On Broadway: Fresh Energy

November 23, 2009

In real life, children turn into adults at 18. On Broadway, chorus kids can still be kicking up their heels into their 40s. But more and more real boys and girls are turning up in Broadway ensembles these days, most recently in the Roundabout Theatre’s joyously teen-centric revival of Bye Bye Birdie, the gently satirical look at what happens in Sweet Apple, Ohio, when rock star Conrad Birdie comes to town. 

In one of that show’s best-known numbers, an apoplectic father—played in the 1960 original by Paul Lynde and in the current production by Bill Irwin—sings, “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?” But talk to choreographers who have been working with youngsters on Broadway musicals and you hear a different tune altogether—something more like a love song.

For Robert Longbottom, Birdie’s director/choreographer, the affair began on the second day of rehearsal, when he walked into the studio a half hour early and found most of his high schoolers already there. “We had taught them a massive amount of stuff the day before,” he says. “It was 9:30. I thought, ‘Oh god! This doesn’t last. The adults don’t do this. You don’t do this on your sixth Broadway show.’ It isn’t a job for any of them yet—it’s a dream, and a thrill.” Spending his days with the Birdie kids, who range in age from 13 to 18, has been  “the singular joy” of his career as a choreographer, he says.

Their earnestness is not accidental. “You can encounter many 15-year-olds who’ve been in three Broadway shows and talk about their contracts,” Longbottom says. “I wanted to avoid that. We went out of our way to find kids who could do the work, who could do the dance, but who were genuinely green—not just on their resumés but in spirit. I wanted teenagers unfouled by show business.”

Longbottom says he saw some 1,400 kids when casting Bye Bye Birdie. Peter Darling, the choreographer of Billy Elliot, long ago lost count of how many he’s auditioned for the various companies of his show, which began life in London in 2005. He’s cast so many girls as members of Billy’s ballet class that he’s learned how to spot the skills he needs fairly quickly. But he takes his time. “I have learned that you have to make the audition process reflect the rigors of the show,” he says. “Pushing them through a strenuous audition, where they really work, you get to see who are the people who are truly committed, who are going to give you 110 percent each time, or who is the girl who has a slight something with her foot, or has tears starting.”

Darling has also found that teaching youngsters can be a challenge. “Interestingly,” he says, “in tap, a child can actually match an adult with regard to speed. But in other areas, like ballet or contemporary dance, you have to break it down very, very minutely.” Still, he says, the biggest obstacle is not teaching the steps but eliciting the appropriate emotion. “The idea of relating meaning to movement is usually a completely new area for them,” he says. “So when breaking down the movement, I try to ally that to the reason why, so that we always ask why we’re doing each step.”

Longbottom says his problem was the reverse. The Birdie cast understood why Sweet Apple’s teenagers were rushing home from school to hash over the latest gossip in the show’s famous number “Telephone Hour.” “The impulse to Twitter or instant-message is no different,” he says. “It really wasn’t tricky to get them into the mindset. But there were times that they wanted to move in a very contemporary, almost hip hop way. We needed to explain, ‘This impulse is right, but it can’t come out through this set of movements. It needs to be filtered through what would have been shocking and dangerous and fun in 1959.’ ”

For Christopher Gattelli, who choreographed 13 last season (about a 13-year-old city boy moving to a small town), working with kids was nothing new. He’d always helped out at the studios where he took class, choreographing for the younger students. But on 13, he says, the job was a little different.

“My assistant, Lou Castro, and I didn’t want them to look clean and polished,” he says. “We tried to capture their natural energy and how they were dealing with their bodies at the time. I was going to say ‘awkwardness,’ but some of them were very comfortable in their bodies and the movement came very naturally to them. At the end of the day, it made for a great mix of how kids really move.”

Like Longbottom and Darling, Gattelli was ultimately in awe of his kids. “They were so eager, and worked harder than any other group of professionals I’ve ever worked with,” he says. He would do another show with teenagers “in a heartbeat,” though he admits that keeping them focused could be hard. “If you are not teaching them something for three seconds, they check out,” he says. “So I tried to keep things constantly moving for them, always having something to work on.”


He also equipped the rehearsal hall with what he deems an essential item for any show with youngsters in the cast: an over-the-door shoe holder. Not, mind you, for their shoes. For their cell phones.

Photo of Nolan Gerard Funk in Bye Bye Birdie by Joan Marcus, courtesy Bye Bye Birdie

Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times.