On Broadway: Summer Tryouts

August 2, 2009

Broadway director/choreographer Warren Carlyle was meant to have a career in ballet. “Billy Elliot is my life story,” he says. He grew up in a working- class family in eastern England, won a ballet scholarship at 14, and two years later began dancing with Northern Ballet Theatre, a touring company based in Yorkshire. But he didn’t last long.

“I was tall, I was 16, and I was standing in the back a lot. I didn’t want to wait five years until I could do a tour jeté.” A job in Cats promised more visibility, and set him on the path that took him away not only from the world of ballet but also, in 2000, from his home country. (“I used to be English,” he likes to say, in his unmistakably British accent.)

His ticket out of the West End came by way of Susan Stroman, who made him her associate choreographer on The Producers and Oklahoma! Last season he got to take charge, making his Broadway debut as a director and choreographer with the short-lived musical A Tale of Two Cities. And he returns this fall with a revival of the 1947 classic Finian’s Rainbow, an expanded version of the production he staged in March for the Encores! series at City Center.

But this summer has found him in rural Connecticut—East Haddam, to be exact—working at Goodspeed Musicals on what may become his next project. The Goodspeed Opera House, a Victorian gem that rises dramatically above the majestic Connecticut River, has been a prime destination for fans of musical theater since the 1960s, with crowd-pleasing shows that have won the theater two special Tonys. Carlyle is busy at the nearby Norma Terris Theater, where new, untried musicals come to gestate.

The project is Lucky Guy, Willard Beckham’s musical about a young songwriter who leaves the farm, guitar in hand, to become a country star. “It’s a really fun, madcap musical comedy with a big heart and a lot of laughs,” says Carlyle. And while he admits he isn’t an obvious choice for a show set in Nashville in the 1960s, he says his sense of humor is right for the piece. And indeed, he’s interpolated tap, roller-skating, and clogging for the quartet of cowboys who act as a kind of Greek chorus.

His collaborators include Tony-winning veterans like performer Gary Beach, costume designer William Ivey Long, and lighting designer Ken Billington. “It’s a real Broadway team,” he says.

He concedes that like most of summer stock, the financial resources don’t quite equal those available on Broadway. But in other ways, there’s little difference. “It’s the same pool of performers,” he says. “The creative process that I go through is the same.”

That means some two weeks in the studio before the cast assembles. “I need to get on my feet to try things—to get it wrong before I get it right.” He uses the same assistants he works with on Broadway, not just because of the increased comfort level but for efficiency. “We’ve developed a shorthand,” he says. “I can point at something and my assistant will know exactly what I’m pointing at.”

The other reason that working at Goodspeed doesn’t feel like summer stock, he says, goes beyond the specifics of this particular project. It has more to do with the essential reason he left England and became an American citizen. “There’s something about America that is much more hopeful,” he says. “Every show I ever do in America, no matter where it is, it’s going to Broadway. That’s the most wonderful atmosphere to create in. I always feel that anything’s possible. It’s part of the American spirit.”

Sylviane Gold writes on theater for
The New York Times.