kurt Vonnegut’s futuristic story about a society in which everyone has been rendered equal, regardless of any innate differences. She was to play the ballerina who breaks all the rules to let her own virtuosity shine. Faye, who had been out of class for about two years, had to retrain her body to dance again. She did foot exercises, yoga, Pilates, Gyrotonics. “I gave myself class a lot,” she says. She sought out some coaching, but “I did most of it by myself.”


After a few more dance gigs, she felt ready to commit to dancing again. “I was happier, I was inspired,” she says. “I was a different person, much more of an adult. And I could see through some stuff I couldn’t see through at 17.”


When she got the audition for Finian’s Rainbow, she says, she knew nothing about the show. And the prospect of speaking onstage—Susan the Silent has five lines at the end—terrified her. Still, she says, her biggest adjustment wasn’t related to the script. “The most alien thing,” she says, “was how friendly the people were. It was so different from being in the ballet company.”



Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times.


Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Encores!